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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

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Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band win over The Pabst

There have been many actors who have tried to double as musicians: Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto and even Jim Belushi are among those who have tried this form of moonlighting.

It is a bit of a dicey proposition, to attempt to parlay one's success in one area of entertainment into an entirely different realm. Fortunately, Hugh Laurie's show with the Copper Bottom Band at The Pabst Theater Sunday night showcased the actor's legitimate talent as a blues musician and his awareness of the risk he's taking with this venture.

Laurie opened the performance with a welcome of "Good evening, Milwaukee," and then explained how he never thought in his wildest dreams that he'd be saying those three words. He then addressed the elephant in the room – that the former "House" star is best known as an actor who, because of that notoriety, is getting his shot at being a musician.

Knowing that there was likely some anxiety in the crowd, Laurie made it clear that everyone was in good hands thanks to the Copper Bottom Band that joined him on stage. Laurie said that if he wasn't able to hold up his own end of the bargain, his bandmates would certainly make up for any mistakes.

With that disclaimer, Laurie and the six-member band launched into a cover of Willie Dixon's "Mellow Down Easy." Immediately, any of the supposed apprehension by the Pabst crowd was gone. There seemed to be a good split in the crowd between those who had an appreciation for the blues and those who were there because they are fans of Hugh Laurie as an actor. For many in the latter category, this opening song provided a great deal of amusement at seeing Laurie play the piano.

With the entire crowd won over so early, Laurie basically had free reign to do whatever he wanted in the evening. Laurie carries a natural charm and elicited big laughs from the crowd by doing little things such as adjusting his coat since he'd accidentally sat on its tails while playing the piano. Laurie also showed some savvy by designating the audience with a sing-along part in "Let the Good Times Roll."

However, the use of audience participation was a bit diluted by Copper Bottom Band singer Jean McClain, who tried to have the crowd clap along to almost every song performed Sunday night.

More than anything, Laurie made it clear just how much of a knowledge and appreciation he has for the type of music he was playing. Reminiscent of a cross between Ricky Jay and Milwaukee's own Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum, Laurie has a knack for history-based storytelling that was very compelling to listen to. The most colorful of his stories was his explanation of the song "St. James Infirmary," which contained some explicit language and subject matter.

Some of these yarns were planned and had funny stingers to conclude them. However, on a couple of occasions, Laurie would share an off-the-cuff anecdote recounting the inspiration of a song or the life of its creator and then admit he didn't have anything funny to say. Midway through the concert, Laurie said he was unsure if he should keep talking, to which an audience member yelled "We got all night!" in response.

Without an opening act, Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band essentially did have all night to themselves. While they played for just over two hours and certainly gave the audience their money's worth, the second hour of the show was not as much fun as the first. Many of the faster songs such as the opener, the Lead Belly cover "You Don't Know My Mind" and his take on Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart" took place in the first hour. The second half of the show featured a number of slower songs, fewer anecdotes and more time showcasing the members of the Copper Bottom Band. The best songs near the end of concert were "Tiptina" and "Let Them Talk."

The Pabst stage was covered with lamps and rugs, making it appear like Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band were performing in an elevated living room. Even if it wasn't the intention, this design enhanced the comfort of the audience and the freedom Laurie had on stage.

Whether this is the next chapter in Laurie's already diverse career or just a sabbatical before his next big acting gig, it is clearly something he enjoys doing and has a talent at. His passion was evident Sunday night and he converted fans who admired him as an actor into ones who also appreciated him as a musician.

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