Jeff Daniels, the actor known for his cerebral roles in such programs as The Newsroom and his slightly less-than-cerebral turn in the film Dumb and Dumber, won’t be appearing at the City Opera House in Traverse City this January. Well, technically, Daniels will be onstage and performing at the Opera House. But it won’t be in his guise as a thespian, versed in and successful in movie, television and theatrical roles. Nor will Daniels the playwright or director be in evidence. It will just be Jeff Daniels with his guitar, singing his songs.
Well, that’s not really true. Daniels will be performing the songs he’s written and recorded over the past several years, but he’ll bring all the skills he’s honed over the course of his career as an entertainer into play. That includes his ability to memorize lines and improvise at the same time. As an illustration, he tells about his performance at the CMA Awards several years ago.
“Five or six years ago, I was invited to the CMA Awards show in Nashville,” he said. The powers that be had caught his show and thought it was amusing and a perfect fit for the show. They wanted Daniels to put all the nominated song titles in one song, and he obliged. But …
“About a third of the way through my mic goes out all of a sudden. I kept going, but they (the audience) hadn’t heard half the song. A stagehand came out and replaced my mic and suddenly I heard myself again. I said, you know what, I’m going to start over.” So without the benefit of a teleprompter
or any other cues, Daniels sang the entire song again, “and I didn’t miss a word. Jeff Foxworthy was hosting, and he came over and said, ‘That’s the greatest save I’ve ever seen.’”
Daniels says his shows are planned out, but leave plenty of room for change or improvisation. While he knows that there’s a beginning, middle and end, his stories and repartee with the audience members make each show different. “I talk to the audience, and sometimes they talk back,” he said. “It’s fun, I enjoy that. You break that fourth wall between performer and audience.
“I went to see Utah Phillips once. He was a remarkable entertainer. His first song was 25 minutes long, he’d go off on spontaneous side tracks. We had the same manager, and I told him (my manager), ‘I’ve never seen somebody improvise so smartly.’ He said, ‘It’s all written.’ That’s kind of what’s happened with me. These (songs and shows) are road tested.”
Daniels says the music and his low-key style perfectly complement one another. He’s an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist, but says he is never satisfied. “I can always get better. Stefan Grossman, Kelly Joe Phelps – I’ll never get there. If I’m rehearsed enough, I can trick myself. I can play pretty well, and also entertain you.”
The chance to sing his own songs rather than speak lines in a movie or show and not know how they’ll end up is a big draw for Daniels. “The biggest thing is you have complete control. You don’t hand it off to anybody,” he said.
Daniels has now released five CDs, but it all began like this show: As a fundraiser. He wanted to raise money for his theater in Chelsea, the Purple Rose. Now he’s doing the same for the City Opera House.
“I’m a big fan of opera houses,” he said. “It’s like you go back in time a little bit.
Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show Thursday, Jan. 23 are $32 and $40. City Opera House Circle Seats are $125 and include a private after-party with Daniels to benefit City Opera House. Immediately following the show, those ticketholders are invited to Seven Monks Taproom where they’ll receive VIP seating with two complimentary drinks, and a photo op and private meet ’n’ greet with Daniels. Only 125 City Opera House Circle Seats are available.
Get tickets at cityoperahouse.org