On November 20, actor/singer/songwriter Jeff Daniels takes the stage at The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh for his fifth visit to the historic Fox Valley venue in the past decade.
Actor/singer/songwriter. The last two things may come as a surprise to people who know Michigan-raised Jeff Daniels from DUMB AND DUMBER (and DUMB AND DUMBER TO, which he says, “had to be done”), PLEASANTVILLE, SQUID AND THE WHALE, and STEVE JOBS, and from his Emmy-winning performance in THE NEWSROOM. The world largely knows Jeff Daniels as an actor, but these days Daniels can be found on the road with his guitar, playing the bluesy folk music he kept quiet for so long.
I remember when I discovered that Jeff Daniels was a singer, and one who was going on the road. I felt like I had “discovered” him, but of course, that wasn’t the case. In fact, songwriting had been a solace and creative outlet for Jeff Daniels since he took his first guitar on the road with him in 1976. Thirty years later, he was letting the world in on the secret, releasing his first album as a fund-raiser for the Purple Rose Theatre, which he had founded in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, and for whom he still writes original plays (anyone remember ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT?). Apparently, he had enjoyed himself enough that he was considering taking his act on the road.
But this was Jeff Daniels, movie star. I presumed there was no way we could afford to bring this performance to Oshkosh. So, I did something I have only done a handful of times in my twenty-five years of presenting. I wrote a letter to the artist, rather than the agent. I had no way of knowing whether he’d see it, of course, but I sent it anyway. I told him all about this jewel-box of a theatre in the heart of a small city in Wisconsin. I told him I knew of his affinity for the Midwest, for small towns and for what a vibrant theatre can do for the economy. I sent photos, of course. And I walked through the math, and told him that I was uncertain whether we could afford an artist like him.
And a funny thing happened. His agent, with whom I had worked previously, gave a call and asked, “what can you afford?” And we got it done. Now, almost a decade later, we’re preparing for his fifth visit to The Grand.
Turns out, this big-time star prefers intimate venues like The Grand for his performances. There’s a hint of that (and, we like to point out, a not-so-indirect reference to venues like ours) on his website, where Daniels says, he “(has) played over 300 gigs the past 12 years from Maine to Alaska to Californ-i-a with my preferred venue of choice being clubs and hundred year old opera houses.” And the feeling’s been mutual, as we’ve enjoyed near-to-mostly sold-out performances each time he has visited.
Jeff Daniels is, by the way, a great guy. That first season, my offer was…well, let’s just say, it’s what I could afford. And he took it. Another year, I asked for two performances, and he did them. I asked him to do a fundraising spot for The Grand, and we still use it today, his words echoing what we love to hear about our venue, “for the audience, it’s like sitting in your living room…they just don’t build places like this anymore…years of history and tradition…where Mark Twain spoke, where Sara Bernhardt did Shakespeare.” Yes, I gave the man talking points. But he did the rest, with the same genuine Midwestern charm that he has since lent to the Michigan Department of Tourism for their commercial spots (yes, that’s him). He’s done donor receptions, meet-and-greets, and performs in that “living-room” style that our audiences love, and that is unique to smaller venues like The Grand. And when I asked him to re-open The Grand after its 18-month closure in 2009-10, he was gracious enough to work it into his schedule.
Daniels’ musical career has turned into a growing family project, as he now performs with his son’s band, the Ben Daniels Band, something he calls “drinking from the fountain of youth.” Think he’s a proud Dad?
Here’s how he describes it, quoted from his website. “From the opening song onward, my time with the Ben Daniels Band was and will always be a Life Highlight. I had no idea if fronting a bunch of talented Twenty-somethings would work or not, but I damned the torpedoes and risked a high profile creative implosion in front of paying customers on a ‘16 Gigs in 19 Days Tour’ as together, we traversed the back roads of the Upper Midwest in an RV and a Band Van. With great relief and a surprising sense of what it feels like to be young again, I’m here to say it exceeded even my loftiest expectations.”
And yes, The Grand was a part of that tour. And the Ben Daniels Band, who joins Jeff again on November 20, is pretty great too. From their opening song to the finale of their set, the Ben Daniels Band cuts through with their originality, musicianship, and a sound that is in equal parts Americana, Blues, Jazz, and Rock. With five CDs under their belts – “Coming From The C,” “Checkin’ In To The Michigan Inn,” “Can’t You See,” “The Mountain Home EP,” the dual album & movie release, “Old Gold” and their most recent release, “Roll.” The Ben Daniels Band has a sound that is both unique and familiar. At last year’s gig, many commented that I should bring back that band, solo. It may yet happen.
And Jeff Daniels continues to record, now with his son at the helm of the recordings.
“Ben went to school for sound engineering, which is great for me,” Daniels laughs, reflecting on their at-home studio sessions. Now, almost 40 years after heading out east with his D-40 from Herb David’s Guitar Studio in Ann Arbor, he releases his 7th recording, “Days Like These.” The New York Times says, “Jeff Daniels sings his songs with a growly twang and barbed good humor, at its high point evoking a transcendental picture of American wanderlust.”
Jeff Daniels says, “No matter how much fanfare I get, no matter how much exaltation and anointment comes my way, it will never top gigging through the Upper Midwest with my boy.”
Yes, it’s deer-hunting kickoff night (which, in a way, is appropriate) but from that opening ovation, through an entire audience dancing the “Big Bay Shuffle” (which cannot be described, only experienced), through the encore, it promises to be one of those great nights where the audience leaves the theatre, knowing they’ve had a one-of-a-kind experience, and glad that they did not miss it.
Hope to see you at the theatre!
Joseph Ferlo is President and CEO of the Oshkosh Opera House Foundation and Director of the historic Grand Opera House since 2004.
Jeff Daniels and The Ben Daniels Band
November 20, 2015, one performance only
Grand Opera House, Downtown Oshkosh
Tickets (920) 424-2355 or online at grandoperahouse.org