They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover. That the true measure of a man’s worth is not easily found displayed on the surface- for all to see. That it is hidden beneath a cleverly designed facade. A billboard displaying the idealized persona as it would exist in their own private wonderland.
They also say that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul. That the truth about every one of us lies beneath the surface- through these portals. Telling those who take the time to see beyond the false persona the actual truth about us. Exposing us as we really are- warts and all!
Chapter 1. ENCOUNTER ON THE NORTH PARK BLOCK
It was Friday night. Friday June 1, 2012. 6:35 PM to be exact. I had just hung a right onto the North Park Blocks, Aptly named NW Park Avenue by some brilliantly creative city official. when I spotted him. A suspicious chap loitering around a parked car. He was dressed in bright yellow like some sort of bicycle patrol person. But he didn’t have the copper vestments. Just that faint vibe of cop wannabe. He was standing on the curb staring at the first parked car alongside the curb.
There was an empty space between this car and the next one parked at the curb just ahead. And it was my intention to take that empty space and make it my own. So I backed into the space making it a point to politely avoid lovely Mandrake Metre Maid. I put the car in park. Left the engine running. And stepped out to have a word with the city’s over indulgent valet parking attendant.
“How am I doing?” I said this to get his attention. Okay, I’ll admit it… I was kissing up and trying to leave a good impression. After all, he was the man who had the power to fine me. It was in my own self interest to do the right thing. And stay on his good side. Which was apparently a 360 degree affair. He appeared to be well fed. Or well bribed.
He glanced at my car with disinterest. “You’re fine.” He was on to me. He was accustomed to being buttered up by paranoid motorists. He was like a bee that could smell the pheromones of fear.
“Do the metres run till 7 or 8?”
“Okay, then I’ll feed the kitty.”
As I walked past the parked car ahead of mine, I spotted a parking ticket under the wiper blade. Well, well, lovely Mandrake was making a killing… I was the only one not ticketed, yet.
I stood in front of the solar powered metre and fed in several quarters. More than was actually needed to reach 7PM cut off time for a required parking fee. I was taking no chances. I was tipping the kitty and waiting for the machine to burp out my timed parking receipt.
The white receipt told me the time and where to place it in the car. In the window facing the curb–so that the time it expired could easily be read. My receipt showed 7PM, the end the required time needed for parking for the day. The time when you were safe from being ticketed by over zealous metre maids. Metre maids overcompensating for their job descriptions.
As I walked past the ticketed car in front of mine, I made a note of the expired time. 5:35PM. Hmm, expired an hour ago. I double checked how I had parked my car. How close it was to the curb. And how safely it fit within the marked lines indicated for a car to rest while you were away from the designated parking zone. Something Mandrake was doing made me feel I should be extra careful how I left my car.
Mandrake was holding an ominous device in his hands. It was aimed at the licence plate of the car behind mine. I had a hunch that he was photographing the license plate. Or entering details about the car into this device. It also appeared that he was taking notes concerning measurements of distances from the curb and the lines painted on the street for parking.
I couldn’t resist a comment. “I’ve never seen you guys at work before.”
Mandrake looked up. “Really?”
“You guys work like magic.” Yeah, like stealthy Ninja pick pockets.
Mandrake returned to his shakedown of dangerous parking terrorists.
I placed my parking receipt on the passenger window. Making sure it faced the curb. Locked the driver’s door of my puddle jumper. And walked past Mandrake as I headed toward the crosswalk on N Burnside Street. I was heading south toward Broadway. I wanted to get to my destination as quickly as I could. I wanted to get a good squint of the layout before show time. Before it was too late to get the lay of the joint. My deadline was 7:30 PM.
Chapter 2. AN EAGLE’S EYE VIEW
I walked south on SW Park Street. I walked by the Brasserie and Nordstrom. A fountain was across the street over on the right at the north end of Yamhill. This was the Simon and Helen Directors Park. At the south end of the park a couple were playing chess with large chess pieces the size of dwarves. Lifting the pieces and moving them around the pattern of chess squares on the pavement.
I pressed on, walked by the Fox Tower 10 Regal Cinema Theatre and hung a left at the end of the block– at Salmon Street. I was heading east. The John Helmer, Haberdasher was at the end of the block on the left. I crossed over to the right-hand side of the street before I got there. I rounded the corner onto Broadway. And spotted my target. It was just ahead beyond the Heathman Hotel.
It was hardly something that you could easily overlook, unless you were a shoegazer. Studying the laces of your shoes or the cracks in the pavement. But never looking up. I was looking up. Way up above the conga line of pedestrians plodding along in front of me. I was looking up at the iconic display against the night sky.
It was a huge marquee. It had one, gigantic, bold, white word running vertically down its dull green centre. This word was confined within a dazzling burst of lightning. It manifest itself in bright yellow scroll work. Edison’s lightning in crystal clear incandescent bulbs raced around that one word that said it all– “PORTLAND”
There was a tall, thin doorman standing in front of the entrance to the Heathman Hotel. He was also very hard to miss. He was tall, thin, and dressed in a brilliant red Beefeater outfit. Looking like he’d taken a wrong turn on his way to The Tower of London. In actuality, the owner of this establishment was from London. He enjoyed bringing a bit of class from the home country to Cascadia. Perhaps, in hopes of swaying our newly formed country into considering becoming a colony of the United Kingdom. Just what we didn’t need. Another master in the guise of the red, white, and blue. We were way too green to consider giving up our new found freedom. Even if it came with strings attached.
I continued on until I was standing under the awning of flashing light bulbs. People were loitering there in front of the ticket box and the open doors trying to decide what they were going to do next. Yes, I had arrived at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
I glanced at my watch. It was closing in on 7:30 PM. The time printed on my Ticket for the start of the show. I had about enough time to stroll inside. Quickly check out the joint. Grab a drink at the bar. And start my long, and endless mountain climbing expedition. My seat was located in the upper balcony. Upper Balcony D Row U Seat 8 to be exact. I wasn’t sure just how many sets of stairs awaited me. I still had some time to kill. And the lobby seemed as good a place as any to kill it in.
I spotted one of the usherettes standing by a door leading into the concert hall for those who had tickets down on the lower level. The ones who just had to sit as close as they possibly could to the stage. Those grounded souls that prided themselves on their philosophy that money is no object- that it’s as elusive as water. And should flow like water from their purse strings. Judging by the fancy dresses the dames were decked out in… it was flowing like a raging torrent. And their significant others were unable to turn the tide. Their high maintenance dames clearly had them by the short and curlies.
The dames prowling around me were all dressed to the Nines. Not quite ten. That’s reserved for the really special ones. The Übermensch class of dames. The femme fatales. The dames that turn heads and have all the eyes in the room rivetted to their every graceful move. And possess that unique ability to enslave men’s free will and turn their minds into a quivering bowl of jell-0. Wrapping them around their fingers from the moment they smile or bat an eyelash. Yeah, they’re the ones to die for! The ones that you never get over. And never forget. They never totally let you go free. As far as they are concerned-you’re theirs- and it’s not over until they say it’s over.
I approached the usherette.
“Can you bring drinks into the hall?”
“Yes, if they have lids on them.”
“Okay, I’ll make sure mine do.”
I turned around and sized up the lines at the bars. There were several small bars along the South wall of the lobby. And there were plenty of those philosophers queued up waiting to turn their water into wine. I had more of a working class taste than they did. I’d settle for a cold beer. But in this kinda joint, I might have to make it a micro brew instead. And judging from the size of the plastic cups… they were emphasizing MICRO for your drink. And MACRO for the price. I settled for the cheapest poison they had to offer. Even then it was still felt like a shakedown.
I walked over to the counter that had the assortment of extras for your order, and placed a lid on my cup. I wouldn’t want a single drop to escape of this legal high. It might cause a panic from the fancy dressed winos–if it came in contact with them. They’d probably scream just like the Wicked Witch of the West if they were splashed with inferior hootch.
I gazed around the lobby wondering if there was a merchandise stall. The only thing that appeared to be on sale around here was booze. No tour programs were to be had. No CDs. No T-shirts. But I did happen to notice that an usherette was handing out a magazine to a ticket holder that was entering the hall. So I walked over for a better squint at the cover.
The usherette smiled as I asked what the magazine was.
“It covers this months events.:
“Oh, yes. Here.” She handed me one.
“Thanks.” I read the cover. In Symphony. The Magazine of The Oregon Symphony.
Under Featured Concerts I noticed the last one on the list-Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band. “Could I have an extra copy? I’m bound to get fingerprints on this one during the show.”
She smiled. “Sure. Enjoy.”
“Oh, I will. Thanks.”
I glanced at my watch. It was almost 7:30 PM. So I made my move toward the stairs and started my assent. After two flights of stairs, I walked over to the usherette at the upper level. She read my ticket and smiled.
“You need to go up to the next level.”
I was stunned. “More stairs?”
She laughed. “You’re not through yet.” She pointed to the next set of stairs.
When I reached the sky, I was rewarded with entry into the Upper Balcony where my seat was located. I easily located it. And sat down. I wanted to see just how good of a view I was going to have during the concert. It was not exactly what I expected. Sure I knew it was way up in the nose bleed section. But I thought I was at the front of the rail of a balcony. Instead I found I was at the rail of an isle between my upper section and the upper section just below me. Oh, well, at least there wasn’t a head directly in front of me-in my way. I had a totally clear view of the stage. I had an eagle’s eye view of the stage as I looked down from the dizzying heights from the ceiling of the concert hall.
The concert hall was ornate. It had lots of elaborate furnishings all along its walls. They even extended all the way up to the lofty ceiling. There was a slight vibe of vertigo as you gazed down from the heavens above to the earth down below. And it gave off this high and mighty feeling that can only be explained by the steady use of highly addictive drugs. But I’m a stranger to such things. It appeared to me as if titans had carved the ceiling. Perhaps, in preparation for wild buffalo to thunder across the heavens and plunge over the cliffs in a massive buffalo kill.
I wondered if I should have purchased a seat on a lower level. Closer to the stage like the philosophers had done. Or have had the foresight to bring along a pair of field glasses. Opera glasses. A telescope. Anything to enhance the size of the mere mortals that would soon be performing on that stage so far, far away.
The stage had a familiar old nostalgic look to it. Comfortable. Intimate. And homey. The mic was located at the front of the stage. Dead centre. It rested on a brown rug that was about 5 x 7. There was another rug parked over by the piano seat. The rest of the decor on the stage consisted of old floor lamps complete with old lamp shades from decades past. And there was a coat rack standing at the back of the stage–just behind the piano.
The concert hall was filled to capacity. All the seats around me in the upper balcony were taken. A thirty something, Caucasian, male nerd was seated next to me on my left. A sixty something grey-haired lady who was very excited and a jazz/ blues enthusiast was seated next to me on my right. She rabbited on and on. But her enthusiasm made her a great person to be seated next to. She was like your favourite aunt. Sharing her joy of life and her enthusiasm for the arts. A grand old broad.
The general vibe in the concert hall was one of rapt anticipation. Excitement. And wonder. Everyone was wondering just what to expect. Hugh Laurie, after all, was an actor on the television show “HOUSE”. He was also a British comedian who had played in many classic British television comedy series. Shows like “Blackadder”, and “Jeeves and Wooster” with his old comic partner Stephen Fry.
The big questions came down to the basics- did an actor have the chops to be a great musician? Or was he using his status as an actor to cash in for a wee bit more fame? Passing himself off as a musician? Making people think he was a renaissance man? Was he the real deal? Or just a flash in the pan. We would find out the answers to these questions very soon.
It was almost 7:30PM-Show time!
Chapter 3. HUGH LAURIE AND THE COPPER BOTTOM BAND
Hugh Laurie walked out on stage. Right on time. He was greeted by loud enthusiastic cheers from the audience. He gave them a warm friendly smile as they called out his name like he was an old familiar friend popping in for a cup of tea. Someone that they had seen many times. Over and over again. Never tiring of his presence.
Hugh was wearing a dark flat cap. Dark jacket with red lining. White shirt with a red vest. And dark trousers. He took off his cap and walked over to a coat rack behind the piano. He flopped the cap on a hook. And then walked up to the microphone standing at the front of the stage.
The five members of The Copper Bottom Band filed in behind him, taking up their positions on the stage. The Keyboard player settled in over on the right-hand side of the stage. Just behind him a black musician stood in front of a row of several saxophones. A musician gravitated to the left of him in front of a rack filled with various different styles of guitars. A hearty looking musician sat down at the drum kit–at the very back of the stage. To his left, and directly behind the piano, a skinny jasper with a horseshoe hairline stood at the standup bass. He was wearing glasses and a goatee. He looked very distinguished. He looked like a true veteran of the music world.
There were spotlights fixed on every member of the band. A long curtain hung down to the floor behind them. The lights aimed at the curtain gave it a golden-brown colour. And then there were all those old lamps with their distinctive lampshades placed all around the stage. The standing lamps gave the impression that you were viewing a livingroom that had been transported to the stage from another period in time.
Hugh smiled and addressed the audience.
“I’m Hugh Laurie. I want to thank you all for coming out to see us. It’s great to be in Portland. And it’s stunning to me to realize that there are still people in this world that are not using Botox. I haven’t seen a facial expression in eight years. Yesterday I saw a man looking at his watch frowning and I thought that he was having a stroke.”
The audience laughed.
“This is an amazing experience for me. Last week I was in a television show. Now I’m fronting a band. Let’s be honest… it’s ridiculous. I’m hopelessly unqualified. It’s absurd. If I’d finished a television show on Monday and then said I’d rather like to be a commercial pilot for Delta Airlines. People would have said that’s not going to happen. Actually, in Los Angeles it might happen.”
The audience laughed even louder.
“Well, I want you to know… I realize it’s a big leap of faith. You don’t know what to expect. Let’s face it-this could be awful. It could be great. But it could be awful and I very much appreciate you taking this risk. It’s a big experiment for us. That’s no conciliation to you, I realize that the money you spent on tickets was not paid for with experimental money.”
Hugh paused as he looked all around the massive concert hall. Gazing with awe and wonder at the lofty ceiling. Taking in all of the ornate trappings the room had to offer–in all its glorious splendour. He thought a bit and came to a conclusion.
“Arlene Schnitzer must be running a drug cartel. There’s not much more we can do to this place than defile it.”
The laughter kept increasing.
“Who is Arlene Schnitzer? Is she here tonight?”
Hugh suddenly looked very serious as he made a confession.
“I’m surprised by the billing. An evening with Hugh Laurie. It sounds a bit suggestive to me. If I’d had my way it would have been billed… Tea with Hugh Laurie. Let’s see where that leads”.
Several females in the audience let out loud, enthusiastic yelps, and cat calls of approval. Probably all of them being randy middle-aged House fans–wishing that he’d give them his undivided attention and a rather lengthy physical.
“The gentlemen behind me will take care of all your musical needs. They are the Rolls Royce and I am the gilded, silver, spirit of ecstasy on the body.” He spread his arms out away from his body. Tilted his head up toward the heavens like he was praying for mercy. He was posed like a living, breathing, human hood ornament. ” So you are in safe hands.”
He paused a moment to let this all sink in.
“If I make a mistake, and I will. The gentlemen behind me are all professionals. You are in very good hands with these gentlemen. So listen to them, but look at me.”
He emphasized the most important thing he wanted the audience to remember.
“Listen to them. Look at me!”
He gazed around near the front of the stage. Searching the faces for someone special. Someone suited specifically for the task at hand.
“I need a volunteer from the audience”.
He spotted just the person he needed. He pointed to a lady down front. And walked with his microphone from the stand toward her. The cord trailing behind him.
“I want you to raise your hand. When you lower your hand we will start playing. You will decide when we start–by lowering your hand. The moment that you feel it’s right-lower your hand. I am at your beck and call. If you like, you can tease the audience by waiting a bit. You can draw it out for 20 minutes, if you like. It’s all up to you. But whenever you feel ready, you can surprise them. You can tease them. Whenever you’re ready.”
Hugh dropped the microphone beside the piano bench. He sat down at the piano. And fixed his attention on her hand. It didn’t take long for her to lower her hand. The prospect of an angry mob behind her waiting for the show to start must have weighed heavily on her mind. Only mere moments passed. Then Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band launched into the first song of the set– Mellow Down Easy. A cover of a song by Little Walter.
During the instrumental portion of the song, Hugh got up from the piano and danced. He danced solo. He danced in an exaggerated fashion. He stomped his feet on the rug. He kicked his legs out in front of him while the audience cheered. It was a silly and spirited performance. And the audience ate it right up. Enjoying every exaggerated moment.
Hugh returned to the piano and sat down. He spoke into the microphone that was set up at the piano.
“We are now going to play a song-St. James Infirmary. This song was based on an old English folk song. It has gone back and forth across the Atlantic over hundreds of years. Which I find beautiful. The original St. James was a leper’s hospital in London. Later it was converted by Henry VIII into St. James Palace. The song was made famous by Louis Armstrong back in 1928. He was the king of New Orleans.”
Hugh started to play the piano. The song sounded slow and mellow. It continued like this for a little while. Lulling you into tranquillity. And then Hugh suddenly cut loose and went wild on the piano keys. The audience cheering as the music transformed into a lively, spirited boogie woogie number.
When the song ended, Hugh spoke into the microphone mounted on the piano.
“We’re going to do another song.” He made a face and rolled his eyes. “Of course we’re going to do a song. What else can we do? This song is by a prince of the state of Louisiana.”
They played-Crazy Arms.
Hugh stood up after the song was finished. He reached down and picked up the microphone laying on the stage floor next to the piano bench. He quickly dropped it to the floor. Jumped backwards several feet. And just stared at it. His face registered concern as he slowly approached it again. He reached down. Carefully picked it up. And walked over to the microphone stand. His expression was one of relief as he gazed out into the audience.
“That was 40,000 volts, but I’m okay!”
Hugh walked over to a guitar resting in a stand at the back of the stage. He took off his jacket while the female members of the audience hooted and cheered. He picked up the guitar. Slid the guitar strap around his shoulders. And then walked back over to the microphone stand.
Hugh found himself returning to an earlier chain of thought. A chain that he was unable to break. Unable to free himself from. It was becoming the night’s catch phrase.
“We’re going to do a song now. Well, of course we’re going to do a song, we’re a band. That’s what we do. So that’s what we’re going to do–songs. This is a song by a very great American folk singer and folk writer named Lead belly. He’s an amazing man. Rumour has it that he was released twice from two separate life sentences. One in Louisiana and one in Texas by singing for the respective state governments.”
The band played an excellent cover of You Don’t Know My Mind. When the song ended, Hugh replaced the guitar in its stand. He walked over toward the lead guitarist and introduced him to the audience, “The amazing Kevin Breit,” as he said this, he knelt down and bowed his head.
Hugh stood back up and pointed toward the saxophone player. “And next, the amazing… and I call them the amazing brothers. The amazing Vincent Henry.”
He moved forward to the man at the keyboards. “And opposite from me playing all the notes I don’t know how to play–The incredible Patrick Warren.”
Hugh turned around and pointed out the drummer at the very back of the stage. “And behind me here. The one and only… the magnificent… Jay Bellerose.” Jay looked a little bit embarrassed by the attention he was getting.
Hugh swung his arm over toward the left–indicating the upright bass player. “And last but not least, the brilliant David Piltch.” He paused a moment. “I should explain, The Brilliant David Piltch–is actually his name.”
David Piltch grinned. Bowed. And extended his right arm… fluttering his hand as the audience cheered him. He clearly enjoyed the moment and encouraged as much praise as he could with every flutter of his hand. He was milking it for all it was worth.
Hugh returned to the microphone stand.
“We’re going to sing another very old song. This is an old gospel song that was made famous many, many years ago by Mahalia Jackson and many other people since. Gospel choirs all over the world.”
They started playing a cover of-The Battle Of Jericho. Hugh was holding the microphone with both hands. His eyes closed. And started to sing. As he sang he swayed with the microphone stand like he was slow dancing with it. Occasionally he would spread his left arm out to emphasise the words he was singing. Dramatically and with great passion. It was a brilliant rendition of a classic gospel song. And clearly a high point of the show.
Hugh walked back to the piano and sat down on the bench. He leaned over toward the microphone mounted on it and addressed the audience once again. He was playing the role of tour guide on this magical mystery tour through the blues. Sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the music he loved so much.
“Now those of you who are interested in the music of New Orleans will probably have heard the name Duddy Bolden. He was the most famous trumpet player and clarinet player of all time. Even Louis Armstrong was threatened by Buddy Bolden. The only thing is–there is no person in the world that has ever heard him play. No recordings. And nobody has heard him play. And yet we all agree that he was the best. It’s perfect. That’s an enviable position to be in. To be considered the best at something and nobody has ever seen you do it. But one person did hear him play and that was the great Jelly Roll Morton.”
They played a cover of–Buddy Bolden’s Blues. And after the song was over, Hugh shared with the audience some news of a more current nature. Something that was approaching very, very soon… and in a country far, far away.
“This weekend is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. 60 years on the throne. I am not a frothing at the mouth monarchist. Just thought you would be interested to know that she has been on the throne for 60 years. The longest reigning monarch was Queen Victoria. She was on the throne for 64 years. So Elizabeth is right on track.”
The band started to play a cover of–Unchain My Heart. A song that had been performed in the past by Ray Charles. A cover of Junco Partner followed it. Hugh made no introductions for these songs. Perhaps he reckoned that we had heard them before and knew enough about them that nothing need be said. I knew that I had heard them before and that I liked them. They sounded great and that was all I needed to know.
Hugh stood up and walked over to the guitar resting in the guitar stand at the back of the stage. He picked it up. And walked over to the microphone stand. He removed an object from his vest pocket and started to attach it to the neck of his guitar.
“I don’t know what this is called, but it works great.”
A women down front yelled, “It’s a CAPO!”
Hugh looked over at her. “What was that?”
She yelled back at him. “It’s a CAPO!”
“A capo? Oh, you’re very good. I’d have a hard time remembering that. All I know is that it works and it’s the perfect size to fit in a pocket.”
Hugh now had the capo attached to the neck of his guitar.
“This is an old song by Jimmy Rodgers. Of course it’s an old song by Jimmy Rogers… because he’s…” He whispered the word, “dead” and pointed out the obvious. ” There are no new songs by Jimmy Rodgers.”
They played a cover of–Waiting For A Train. When the song finished, Hugh fell back into his old habit.
“So we’re going to do another song, of course, because that is what we do. This song is by Jelly Roll Morton who is a piano player. I don’t know why we’re all here with guitars. It just worked out that way.”
They played a cover of–Winin’ Boy Blues. When the song finished, Hugh set his guitar back down on the guitar stand. Returned to the piano. And sat down on the piano bench.
“We’re going to do a song by a very great writer called JB Renoir. I don’t know if you know him. If you don’t you should hunt him down. He died tragically too young. But do seek him out. This is another song based on an old testament story. This is our version of it.”
They played–The Whale Swallowed Me. As the song was ending, a silver tray of drinks was placed on top of Hugh’s Piano.
Hugh stood up. Walked over to the tray. Picked it up. And held it up in the air with one hand–like a waiter in a posh restaurant.
“I should explain. On the first day we met I thought I should do something to appease the gods of music and bond with my fellow musicians. Oh, perhaps you don’t know this, we made a record.”
A few heartfelt cheers could be heard from the audience.
“When I first got together with these wonderful people standing behind me, I decided we needed some way of consecrating this great adventure. If there is concentrating in the air, I say whiskey will do the trick.
Several spirited cheers of approval erupted from the audience.
“On the first day we met, I took in a bottle of a very fine single malt whisky. A 15 year old Macallan.”
The cheering from the audience grew even louder once they heard what the brand name was.
“Halfway through playing, I offered to drink with them. Expecting that they would turn me down because they would all be recovering alcoholics. And not one of them did. So they are either not non alcoholics or they are not recovering. Ah, and so we toasted that days music. We toasted each subsequent days music. In fact, the toasting got earlier and earlier each day. So we are all becoming alcoholics. But it has taken on an almost… mystical significance for us.”
Hugh paused, reflecting momentarily on the memory.
“So it’s now our custom to rehydrate with a 15 year old Macallan. Yeah, we’re not sponsored by the way. We’re not looking for it. I’m just saying it’s a fine table. So if you excuse me.”
Hugh walked over to the bass player and handed him a glass from the tray. And did so in turn for every other member of the band. Walking from the back of the stage on the left and making his way around to the right. Until only one glass remained on the tray. Hugh then walked back over to the microphone stand and smiled. He removed the last remaining glass from the tray and raised it up, shoulder high, as he addressed the audience.
“So on their behalf, I salute you. Cheers!”
Hugh drained his glass. Walked back to the piano. Sat down on the piano bench. Set his glass down on the piano. Reached over to adjust the microphone on the piano.
The microphone suddenly came undone. Swinging upsidedown like a spent penis. As Hugh worked to get the microphone back up in its proper erect position, he made a comment.
“See what happens when you start drinking.”
A woman down front in the audience yelled to Hugh. “I Wanna sing for you!”
Hugh did a double take. “What did you say?”
She yelled out again. This time the audience was totally quiet-allowing her voice to sound out loud and clear. “I wanna sing for you, Hugh!”
Hugh was stunned. “I’ve never heard that before. What do you say to that? There must be something written down somewhere on how to handle this situation.” He thought a bit more. “Um, do you go to a play and say ‘I want to do Othello.'”
He kept looking over at her several times in utter disbelief as he fiddled a bit more with the microphone. Finally he got it set up the way he wanted it and started to play the next song.
It was a very cool cover song-Yah Yah by George Fame and the Blue Flames.
When the song ended, The Copper Bottom Band walked off the stage, except for the saxophone player. Something very different was in store for us. Hugh filled us in.
“So now Vincent and I, everyone else is gone. It’s just you and me, Vincent. Vincent and I are going to do a very old song called Dear Old Southland by Creamer and Layton.”
Vincent selected a straight brass saxophone and walked over to the microphone stand at the front of the stage. They both started playing. Their duet turned out to be an instrumental. The instrumental moved about the room weaving it spell of blues. And eventually it came to its conclusion as all instrumentals tend to do.
The rest of the Copper Bottom Band meandered back on stage. Taking up their former positions behind their instruments. When they were all were ready, they cut loose with a very cool and swinging version of–Wild Honey.
What surprised me was the realization that not all of the songs being performed by the band were all old blues songs. Some felt more like middle-aged pop favourites. Wasn’t Wild Honey something you could imagine the Beach Boys playing? And imagine seeing teenagers twisting on the beach between a bonfire and a picket fence of surfboards?
My thoughts and daydreams were interrupted by Hugh’s voice.
“This is a very old song I’ve loved all my life. Nobody knows who wrote it. And that’s one of the reasons why I love it. It comes from nowhere. Except it comes from everywhere. It was first recorded by a man named Willy ‘drive em down’ Hall. I don’t know anything about him except he has a great name. And if I could think of a name like Hugh ‘Drive em down’ Laurie, I would. Got any suggestions?”
Not a single suggestion was offered. The hall was totally silent. This silence was broken by the wise advice Hugh started singing. It was offered in the song–Never Drive A Stranger From Your Door. But it was advice that I could take or I could leave. Not something that grabbed me and held me firmly in place. Refusing to let me go. I needed something else. Something more urgent to fill my restless soul.
That something else came quickly. In only a matter of minutes. Hugh started to tell a story.
“I started piano lessons at the age of 6 with Ms. Hare. She had me working through one of those books that children learn to hate. It was filled with all this absolutely awful stuff. French lullabies and German comic songs. Se Doberman und Se Bunny Rabbit. I mean really heavy stuff..”
Hugh’s expression brightened.
“It did have one song that had resonance with me–Swanee River. It was on page 26 of the book. Days and weeks seemed to crawl as we approached it. And as I worked my way through the songs to that page my anticipation grew and grew. Soon I would be playing that song.”
Hugh’s face glowed.
“Finally, that day arrived, and Ms. Hare turned the page.”
Hugh’s voice changed as he suddenly started to talk in a silly old woman’s voice.
“‘Swanee River’, she read. Then she read the subtitle. ‘Negro Spiritual-slightly syncopated,’ she made a face. ‘I think we’ll leave this one.’ She flipped the page. And I killed her.”
The audience roared with laughter
Hugh grinned, “Well, not really.”
After the laughter died down, Hugh started playing the piano. The band joined in. The music sounded slow and heartfelt. And just when the music was lulling you into a slow and steady alpha state-Hugh kicked into high gear on the piano. The song transformed into a wild high-octane boogie woogie number. It was hard to keep your feet from tapping. Your hands from wrapping. And your mouth from lip syncing along in a Marcel Marceau style of Karaoke. This song was another highlight of the show.
Hugh continued to enlighten the audience as he worked his way through the set list.
“Anybody who has tried to study the work of the great New Orleans piano players will have at sometime run across the work of the mighty Henry Roeland Byrd. Better known as Professor Longhair. He wrote this tune which has meant so much to me. More than any other.”
The band played–Tipitina. Another great cover song that is also featured on Hugh Laurie’s new CD–Let Them Talk. The songs that they were now playing were getting better and better. The intensity of the music was building toward a climax.
Hugh introduced the next song.
“If there is any New Orleans piano players as great as Professor Longhair it would be the very great James Booker. This song sums up about everything I feel about this music.”
They played–Let Them Talk. As soon as the song ended, the band launched into–Green Green Rocky Road. A lively song with catchy lyrics that just reached out and grab you. Tempting you to just go with the flow and sing along with Hugh.
When they finished the song, Hugh stood up. Walked over to the coat rack behind the piano. Put on his jacket. Removed his hat from the rack. Waved his hat at the audience. And flopped it on his head. Hugh walked up to the microphone stand. Told the audience how great they had been and how much fun he had playing for them tonight. He thanked everyone for coming, and then the band walked off the stage.
The audience started stomping their feet and yelling. The noise increased. It got louder and louder. And didn’t let up. Everyone was yelling, “HUGH! HUGH! HUGH!”
This did the trick. Hugh walked back out on stage. He walked up to the Microphone. He looked all around the concert hall. Looked at all of the people standing and cheering him.
“You know, I never realized before that when people yell my name… and this is something that causes a lot of concern for a performer standing on stage… just how much my name sounds like–BOO!”
Suddenly the audience started yelling, “BOO! BOO! BOO!” Hugh did a double take. And started to walk off the stage-slouching in shame. Then stopped short. Turned around. And walked back to the microphone. He waved his hands to quiet the audience down.
“Well, I know you didn’t really mean it. Shall we get on with this?”
The audience responded positively to his suggestion. Hugh smiled and walked from the microphone stand over to his piano. On his way he picked up a poster that was laying on the stage floor. He stood there holding it up like it was a newspaper. Taking his time as he gazed at it. Then he walked over to his piano. Sat down and continued reading the poster. Reading one side. And then turning it around to read the other side. The front side of the poster read–“Happy Birthday, Hugh.” And the back side read–“Hugh! Let me sing for you!”
Finally Hugh layed the poster down gently on the rug next to the piano bench and started to play the piano. It was a cover of–Changes. As soon as the song was over, they immediately started to play a cover of–Tanqueray by Dr. Feelgood. When Tanqueray ended, the band left the stage. Leaving the audience feeling good. Feeling fine. And feeling like they had witnessed a great concert. Performed by a truly great band. And had seen a British actor prove to us all that he did indeed have the necessary chops required to be the penultimate musician and showman. Yes, Hugh Laurie was the real deal-a true renaissance man.
I glanced at my watch. It was 9:30 PM. A bit early to call it a night. The night was still young. The night was still alive. The night had a thousand eyes. And none of them tire easily or release their hold on the city. ‘Cos the night had its own agenda. And the night was suitable for framing.
I reached into my trench coat and removed a ticket from its inner pocket. The ticket had distinctive printing. Bold and urgent. Not something that could easily be ignored. Not something that would let itself go to waste. It demanded attention. And it got it. Got it in spades.
The ticket was for a show at the Star Theater. A show that promised vice. Corruption. And provided a haven for those that revel in its heady temptations–and its raging adrenaline rush. The rush that sin, debauchery and armchair crime can trigger. And perhaps, lead your very soul totally astray.
The show was due to start. And start very soon-at 10 PM.
I replaced the ticket in its former hiding place. Stood up. And made my way toward the exit. I had plenty of time to make it over to Burnside. And I had plenty of time to kill. Yes, I had one more house call to make before the night was through.
But that’s another story.
by Roger Neville-Neil