Actor Jeff Daniels, the actor we know from films like “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” traveled from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Rock Island, Illinois’ Circa Dinner Theater to play acoustic guitar and sing his own songs for a small but enthusiastic audience on Thursday, May 1st. The performance was a fund-raiser for the small theater back home, dubbed the Purple Rose in honor of the Woody Allen film “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in which he starred.
Daniels is well-known from his roles in such films as “Dumb and Dumber,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “The Squid and the Whale.” He’s made 45 films and will soon be heard as the voice of an animated character in “Space Chimps” (for which, he humorously remarked to the crowd, he had recently been offered…and turned down… a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.)
To be honest, I didn’t expect much in the way of musical excellence when I decided to take a chance and attend the concert on a Thursday night. I just knew that Daniels is a very fine actor and seems to be a very “centered” regular guy, in appearances such as one he recently made on “David Letterman.” As the former “Times” movie critic and a bona fide movie fan, I went to see Jeff Bridges, the actor, and the fact that he was just as talented, musically, as he is gifted, dramatically, was the frosting on the cake.
I was unable to convince either my husband (who refused, outright, to go) or my friend (who voted for the Rolling Stones documentary “Shine A Light,” instead) to accompany me, so I went alone, entering after the performance had begun.
Daniels, clad in jeans, a rumpled flannel shirt and a battered brown hat, asked the crowd at the outset, “How many of you have no idea what I’m about to do?” I had a vague idea: he was going to sing songs he had written in an attempt to raise money for his Michigan Purple Rose Theatre through the $25.50 ticket price. You could also purchase either of his two CD’s, one of which, “Jeff Daniels Live and Unplugged To Benefit the Purple Rose Theatre” I bought. It is very good and the material is extremely clever.
It turned out that Jeff can both play and sing with proficiency and that his material is entertaining in the best sense of that word. When asked by David Burke of the Quad City Times about the difference between his movie career and his sidelight, singing, Daniels responded, “The thing about the singing that I enjoy a lot is that, especially when you’re writing, you’re in complete control of everything. It’s the exact opposite of the movie actor…It’s just that it’s (a movie) out of your control creatively. (Here) I’m the writer, I’m the director, I’m the editor, I’m the entertainer, I’m the performer, and all those people who I’ve been and am are out there with me…Plus, the fact that, with me, they (audiences) expect the worst. ‘Oh, yeah, another actor/singer/songwriter who sucks.'” (with sarcasm).
As it turns out, Daniels does not suck. His songs are clever slices of life, such as his song about actors who think they can sing, simply because they are actors, entitled “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too,” which mentions actor/singers ranging from Shatner to Russell Crowe to Adam Sandler. (Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp are not mentioned, but the Olson Twins are.)
Daniels is loose onstage, singing songs about the time he “accidentally” lost his wife, Kathy, at a truck stop in Erie, Pennsylvania, entitled “Recreational Vehicle,” and musing on the many common rites of passage in life, such as teaching his daughter to drive, his love affair with the Detroit Tigers baseball team and his first car (a blue Valiant) and/or growing old.
While in the Quad Cities, Daniels stopped at a local analog recording studio to record his song(s) “Are You As Excited About Me As I Am?” that reminded of the theme of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and “The Dirty Harry Blues,” about playing the villain opposite Clint Eastwood’s good guy, in the film “Bloodwork.” Daniels said he was inspired to write the first song mentioned after walking the red carpet at an Awards night. Sample lyric(s): “I was everything to everyone, Just for a moment, I’m who I used to be. Shine like a diamond, bright as the sun, I used to be everything to everyone.”
His “Dirty Harry Blues” contained a killer impression of Eastwood calling him up on the phone and asking him to play the villain in “Bloodwork.” The denouement was his shooting death (in the film) at Eastwood’s hands, after his make-up girl told him, “It’s a good day to die.”
Daniels called to his “roadie” (his son) to help him involve audience members in performing what he dubbed “Doing the Big Bay Shuffle” and in playing a wooden train whistle on the song “I’m on a Detroit Train.” The audience gave Daniels several standing ovations and seemed to really enjoy his show, from start to finish.
Daniels mused about aging, saying, “You do have regrets when you’re 50. I’m 50 years old…I’m old. Not falling apart, just going downhill and every other week you’re updating your will.” He reminisced about hearing Mary Hart telling the world on Entertainment Weekly that he was fifty years old that day. Research into Ms. Hart’s birth date revealed that she was born November 8, 1950, making her a full 7 years older than Daniels…a fact he seemed to revel in discovering.
Daniels name-dropped a bit, but in a humble way. In addition to the Eastwood story, which never implied that he and Clint were good friends, Daniels told the story of working with stars like Eastwood and Jim Carrey with humility and mentioned the making of two Civil War films, “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.” In describing Ted Turner, Daniels said, with affection, “If it’s on his mind, it’s out of his mouth,” and told the story of Turner coming up to him, onset, in full costume, saluting him (also in unform) and saying, “Colonel: hold at all costs.”
When the actor mentioned the offer of a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (which Turner has been given), Daniels reminisced about seeing old-time movie stars Esther Williams and Margaret O’Brien that day, actresses who really represented their era of movie stars with class and glamour. They were there to meet and greet Turner (who was receiving his star) and told Daniels how grateful they were to Turner for his television movie channel. They said, “We get to see who we used to be.” Sad commentary on the fleeting nature of fame and “all that crap,” as Jeff Daniels referred to it. He seems very “grounded” about his Hollywood persona, unlike many others.
Jeff Daniels’ frequent references to his “twenty-eight foot Jayko” RV, his family, his home state of Michigan, his humble gratitude that his parents supported his acting aspirations, his interest in the great American pastime (i.e., baseball, specifically the Detroit Tigers) made him seem like the regular, ordinary guy next door.
Reviews in the next day’s paper locally were glowing, with Sean Leary of the (Moline, Illinois) Daily Dispatch suggesting that Daniels could be “the next Jimmy Buffett. Leary hailed Daniels’ performance as “loose and funny” and lauded the performer as “natural and humble.”
David Burke of the (Davenport, Iowa) Quad City Times told me that Jeff and his son (and his son’s two college-age friends) had driven all the way to Rock Island from Michigan in the aforementioned RV, and shared several heart-warming incidents from their interview, displaying as much awe at meeting Daniels as Daniels showed when he talked about the time he met George Harrison, (who signed his guitar.)
The suggestion was made that, if Daniels decides to make the trip this way again, the hall won’t be half empty as it was this night. Word travels fast in smaller towns, and the word on Jeff Daniels and his singing talent was all good.