Forgive him, Robert Johnson | AspenTimes.com

Forgive him, Robert Johnson

Stewart Oksenhorn

Actor and musician Jeff Daniels puts on his singer/songwriter hat for an appearance tonight at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House. (Ryan Paternite)

Aspen, CO ColoradoAPSEN In the liner notes to his new CD, “Grandfather’s Hat,” Jeff Daniels recounts the incident that encouraged the actor to finally add “performing musician” to his résumé. It was a few years ago, and Daniels was making a backstage visit to his friend Lyle Lovett at the Wharton Center in Lansing, Mich., where Lovett was doing a songwriter-in-the-round concert with John Hiatt, Joe Ely and Guy Clark. Lovett happened to notice a picture in the dressing room: Daniels, onstage with a guitar. Lovett invited the actor to join the round, and Daniels found himself playing his road-rage saga, “Have a Good Life” for four of the finest songwriters in the land. Sensing the genuine approval of his onstage audience, Daniels writes, was a turning point in how he saw himself as a musician.”It was just the acceptance,” added Daniels in a phone conversation. “And also proving to myself that, for only one song, I could sit in front of those four guys and pull it off, make them laugh, make Lyle happy that he had taken the chance to put me out there. And having Hiatt crack up.”I’m not going to be them, but to be accepted by them … the 2,000 people there were irrelevant.”In the numerous concerts Daniels has performed since – he racked up some 40-50 last year – the audience cannot be ignored. There is a huge difference between making a one-song guest appearance alongside Lovett, Hiatt, et al., and being the evening’s draw. The surprise introduction of Daniels, who has starred in such films as “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Dumb and Dumber” and 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” is bound to draw applause. And if he can make his way competently through a song, so much the better. Having an audience show up specifically to see Jeff Daniels, the musician, and enjoy a full evening of his songs is a tougher thing.”Regardless of how good the songs are, there’s the William Shatner problem,” said Daniels, referring to a fellow actor and musician, whose latter career has prompted many unkind remarks. (Shatner’s recording of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” has likely scared away countless performers thinking of expanding their horizons.) “Are they going to accept someone who’s known for something else?”

Daniels has developed a strategy for handling such concerns. He faces the doubters head-on. The first minutes of his set are devoted to acknowledging, in song and talk, that, yes, he is an actor first, and, yes, many in the audience have to come to see him not because of his musicianship, but because he was the comically moronic, diarrhea-stricken, aspiring Aspenite Harry Dunne.”Part of the secret is dealing with that upfront – and not demanding that the audience take you seriously,” said Daniels, whose current tour includes dates in Texas, Nebraska, at Michigan’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and tonight at the Wheeler Opera House. “I do just the opposite. There’s this song I do: ‘I’m here, and those who bought digital cameras and cell phones with them, please take your pictures now.’ And, ‘How many people are here because they saw “Dumb & Dumber”?'”It’s funny right away, and they get over it right away. By the third song, I can feel people relax. Then I’ve got them, and go about showing off the songwriting and focusing on the guitar playing.” Prepping the audience is only half the battle, of course. Daniels then has to have the goods to deliver to the crowd. On “Grandfather’s Hat,” his second CD, Daniels shows he’s no William Shatner, and a level or three above Kevin Costner. Playing a modern take on Delta fingerpicking blues, and often slipping into comic story songs, Daniels is a decent singer, a more than competent guitarist, and a distinctive songwriter.Most ambitious is “Are You As Excited,” a six-minute talking blues about how evanescent fame can be; the tag line is “Are you as excited about me as I am?””Orville Wright” is Daniels’ quasi-excuse for having the audacity to do something so bold as making music – “Half of you gonna love it, half of you gonna hate it.” The song soars on the sing-songy chorus of “C’est la vie, do-si-do, do-re-mi,” before cleverly observing that Orville Wright “didn’t have no pilot’s license.” When Daniels moves into a more earnest mode with the sad and lonely “Middle of the Night,” it is a comfortable transition. “Grandfather’s Hat” concludes with the autobiographical “The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues Revisited,” a song recently updated to account for the Detroit nine’s recent success on the diamond.Daniels has been working on his music for about as long as he’s been chasing his acting career. Growing up in Michigan, he participated in musicals and choir. As soon as he graduated Central Michigan University, he headed to New York City, where he hopefully eyed an acting career and realistically saw that there would be a good amount of time spent waiting for callbacks. So in 1976, at 21 and freshly arrived in the city, Daniels got himself a guitar.”I had a feeling I’d be sitting around in my apartment quite a bit in the early years,” he said. “So that’s what I did.”The interest in acting was accompanied by an interest in writing. While many of his contemporaries looked to get into directing films as a sidelight, Daniels was drawn to the writing process. After he became a member of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, Daniels spent time watching the methods of playwright Lanford Wilson, who did rewrite after rewrite.Daniels has since returned to Michigan. Fifteen years ago, he bought an old bus garage in Chelsea, and founded the Purple Rose Theatre Company. The nonprofit professional company is named for Woody Allen’s 1985 masterpiece, starring Daniels as a film character who magically steps out of the screen and into the all-too-real world of Depression-era New Jersey. Daniels has written 11 plays for the theater, where he also serves as an unpaid executive director. Sales of his two CDs, including his debut, “Unplugged,” benefit the Purple Rose Theatre.Daniels finds a congruity between his musical, film and stage personae. Writing songs is not a retreat from his play-writing or his film acting, but a complement to it.”The guy who wanted to be a playwright was informed by these songs,” said Daniels, who also wrote, directed and starred in the comedy “Super Suckers,” which earned the Audience Award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in 2002. “They come from the same place. It’s the same creative place. The same guy who creates these characters is the guy who creates songs with characters. I live a very creative life and it comes out in lots of ways, and there are more similarities than differences.”The most salient thread that runs through all his pursuits is the ultimate goal of connecting to the audience. Daniels doesn’t have to blow away listeners with his technique. It is enough to merely connect.”You want to hang onto that audience. You want to grab them by the lapels and not let go,” he said. “If you’re just coming to watch the guitar playing, you’ll be surprised. But that’s not the whole show. If all you’re going to do is sit there and try to be Segovia – for me, there’s more to it. That’s where the songs and humor and interaction with the audience come from.”

Daniels had a moment in his film career similar to the Lyle Lovett moment in his music career, when he got the approval he needed to know he could make it. While filming “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Woody Allen – never known as one to talk much to his actors, much less hand out compliments – took Daniels and told him he was good. It was all Daniels, then 30 and with one notable film, “Terms of Endearment,” to his credit, needed to hear. “From someone you respect as a filmmaker, just a simple remark – to me, that’s like a billboard in Times Square of acceptance,” said Daniels.Despite his success in films like “Something Wild,” “Pleasantville,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Squid and the Whale,” Daniels has had to prove himself. His career has also been an up-and-down affair, and while the work has been diverse, he has been stereotyped to an extent.”Part of that is the ‘Dumb & Dumber’ factor,” he said. “It made a lot of money, and people say, ‘OK, that’s what he can do and that’s what we’ll let him do.'””The Squid and the Whale,” a dark comedy that starred Daniels as the bitter, bearded, patriarch of a family in disarray, was hailed as a breakthrough for the actor.”The success of ‘The Squid and the Whale’ for me, aside from probably buying me 10 years in the business, it got me back in the actor’s club: ‘Hey, he’s a serious actor again,'” he said.As a musician, Daniels has never hit those heights, so there isn’t a similar sort of pressure. Daniels says he deals just fine with the fact that, while he’s been nominated three times for a Golden Globe for his acting, he’s not likely to contend for any musical awards.”I want to grow up to be Kelly Joe Phelps or Keb’ Mo’. That isn’t going to happen,” said Daniels, who started touring as a musician in 2005, after doing five years of Christmastime concerts at the Purple Rose. “They’ve spent their lives doing that. But I know I’m better than most people. “And the expectations, when I walk onstage, are so low.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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