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Jeff Daniels is "Alive and Well Enough" on latest album

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, December 7, 2020

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There's a great deal of pandemic-induced physical distance between Jeff Daniels and his musical audience these days.

But the Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated actor and singer-songwriter is hoping his just-released new album, "Alive and Well Enough," brings everyone a little bit closer.

"I just led with the songwriting and also the celebration of the sound of just one acoustic guitar," Daniels, 65, says by phone from his home in Chelsea, where he also operates the Purple Rose Theatre. "This wasn't about bringing in a bunch of other musicians. We're not adding harmonies or anything.

"I wanted it to feel like I'm performing just for you and playing songs I like and care about and hope you enjoy them. I just play for an hour, then pack up the guitar and go home."

"Alive and Well Enough" is the latest entry in what Daniels started as a sideline and has graduated to equal footing with his acting. He released his first album, "Live and Unplugged," in 2005, introducing himself with "If William Shatner Can, I Can Too," a nod to a fellow actor's musical ambitions. He's since released several other titles, including collaborations with his son Ben Daniels and his band, as well as the Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark.

Daniels also has become a regular touring act in between filming HBO's "The Newsroom," the Showtime two-parter "The Comey Rule" and spending a year in Broadway as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." And during the pandemic shutdown he's maintained a steady schedule of virtual concerts.

"Alive and Well Enough" takes listeners back to the beginning of Daniels' transition to performing his music in public via the track "Roadsigns." It's an adaptation of a poem playwright Lanford Wilson gave to Daniels in 1978 when he was acting in an off-Broadway production, "Fifth of the July," to "help" him with his burgeoning songwriting.

"Every time I was with Lanford after that, he would say, 'Play me 'Roadsigns,'" Daniels recalls. Flash forward to 1991, when Wilson was in Chelsea with an original play commissioned by the Purple Rose.

"We took him to a bar afterwards," Daniels remembers, "and there was a guy playing covers in the corner. He took a break, and (Wilson) goes, 'Play me "Roadsigns."' Nobody at the theater knew I played. It was just something I did on my porch. So I went up and played 'Roadsigns' and everybody couldn't believe it, and I sat down next to Lanford and he whispered in my ear, 'You should share this with people.'"

Daniels also wrote a play of the same name, based on the poem/song, which was the last one performed at The Purple Rose before the pandemic.

The rest of the 11-track album — co-produced by Daniels and son Ben — covers an array of territory since then. It includes his paean to childhood hero "Al Kaline" and his Detroit Lions fan lament ("The Silver and Honolulu Blues") along with "All Rise," which he wrote and recorded as a closing night gift for the "Mockingbird" cast and crew. There are moments of whimsy ("Jesus Was a Stoner," "The Ballad of Trailer Jane") alongside the romantic sentiments of "Somethin' Somethin'" and "Paris Moon."

"Alive and Well Enough" also contains some of Daniels' most explicit social and political commentary, including the opening "Come a Little Closer," which dates back to the 2016 presidential election, the satirical "Trumpty Dumpty Blues," which he wrote this past April, "Everybody's Brave on the Internet" and "I Am America," a collaboration with Detroit singer Thornetta Davis that's being used by Georgia's Democratic senatorial candidates during the campaign run-up to the Jan. 5 runoff election.

"Certainly here in 2020, this is not a time to sit back and not be involved and un-informed," Daniels explains. "I wanted people to pay attention. That means people like me, instead of taking the safe route and just being quiet, have to speak up. It's what (Bob) Dylan did, what Dave Van Ronk did, Tom Paxton. ... Those guys wrote for the times they lived in. I don't think it's wrong to do that, especially now. Otherwise we're gonna live in a country that I don't want to live in.

"If that means I have to write songs to get people to pay attention, that's what I'll do."

In addition to the songwriting, Daniels' also delved deeper into guitar finger-picking for the album, channeling influences such as Kelly Joe Phelps, Stefan Grossman and Doc Watson, the latter of whom Daniels saw at the Bottom Line in New York while he was living there. "I rarely strum anymore," Daniels notes. "Because this (album) is primarily just me and a guitar, it felt like the way to go. You run a bass line underneath something that's going on up top, and it's a full sound.

"It's like a match equation — at a hundred miles an hour, sometimes. It's hard, but it's fun. I look at harpists and go, 'How do they ...?' ’cause I can fingerpick with one hand, they do two."

Daniels is looking forward to resuming his latest acting role — "Rust," a Showtime drama he's executive producing based on Phillipp Meyer's 2009 novel "American Rust," with filming set for Pittsburgh. There are other projects looming ("Nothing I can talk about," he says), and he's enjoying the virtual concerts, which started with benefit streamcasts for the Purple Rose and has blossomed into touring via the Internet, with handsomely produced multicamera shows overseen by sons Ben and Lucas.

"I miss the live audience, but I kind of enjoy this," Daniels notes. "It's more like shooting a close-up or a medium close-up in a movie. Instead of sending it out to an audience that's sitting in front of you, you have to pull ’em in, and we've learned how to do it. We know we're not going any further than your living room, just like TV shows do. You just sit on your couch — we'll bring the show to you."

A full schedule of Jeff Daniels' virtual concerts can be found at jeffdaniels.com.

Web Site: www.jeffdaniels.com

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