Award-winning actor Jeff Daniels has played heroes and villains, smart guys and dumb guys. On Friday night in Ogunquit, though, he was an artist playing his own personal brand of down-home music before a sell-out crowd.
The star of “The Newsroom” and both “Dumb and Dumber” films was in town to continue his long-standing “other” career as a singer/songwriter. Exploring several popular genres while maintaining a strong connection to the blues, the Michigan-raised entertainer filled the acoustically-friendly Jonathan’s performance space with musical stories delivered through his recognizable, if a little roughed-up, voice. Those expecting a quiet evening of song got a bit of a surprise, though, as Daniels was mostly backed by a rowdy quintet headed by his son Ben.
As his fans had to expect, the elder Daniels included a good deal of friendly humor alongside a few more serious moments. Indeed, the show mixed comedy, acting reminiscences and impressive musicianship in a way which made the two-hour performance fly by.
Daniels went on at some length in a playful rant about the recent playoff loss by the Detroit Lions before launching into “Days Like These,” the title tune from his latest album. He and the band donned what he described as the official hat of Michigan for this number which bemoans how sometimes even “hats don’t help.” Ben Daniels added some tasty slide guitar to bring home the message while dad warmed-up his finger-picking style on amplified acoustic guitar.
Both Daniels strapped on cigar box guitars on a flirtatious song directed at band singer Amanda Merte, who feigned embarrassment and briefly left the stage. There were several such bits of comic business offered along the way, in which the five band members, as well as the multi-generational audience, happily participated.
Daniels talked about his acting career with anecdotes about Jack Lemmon and Ryan Reynolds, each of whom, unknowingly, providing inspiration for a song. In Lemmon’s case, it was the veteran star’s advice to the then young Daniels to always be “A Little Bit Strange.” Most fans know and appreciate how Daniels has followed that recommendation.
The singer noted that most of his songs took off from a comment someone made in his presence. An HBO crewmember’s talk of a romantic breakup led him to write a touching piece, sung by Merte, called “Back When You Were Into Me.” The slender blonde’s soft soprano voice, backed by only Jeff Daniels on guitar, hushed the otherwise vocal crowd for several minutes.
“Now You Know You Can,” inspired by the actor’s first day shooting “The Newsroom,” was a bluegrass rave with the versatile Wesley Fritzemeier stepping out to play mandolin. Later, Fritzemeier would also impress on violin in both classical and country styles and prove a hard rock drum-thumper on a menacing Ben Daniels Band number called “Rattlesnake.”
The elder Daniels later got the crowd on their feet to practice the “Big Bay Shuffle,” a dance one does while holding two beers. He then hit the blues hard one final time with a take on the classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” A father-son vocal duet finished the evening on a warmly sentimental note.
One fellow in the crowd who admitted to knowing next to nothing about Daniels’ acting career was heard to comment that the show, nonetheless, succeeded admirably on purely musical grounds. It did. But, truth be known, a little movie star power didn’t hurt on a chilly winter night in Ogunquit.
What: Jeff Daniels & The Ben Daniels Band
Where: Jonathan’s, Ogunquit
Reviewed: Jan. 16