When Jeff Daniels moved from his Michigan home to pursuing an actor career in New York, he threw a guitar in the back of his car because, as he puts it, “I needed to stay sane.” Playing guitar and singing was a hobby for about 25 years until his agents saw him perform and convinced him he could make it a “regular thing.” His first performance in front of a live audience didn’t go so smoothly, however.
“I was terrified,” says Daniels. “It was a flop sweat. I had pit stains all the way down my shirt. I just dripped sweat. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d get on a Broadway stage and wouldn’t feel nervous at all. Walk out with a guitar and the creative nakedness was overwhelming. It took 20 shows over the course of a couple years to learn that I didn’t have a character. That safety net suddenly was gone. Once I figured that out, it was fine.”
On his new album, Days Like These, he goes for something rather bluegrassy. The title track features twangy acoustic guitar and bluesy vocals. The songs aren’t as tongue-in-cheek as tunes on previous albums. Not that Daniels takes himself too seriously. He still loves to joke around with audiences, something he’ll have a chance to do on his current tour with his son, Ben.
“There are songs from Days like These that need a band,” he says when asked about touring with his son and his son’s backing band. “I was tired of doing the sitting-in-the-chair acoustic show. I wanted to change it up. I thought, ‘What about Ben’s band? Is there something about these twenty-somethings who have been doing it for 8 or 9 years already? Can this work?’ In August, we toured for three weeks. It was better than I thought it would be. Right when we came off the road, we booked shows for January. We’re bringing that show to town but we’ll cut and paste a couple of things into it.”
The tour brings Ben’s career full circle. His father, after all, was the one who first taught him how to play.
“I’ve been very supportive of artists,” says Daniels. “He’s an artist. He’s a poet with a guitar. He came to me at 19 and said he was ready to learn how to play the guitar. I said, ‘Okay, let’s start with the blues.’ I told him to write his own stuff. If he had any success at this, be original. He’s worked really hard at that. They have a whole bunch of CDs and I couldn’t be more proud. To have a kid in their twenties even speaking to you, let alone standing on stage with you, is a life highlight for me. The musicianship is there. We can’t just ride on the sentimentality of father and son. We play to it a little bit but at the end of the day, the music has to be good. We’ve worked really hard at it.”
And don’t worry. Daniels senior still gets to do some storytelling between songs.
“Yeah, there’s enough of it,” he says. “I make sure I’m talking to the audience all the time. Some of the stories end up being funny leading into a certain song. And some of them aren’t and they lead into a song that’s moving. I saw Utah Phillips play and the first song was 20 minutes. I think it was ‘Railroading on the Great Divide.’ I said, ‘That’s some of the best ad libbing I’ve ever seen.’ But he wasn’t ad libbing. It changes from night to night but 90 percent of it is locked. It’s fun.”
Jeff Daniels with the Ben Daniels Band, 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $30 ADV, $35 DOS, musicboxcle.com.