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Hugh Laurie Goes to New Orleans

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Ah, celebrity! It opens so many doors to the good life: the best tables at restaurants, invitations to royal events, packed goodie bags at awards shows.

And say you're a weekend musician who has dabbled in a certain style of music, record companies may contact you to come into the studio, film companies may underwrite your dream trip to your music mecca, and best of all, you may have your own little gig, surrounded by the best musicians in the field.

Such was the wish-fulfillment for Hugh Laurie, most widely known in the states as the dour doctor in House. He's been a musician in the Hollywood band that mostly plays cover songs for charity events, TV on the Radio. Back in England, he's amused the occasional chat show audience with the unexpected ditties at the piano, including his own novelty, "I'm in Love with Steffi Graf."

But from a young age, he's been motivated by the blues, he says.

And he got his dreams fulfilled by visiting New Orleans, where an all-star band was assembled for him for a recording on Warner Bros. Records and a special on the PBS series Great Performances Friday.

"Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk - A Celebration of New Orleans Blues" is part heartfelt travelogue, part uncomfortable small club gig. Laurie's enthusiasm for all parts of Southern culture is matched by his charm in discussing it -- he's infatuated with all the hats people wear down there -- including himself.

He drives a red 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible (another childhood dream) from Texas to the Crescent City, stopping at small gigs and guitar jams along the way. Once in the city, he spends more time at record stores than restaurants, but there's no doubt he finds the place a wonderland: Katrina and its still-visible scars are scarcely mentioned.

His main business in town is jamming with a great band led by Allen Toussaint.

Laurie is a passably fine pianist who tentatively attempts a barrelhouse style here and there. But when you have Toussaint in the room it seems silly to use anyone else -- unless he's the TV star who is the central part of the project.

New Orleans musicians are used to this kind of work, supporting players who swoop in to record or film, whether it's Elvis Costello or the crew from Treme. And while the work is doubtless appreciated, it's time those musicians themselves were in the spotlight.

While Laurie manages to keep up with the New Orleans musicians on piano, he is only a middling vocalist, quite flat despite his stab at styling it. That's especially apparent when Irma Thomas walks in and especially when another seeming U.K. fish out of water walks in, Sir Tom Jones.

Jones isn't way out of his field -- he recorded a convincing gospel album last year. But each appear only once on the Warner Bros. album Let Them Talk, which features the tasteful drums of Jay Bellerose, Dr. John on one track and was produced by Joe Henry.

Give the actor credit for having great taste in music and largely holding his own in a room of giants. And if it takes a TV star to get PBS down to New Orleans, so be it. For those who know him only as Dr. House, it will be just as much a revelation to see him dancing without a cane as it is to have him play piano.

"I can't deny it was the without a doubt the most frightening thing I've ever done," Laurie said of his performance at the the TV Critics Association summer press tour.

The musicians there and the big names were all very kind to him, Laurie says. "I was not made to feel either by the musicians I was playing with or by those singers for one second unqualified or unwelcome. I mean, I'm sure there were moments when they were, behind my back, when they were rolling their eyes going, 'Oh, for we're going to be here all night.' But if they did, they never showed it to me."

The usually dour Laurie in House looks so delighted in "Let Them Talk," I wondered if he ever thought of chucking acting altogether for a life in music.

"In fact, I've had that in my head for many, many years," he said. "When I was very young actually, have this rather romantic idea of playing in a jazz trio in Lisbon -- I don't know why I settled on Lisbon... But that was my idea. And it's always been at the back of my mind that that's where I would wind up, is you know, I'd be playing "Autumn Leaves" in some hotel lobby somewhere. Yeah, it's been in my mind for decades."

Do you see that coming very close to happening? I asked him, perhaps hoping to prod some sort of "I am quitting House" sort of declaration.

"Well, I can't deny that I had the most extraordinary experience doing this record and this film," Laurie said. "And if someone said we'd love you to do another one, it starts at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning, I would be there like a shot. I can't think of anything better. And if that eventually takes me to that cafe in Lisbon, so be it. I would be very happy doing that."

"Hugh Laurie: Let them Talk - A Celebration of New Orleans Blues" premieres Friday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. on "Great Performances" on PBS. Check local listings.