Hugh Laurie's got the blues -- and he wouldn't have it any other way.
The British-born actor may be best known to millions in the title role of the hit Fox medical drama "House," but Laurie fans have known for years that he has formidable musical chops as well, an artistic side he showcases to almost indecently entertaining effect in "Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk -- A Celebration of New Orleans Blues." The one-hour PBS special, which premieres Friday, Sept. 30 (check local listings), as part of "Great Performances," finds Laurie exploring the heart and soul of both a city and musical style that have haunted him since he was a boy.
Now 52, Laurie was only a teenager when he first encountered the blues via a song on the radio performed by Willie Dixon. He remembers it still as a life-defining moment, even though after all these years he can't explain exactly why.
"It's something I've thought about a lot, and I've read about it and tried to analyze, and I've read other people's analyses about what it is about this music that reaches out and grabs people by their guts," he explains. "I've never come across a satisfactory explanation, at least not one that suits me or makes sense for other people, I don't think. It was just like an electric shock, a purely visceral reaction, and it has remained that ever since."
Laurie soon was spending all his pocket money on LPs of blues artists such as Muddy Waters, an early favorite, and developing a long-distance passion for the Big Easy, a romantic obsession that eventually made him afraid to visit the city itself, convinced the reality never could live up to his fantasies. When he finally did, for this PBS special and a critically acclaimed companion CD, the first thing he noticed wasn't the sounds, he says. It was a smell.
"There is a very sweet smell, a slight smell of decay in the air," Laurie recalls. "The place is hot, and it's wet, and the water -- the sea and the lakes -- is constantly threatening to take the city back. It has the feeling like a banana that is just turning brown -- and sometimes, of course, that's just when a banana is best."
Laurie, who spends most of his year working on his Fox TV series in youth-obsessed Los Angeles, noticed something else striking about New Orleans as well. It's a city that doesn't fear death.
"Los Angeles has a very different idea about physical existence," he explains. "That's just a feeling I had, that there was a sort of wry worldliness about New Orleans that I suppose can't be unconnected to the terrible tribulations that that city has been through. Not that Los Angeles hasn't suffered in its own way. But there is a sort of dreamlike striving for immortality, I think, in Los Angeles, whereas in New Orleans, I felt much more of a sardonic resignation, that this is our one shot, and we're going to have a damn good time with it."
In the PBS special, which Laurie says came together almost casually while he and director JP Davidson explored New Orleans and its environs by car and bicycle, Laurie pokes around rare record shops and hole-in-the-wall music venues before settling into a French Quarter club to perform a program of much-admired blues classics with artists such as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and fellow U.K. native Tom Jones, who joins Laurie on "Baby Please Make a Change."
As engaging as the musical program is for viewers, it was even more transporting for Laurie himself. Watch his face during certain numbers and you know you're looking at a man in a state of bliss, and it left Laurie only jonesing for more.
"I am hooked on the idea of making music with others and recording and being with musicians of the most amazing character, musicians that I have been lucky enough to be with," he says. "I was 'lucky enough to be breathing the same air,' and so on. Any chance I get not just to continue that but sort of inch gradually closer to being worthy of it (would be wonderful). I was in the room being very well aware of the fact that my chops are nowhere near theirs, and they knew that, too, but were very generous about it. I am determined to work very hard to be able to hold up my end of this musical conversation, as it were, because that's what it feels like."
Unfortunately, such a profound experience comes at a cost when you share Laurie's inclination to view happiness and good fortune with deep suspicion, he admits.
"I can't deny that I do have that streak in me, and my cup has runneth over by such a margin that yes, I am actually waiting for a piano to drop (on me) from the sixth floor," he says. "I am in line for something absolutely disastrous. I know that. But to hell with it. If it happens, it happens. I feel that I still am ahead of the game because I have had the most incredible experience of the past few years, doing this show and this album and touring a little bit with this band. I am well up in poker terms, so if I have a run of bad luck, that's only right."