Jeff Daniels is practically our neighbor in Toledo. The Hollywood star doesn’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Chelsea, Michigan, a small town about an hour north of here.
When I saw the news that he was playing a concert with his son Ben at The Ark in Ann Arbor, I bought tickets without knowing anything about the actor’s music. I just thought it was going to be a memorable evening. After all, Daniels has entertained millions of people who played roles as diverse as urbane and cynical news anchor Will McAvoy in The Newsroom and the lovable henchman Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber (plus the upcoming sequel – more on that later).
I imagined that Daniels could easily skate through the night on stage with guitar and microphone, supported by his son’s band, strumming a few chords and telling amusing stories.
So i thought.
I apologize for my ignorance, Mr. Daniels.
Yes, he told a bunch of very amusing stories on Sunday night (August 17th) and put a lot of hilarious comments between the songs, but Jeff Daniels is definitely a talented musician.
The guy can pick a nimble lead on the guitar with his fingers. He can growl a blues voice or sing a soft ballad. He writes songs that are fun, poignant, melodic and catchy. Daniels, for example, is a serious musician, unlike many celebrities who use their fame to back up their mediocre hobbies.
I would describe his style as similar to word smith folkies like Mose Allison, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine.
Roots rock band
Daniels’ son Ben leads a five-piece band with an unmistakable roots rock sound that ranges from twangy folk to boisterous blues.
It all adds up to a down-to-earth movie star, musician, storyteller, proud father who shares the stage with his son’s talented band and plays music that is close to his heart in front of a packed and enthusiastic audience in his hometown.
How could it not be a great night for everyone?
Daniels, who wore a plain blue V-neck shirt and jeans, led his son’s band from the opening song and said it was “beyond paternal pride” to be on stage with Ben “right here at The Ark”, a venue he’s been to too many times.
The group mostly stepped through Jeff Daniel’s originals – rolling blues numbers with lyrical wit and dexterity like “Ain’t Nothing New in New York City” and a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” with the chorus: “Go Henry David, Go.” One verse contained this line: “I called my congressman. He said, “Hit 1 if you’re Big Oil; Hang up if you aren’t. ‘”
Daniels introduced one of the songs with a story about meeting a biker guy wearing $ 7,000 worth of Harley-Davidson gear and telling him, “I’m a pastor in my church.” Daniels shrugged, with a “natural” expression on his rubbery cup. The preacher noted that there was a “heaviness” in the world that inspired Daniels to write a blues tune. Although the encounter took place years ago, Daniels said the song was “appropriately depressing” for today.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked, citing news from Ukraine, Iraq, Ferguson, MO, and Robin Williams’ suicide, then started the chorus, “Days like this … a hat doesn’t help.”
Afraid of the critics
He mentioned his upcoming film Dumb and Dumber To, indicating that he wasn’t looking forward to the press interviews. He mimicked a critic who sucked on a cigarette and asked in a Capote-like voice: “Why in God’s name did you make this film?” To which Daniels replied tersely: “F *** you.”
From blues to folk to jazz, the guitar star of the evening was George Merkel from the Ben Daniels Band. Fluent and quick in the frets, Merkel added tasteful and creative guitar riffs that embellished the songs without overwhelming the songs.
Drummer Wesley Fritzemeier also deserved special mention, as he demonstrated his multi-instrumental virtuosity with mandolin and classical violin in the middle of the night, sometimes keeping the beat with a kick drum and hi-hat while plucking or bowing the strings.
A highlight of the evening was the humorous yet musically skillful “Close But No Cigar”, in which the Danielses and Merkel played three-string cigar box guitars that slid along the frets for a slow, twangy blues, come together and weigh loosely choreographed unison. The title / punchline was a denial given to Daniels by the band’s female backup singer, Amanda Merte.
The band played a railroad song in which a spectator was invited on stage to blow a wooden railroad whistle on Daniels’ cue. The volunteer gave a screech rather than a whistle, but gave it up to the old college try and blew devotedly in the frenzied finale as the train picked up.
Jeff Daniels stood alone on stage for a solo on an obscure, early Bob Seger song “Railroad Days” and led the band on a funky, downward guitar riff that threaded through the blues standard “Rollin ‘and Tumblin'” has been.
The show ended after nearly 2½ hours when father and son played a duet to a song Jeff wrote when Ben was 3 years old.
In a poignant ballad, Daniels sang that it’s not about money or fame, “or the marquee that screams my name … but this little boy who looks up at me.”
To some Hollywood stars, that line would seem condescending, but to Daniels, the words felt real. The father and son embraced, and when father turned away, he patted his heart with the palm of his hand.
The concert was as entertaining as I had hoped and the musicality exceeded my expectations. The band added a second Ark show for Monday, which was also sold out, and are in the middle of a 13-concert tour ending Aug. 29 at another Daniels favorite, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.