Having long since established himself with a prosperous career acting in TV and film, Jeff Daniels (it may come as a surprise to learn) has further expanded his repertoire with a side career as a guitarist. Over the past 11 years, the Emmy Award winner has recorded six albums while redefining himself as a touring musician specializing in the Delta blues.
His most recent release came last year with the album Days Like These, and Daniels is currently on tour playing with the Ben Daniels Band, a four-piece outfit led by his son Ben and new daughter-in-law, Amanda Merte. The collection of musicians will make a stop in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, November 3, at the New Vic theater.
In advance of their performance, Daniels was kind enough to speak to The Santa Barbara Independent about his musical career and the experience of touring alongside his son. His humility and pride were clearly evident while he raved about Ben’s hard work and talent. “It’s beyond a parental highlight,” said Daniels. “It’s just a joy to watch him commit himself to songwriting and music.”
The elder Daniels has devoted more than 30 years to refining his guitar skills. At the age of 19, son Ben first approached his father and told him he was ready to learn the instrument. Now 30 years old, Ben has grown into a successful musician in his own right with a knack for writing riffs and lyrics. “He hasn’t had a guitar out of his hands since,” said Daniels. “I came to realize that I was raising a poet and an artist.”
While Daniels has been performing live for over a decade now, there came a time in recent years when he realized his solo shows would be better with a larger ensemble. Instead of recruiting what he calls a “Viagra band” — a group of fellow old-timers — Daniels asked his son to join him on the road. He insists that Ben’s band should not be considered his opening act. “They don’t open for me,” said Daniels. “We all walk out together.”
The merger has been a collaborative effort, as Daniels takes his fellow musicians’ opinions into account when performing his previous songs. Merte was even featured as the lead vocalist on Days Like These’s closing track, “Back When You Were Into Me.” “One of my favorite things to do is turn to the band and go, ‘What do you think?’ It really empowers people,” said Daniels. Paraphrasing American playwright Arthur Miller, he added, “I look forward to seeing what my music inspires in others.”
As a seasoned stage performer, the longtime actor turned musician explained that playing guitar has provided him with a greater sense of freedom than his work on TV or film, although he is quite aware of the elephant in the room since most people know him from his work on The Newsroom as Will McAvoy or in movies such as Dumb & Dumber, Pleasantville, or The Purple Rose of Cairo. “There’s an element of having two strikes against you because you’re known for something else,” said Daniels. “So you stare that right in the eyes, and then you hit ’em with a show that works.”
His preferred style of performing requires a lot of activity and back and forth with the audience, as opposed to “singing into his navel from a personal diary.” “That’s of no use to anyone. What I learned from theater is when the curtain goes up, you gotta grab the audience by the lapels and hang on until the curtain comes down.”
With so many artistic media at his disposal, Daniels joked that his wife, Kathleen, keeps asking, “When are you gonna learn to tap dance?” Although the multitalented artist has succeeded in expanding his repertoire, he isn’t about to leave the Hollywood spotlight anytime soon. “I will act as long as people want me. [Acting and playing music] keeps me alive creatively and allows me to lead a fully creative life.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents an evening with Jeff Daniels and the Ben Daniels Band on Tuesday, November 3, 8 p.m., at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and more information, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.