It's funny how many actors want to be musicians. As far as I can tell, not many musicians go around wanting to be actors.
Steve Martin is a pretty good picker, but he's the second best banjo player in his own band. As a singing drummer and Americana dude, Billy Bob Thornton won't make you forget Levon Helm.
Jeff Bridges may be an exception here (as those who saw him last summer at Britt will testify), but he was playing guitar and singing before he decided to go into his dad's business.
Then there's Hugh Laurie. The 54-year-old British actor is known today as the brilliant but erratic Gregory House from television's "House." But he started piano lessons at 6. Half a century later, he's pretty good at it.
And he has the great, good sense to surround himself with a stellar seven-piece band — the Copper Bottom Band, it's called — that runs to men and women who are multi-instrumentalists and show-stopping singers oozing charisma.
The stage set Saturday night at the Craterian Theater at the Collier Center for the Performing Arts looked like a parlour in the French Quarter of New Orleans maybe 100 years ago — dim lights, funky old lamps, a Son House poster. Just the right sporting house vibe for the music Laurie is obsessed with.
The band laid down a meaty groove as Laurie entered with a glass of whiskey, resplendent in a Blues Brother-esque skinny suit and blue tie. Could there be any better song in the world with which to begin a New Orleans-heavy show than James "Sugar Boy" Crawford's "Iko Iko" — a song that's almost impossible to do a bad version of?
Laurie holds his own just fine on the keyboard, ripping off licks Dr. John wouldn't be afraid to claim. His singing is not at the level of his playing, nor does it have to be with the great singers on the stage. And he knows when to take his shots.
He addressed the TV thing, saying that it took a "leap of faith" for the audience to pay good bucks to see a man who was "until quite recently an actor." This was an opening for a joke about being on a flight on which the pilot announces that he was quite recently a dental hygienist.
The second song of the evening, "Come on Baby, Let the Good Times Roll," was a sing-along that served to get the audience involved and to show off the band's horn and rhythm sections. It was followed in quick succession by a funky blues, a Latin charmer and the deep soul of K. Michelle and Ray Charles' "What Kind of Man Are You?"
A Latin note surfaced here and there, with the classic Argentinian tango "El Choclo" in a mashup with Louis Armstrong's "Kiss of Fire." Yes, Hugh Laurie singing tango: "I touch your lips and all at once the sparks go flying / Those devil lips that know so well the art of lying."
Hey, it worked. Everything about this show worked. And Laurie clearly looked like a man having the time of his life, and knowing it and counting his lucky stars. Schmoozing the audience, dancing, bopping and pogoing around the stage, singing songs made famous by artists your grandparents thought were old hat: Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jelly Roll Morton.
He introduced less vintage numbers by saying the some were written by artists "still living." He strummed guitar on Junior Parker's "Mystery Train," played spare to the bone piano on the old chestnut "Crazy Love" and delivered Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy River" with three guys from the band in a barbershop version that raised the hairs on the back of your neck.
The highlight of the show for a reviewer was a towering "St. James Infirmary Blues," which made up for omitting lots of verses with sheer, rockin', rampaging musicanship. In the end, this charming, highly theatrical show had 700 Craterian fans on their feet boogying. Imagine that.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.