by: Alix Cohen



Yes, he can sing. And play guitar. The versatile Jeff Daniels, familiar to some as the half-witted Harry Dunne (Dumb and Dumber) and to others as whip smart, bad tempered Will McAvoy (HBO’s Newsroom), has long been a musician and songwriter. Much to the surprise of most New Yorkers, Daniels, has, in his own words, “written about 400 songs, and played over 300 gigs the past 12 years from Maine to Alaska to Californ-i-a.”

In a thoroughly entertaining, populist show of his own material, the artist appears to be a nimble fingered traditionalist, with keen eye for observation and tangy humor. Part back porch good ole boy, part literate interpreter, Daniels offers songs which, while universal, are peppered with indication of sophisticated life experience. Gritty, sincere vocals lean towards southern inflection eschewing “ings,” broadening vowels.

Daniels is partial to talkin’ blues (referring to genre and chord progression), but there are no bleeding or broken hearted subjects tonight. Instead, we hear declarative, bemused, and observed stories mostly based on specific moments out of his life. The genial raconteur seamlessly morphs into author and musician creating intimacy even in a club the size of 54Below.

A birthday song for his wife of 35 years reassures “You Still Got It Goin’ On.” While Kathleen Daniels may see herself as an old ugly duckling next to a swan, her husband concludes, you’re still my damsel in distress in the palm of King Kong. “Rec Vehicle” (here, a 28’ Jayco that sleeps six) emerges a parlando tale of family mishap accompanied by amiable vamp. The actor, unabashedly lampooning himself, is plain spoken, charismatic, and funny.

Highlights include: “Pants Off,” about a blind date who, like some romance novel in a fancy font/turned every head in the restaurant. Its kicker chorus, after a portrait of uptown gloss? If you believe like I believe that opposites attract/How bout we take our pants off and relax?  Now read it again like Louis Armstrong or Howlin’ Wolf might growl the verse. Daniels has us all singing the chorus. “Feel free to use that in your real life.”

“Roadsigns,” with lyrics by Daniels’ mentor, playwright Lanford Wilson, describes a Greyhound bus ride from Missouri to Chicago. Textured by guest musician Brad Phillips’ virtuoso mandolin, its rolling melody and evocative images conjure experience and passengers alike. Rhymes never settle for less than specific illustration, yet the song feels poetic and unlabored. Phillips hunches over his instrument. Daniels sounds a bit like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The two musicians are symbiotic but unique creating a wonderful sound.

“A Wicked World” illuminates all the rotten things that can happen just when you think you’ll be ok. You found an oyster, but lost the pearl/A rich, fat guy’s got your girl… Daniels’ eyebrows rise, his chin bobs, one leg keeps time. Smiles abound. “Keep It Right Here” follows with its own wry point of view and up tempo groove building I find dazzling. Tight phrasing provides framework for dense, integrated flights of notes, each as crisp as its predecessor. By the time Phillips picks up a fiddle, exhilarating performance has us sitting up in our seats holding collective breath. Hot damn, down home, call out cool is met by cheers. Daniels leaves the stage as no-nonsense neatly as he arrived.

The evening is well paced, unfolding with meticulous attention in the deceptive guise of noodling.

I highly recommend watching out for Jeff Daniels’ next musical appearance. It’s an unvarnished  hoot.


Songs can be downloaded on Daniels’ site: http://www.jeffdaniels.com/

*Photos: Stephen Sorokoff 

Jeff Daniels

With Brad Phillips-Mandolin, Fiddle


254 West 54th St.

January 2-4, 2014

Venue Calendar- http://54below.com/