Another New Year’s Eve

It’s amazing how the older one gets, the more gratifying life can be. Maybe that comes with age. Or experience. Or could it be Wise Old Wisdom setting in? Who knows. Who cares. We’re still here, right? Isn’t that an accomplishment in and of itself? Are you one of those who can honestly say, based on some random, no-fault-of-your-own past event in your life, “I’m lucky to be here?” Then, okay. You dodged a bullet. Or several. And what could have happened, didn’t, and what happened instead is this. Us. Now. Today.

I know, I know, this late-in-life reflection, looking back and liking more of what transpired on my behalf than not, it’s supposed to be about the ups and the downs. The hills and valleys of any life lived – the more hills climbed and mountains conquered, the better – makes it all worthwhile in the end. We all want to have contributed. Mattered. Despite the new global narcissism, a compassionless monetary divinity, not to mention 75 zillion people on this planet all vying for their own piece of what’s left of this pie of ours – despite all that, we make what we can out of Life even though, at times, for some, for most, it is Life that makes us. Maybe that’s why, looking back – just for the moment, I’m hardly done yet, at least I hope not, unless you know something I don’t, why, what have you heard? – when I do get a good hand to play, be it by Fate (maybe), some Almighty Being (y’know, kinda like Paul Bunyan only without the axe), or Destiny (sure, why not)…well, it sure as hell beats the alternative.

The They-ers say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Optimistically cynical or cynically optimistic? All I know is we have come upon another New Year’s Eve. Rumor is 2012 might be better. Either way, may as well enjoy the transition, right? I mean, really, we’ve come all this way. You, me, along with everyone else. What the hell? Please, after you. Really? Are you sure? You’re too kind. Don’t mind if I do.

December 31, 2011

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LANFORD WILSON (1937 – 2011)


At the Purple Rose Theatre Company, Chelsea, MI. January, 2001. Photo by Danna Segrest.

Lanford Wilson loved his words. He wrote in a way that showed us who we are, why we are, and where we’re headed whether we like it or not. He let no one off the hook; not his actors, not his audience, not his critics, not the American Theatre, not the country nor himself. Especially, himself. He demanded excellence, hated hypocrisy, despised mediocrity, and loved life.

Along with Marshall W. Mason and the rest of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, Lanford was an artistic mentor and a life long source of inspiration. A devout playwright, Lanford was incapable of selling out. No matter how broke he was, he refused to write anything other than his plays his way. I’d tell him, “Get your agent to get you a gig doctoring a film script.” He looked at me and all but spit, “Movies are bupkus!” And yet, when I did a film he liked – and thankfully, there were a few – he went out of his way to tell me. He adored work that mattered, that meant something, that counted. In his world, that was not too much to ask.

His wit was legendary. In the late ‘70s, Danton Stone, John Hogan, and I wrote a play about a down and out talent agent and a young lounge singer interested in making the career transition from Queens to Manhattan. Beyond desperate, they hit the road and toured the country, hoping to become successful enough to be asked to dine with Wayne Newton. The title of our maiden epic was 42 CITIES IN 40 NIGHTS. Through dogged persistence and a unearned belief in ourselves, Circle Rep finally allowed us a reading in front of the rest of the company. Blinded by our brilliance, our dirge of a comedy lasted three hours. After the reading, everyone scattered for a much needed break. Dreaming of Broadway, I found my way to the rest room. Standing at the urinals was Lanford. I slid in beside him. “What’d you think?” I said. Without looking at me, he said, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks for the jokes.” Then he hit the flusher and walked out.

I met him in 1976 in the Greenwich Village offices of Circle Rep. Disheveled, he looked as if he had fallen into the chair, his arms and legs splayed out in four directions. There was a quick introduction. “Jeff, you know Lanford, don’t you?” I responded by staring. I’d never seen a living, breathing playwright before. “Hey, doll, how are ya?” Somewhere, someone said he was working on a new play. Somehow, I asked him how it was going. “I have no idea,” he sighed.

For the rest of my time at Circle Rep, I made it my mission to study how he did it; the endless rewrites, the painful First Draft readings with his last minute scribbled cuts and additions in the margins, the misspellings, the scenes that didn’t end so much as simply stopped. He even used the actors’ own names instead of naming his characters. He wrote from the ground up, searching without direction, chasing his words. Typically, we would finish an early reading and, like actors do, whisper to each other, “Where’s the play? Is this a play? Is it me or is this…nothing?” Marshall would go off with Lanford. Weeks later, the Second Draft came in. Somehow, sort of, there seemed to be a beginning, middle, and an end. More concern. Marshall would go off with Lanford again. Another month. Circle Rep would announce with great fanfare “A New Play By Lanford Wilson! Coming This Spring!” What?!! Everyone in the company knew he didn’t have a Second Act! Rehearsals began. In we came, our scripts handed to us at the last possible minute. In front of an audience of finger-crossing Circle Rep staffers, we turned to the title page and read: “A New Play By Lanford Wilson”. Somehow, he had done it. And not just done it, but done something that mattered. That meant something. That counted.

In 1978, Circle Rep premiered FIFTH OF JULY. Danton Stone, Bill Hurt, John Hogan, and I shared an Off Broadway dressing room which was closer to a closet. Hogan and I fancied ourselves as budding songwriters. After the play was up and running, Hogan and I would bring our guitars. In between shows, we would play our newest creations. They weren’t bad. They weren’t necessarily good, but we made up for it with youthful passion and a determination to mine the music in our souls, wherever that was. One day, we looked up and there was Lanford, leaning in the doorway. “You write songs?” “Yeah,” we chirped. He nodded. “Let me help.” From behind his back, he handed each of us a piece of paper. Lyrics. Poems, really. “I don’t know if these are songs,” he said, “but see what you can do with them.” Hogan went to work on LIKE STARDUST, a song about another late night in a bar and those with nowhere else to go. Through his words and his imagery, Lanford put you in that bar. He gave me an anthem about a bus ride from Missouri to Chicago. Lanford hated to fly – “There aren’t enough drugs in the world to get me on a plane” – preferring to travel via Amtrack and Greyhound. In ROADSIGNS, he painted an America only he could see.

Two days before he died, John Hogan, Stephanie Gordon, and I traveled out to New Jersey to visit him. Tanya Berezin brought us into the room. He was near the end. We stood around his bed. Surrounding him. And then, thirty three years after he handed us those two pieces of paper, we played LIKE STARDUST and ROADSIGNS. His head never moved. His eyes never opened. We could only hope he heard us. After the songs were over, we talked to each other about his incredible career, about working with him in this play or that play, as if we were all back in the Village winding down after a show at the Lion’s Head Tavern. Before we left, Hogan and I played him one more song: Steve Goodman’s famous train song, THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS. One of Lanford’s favorites, it was the tune that inspired him to write HOT L BALTMORE. We reprised the Final Chorus over and over and over, quite possibly turning it into the longest version of the song ever sung, not wanting it to end, not wanting it to ever end. Finally, we finished. Tanya leaned in close to Lanford’s ear and whispered, “Did you like that Lanford?”

He nodded.

When FIFTH OF JULY was published, I asked him to sign my copy. Like any actor, I hoped for some glowing words regarding my definitive characterization. Instead, Lanford wrote: “Make it all count.” And then he signed his name.

That’s what he did his whole life. He made it all count and then he signed his name.

March 25, 2011. New York City

(LIKE STARDUST and ROADSIGNS available on iTunes. All proceeds to the Purple Rose Theatre Company)

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LYLE LOVETT, JOHN HIATT, and JEFF DANIELS at the MICHIGAN

LYLE LOVETT, JOHN HIATT, AND SURPRISE GUEST JEFF DANIELS OFFER MEMORABLE SHOW MONDAY AT THE MICHIGAN

Concert Review By Roger LeLievre
Entertainment Writer, AnnArbor.com
January 31, 2011

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt are a musical marriage that seems meant to be. Appearing together Monday night at the Michigan Theater for an acoustic show, the two singing-songwriting veterans traded songs back and forth for nearly two and a half hours and were, quite simply, superb. But as extraordinary as those two were, leave it to a local to kick things over the top. Jeff Daniels, Chelsea-based bluesman and Hollywood leading man, was a surprise special guest, invited on stage to perform the nostalgic “Grandfather’s Hat,” one of his own compositions.

“I’m a student of theirs and always will be,” Daniels said of Hiatt and Lovett, acknowledging the pair’s status among the crème de la crème of influential American songwriters.

The show began on bluesy note, with Hiatt offering “Almost Fed Up With The Blues,” and Lovett countering with “I’ve Got the Blues.” They looked a little like bookends up on stage, two seasoned pros in dark suits, sitting in chairs, acoustic guitars in their laps. There’s something so elemental about just a performer and his guitar that distills music down to its thrilling essence, and that feeling was present Monday night.

As the show progressed, each offered songs from their huge repertoire. Some of Hiatt’s highlights included “Crossing Muddy Waters,” “Perfectly Good Guitar,” “Thing Called Love,” “My Baby,” “Cry Love,” “River of Tears,” “The Open Road” and “Real Fine Love.” Among tunes Lovett played were “Road to Ensenada,” “Good Intentions,” “Don’t Touch My Hat,” “Cowboy Man,” “Fiona” and, of course, “If I Had A Boat.”

Both musicians were in fine form, Lovett’s voice bending the notes until they almost cried out, and Hiatt’s gruff voice cracking with emotion. Rarely did they jump in on each other’s songs, with “Thing Called Love” the one exception. It sounded so good I wondered why they didn’t do it more often — their voices play off each other perfectly.

There was also plenty of friendly banter between them (the deadpan Lovett makes the perfect straight man), and Lovett took a moment to acknowledge the role of local acoustic venue The Ark and its importance to to musicians. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for The Ark,” he said. The show was also an anniversary: Lovett noted that it was 30 years ago Monday night that he first heard Hiatt on stage, in Austin, Texas.

Jeff Daniels, meanwhile, continued to impress. He’s running with the big dogs now, literally and figuratively; if there was any further doubt, his performance during the encore should have laid that to rest for good. If Hiatt’s always amazing “Have a Little Faith In Me,” which started off the encore set, was almost a religious experience, what followed was musical nirvana. Hiatt and Lovett brought Daniels back for the bluesy “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” with Daniels and Hiatt trading guitar licks in a fascinating game of friendly oneupmanship. “This is like watching the Australian Open” (tennis championships),” Lovett quipped as the other two went back and forth.

Jeff Daniels, Lyle Lovett, and John Hiatt performing MY BABY DON’T TOLERATE at the Michigan Theater on Monday Night, January 31.

…The three of them on stage looked so awesome, and the encore was one of the best I have ever heard. It brought the audience to its feet, cheering, well before the song was ended, and I was right there with them.

Roger LeLievre is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/lyle-lovett-john-hiatt-review

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Q&A with Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels Talks About Playing The Purple Rose, His New CD “Keep It Right Here”, and How To Dance Like You’re From The Upper Peninsula

December 29, 2010

L to R: Brad Phillips, JD (clapping on the 1 & 3), and Dominic John Davis playing “Keep It Right Here” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Chelsea, MI. December 28, 2010.

HOW MANY YEARS HAVE YOU BEEN PLAYING THE PURPLE ROSE?

This is my 10th year. Initially, it was simply a fundraiser for my theatre company. Still is. Since the Purple Rose was between shows over Christmas & New Year’s, I wanted something that we could do that was cheap and easy. Someone suggested I go out with my guitar and sing my songs. How hard could it be, right? Problem was, my previous gigs had been confined to my back porch. So there I am, playing in front of sold out crowds, just me and my guitar, no band – I was so scared I wet myself. Twice. I had pit stains down both sides of my shirt. I was a mess. Stunningly, I hadn’t realized prior to those first few gigs that there was no character to hide behind like in a film or play. Somehow, I survived it. Came back the next year and the year after that. Eventually, my perspiration output slowed and I figured out how to beat that stark creative bare naked fear – here’s a tip: practice!! – and then I was okay. Now I enjoy it.

YOU RECORDED “LIVE & UNPLUGGED” TO RAISE MONEY, RIGHT?

Strictly. We recorded the 3rd year of the Purple Rose shows for that CD. Honestly, we thought it would be of no interest to anyone beyond Southeastern Michigan. Then a friend of Christine Lavin’s got her the CD and she called me up and invited me to New York to appear on her show on the Folk Channel on XM Radio. It meant a lot to me that she acknowledged this hobby of mine as something that should be heard beyond my back porch. When someone like her says what you’re doing is good enough to travel, it’s time to start taking it seriously. So I did. Christine’s that rare artist who is supportive of others. Class act.

THEN CAME OTHERS?

Yeah, then I couldn’t be stopped. GRANDFATHER’S HAT, while still containing mostly live performances, was tilted more towards song writing. TOGETHER AGAIN was a chance to sit down with my friend, Jonathan Hogan, in my apartment in NYC and do what we’d been doing since the ‘70s – play and record our songs together. Back in the day, we used to be slaves to our respective 4 Track TEAC Reel to Reel machines. Dinosaurs now, but great fun for struggling songwriters who loved recording. We were our own biggest fans! PANHANDLE SLIM & THE OKLAHOMA KID is a mini-musical I wrote for the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Near the end of the run, we brought the cast into my Home Recording studio and put down a Cast Album. I also added my original Demo Recordings of the songs, as well as a 15 minute discussion with Guy Sanville, the director and Artistic Director of the Purple Rose, discussing the “Making Of” that particular musical. Then came LIVE AT THE PURPLE ROSE which consists of live performances taken from five August ’09 shows I did at the Purple Rose. A year later, it was KEEP IT RIGHT HERE. (For CDs, go to: http://www.jeffdaniels.com)

HOW DID THE IDEA FOR “KEEP IT RIGHT HERE” COME ABOUT?

In August ’10, I played some dates in Michigan, Indiana, and then on down to Nashville and Memphis. I took my son Ben with me – on a break from his own band, bendanielsband.com – and Brad Phillips, a terrific mandolin and fiddle player out of Saline, MI. Brad had sat in with me a couple times in the past and had played with me during holiday shows at the Purple Rose the previous year, so off the three of us went. After those shows, Brad and I came back and recorded the seven or so songs we’d played, just as we did them. Ben recorded them live, again in our home recording studio. Then we sent the tracks up to Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, MI, where Mark Miller massaged them. Steve Curran thought adding Dominic John Davis on Upright Bass would be a good idea and had him come in and “spit on it”, as L’il Wayne might say.

HAD YOU PLAYED WITH DOM BEFORE?

Several times. He’s with Steppin’ In It, this great acoustic band out of Michigan. They play in about a thousand different styles, consummate musicians all. He’s playing with Jack White behind Wanda Jackson’s new album on LETTERMAN and CONAN in January ‘11. Like Brad, he’s a player. Listened to the songs over the weekend and laid down his tracks in an afternoon.

YOU SAID SEVEN SONGS…?

Well, then Steve sent me the Rough Mix. I was deep into my Fall Tour. From August to Thanksgiving, I put 10,000 miles on my Bus and yes, I drove it myself (see other blogs). Anyway, somewhere in Minnesota I listened to it and thought we might have something. So I all but pulled the bus over to the side of the road and demo’d three more songs I’d been playing on the Tour by myself – TWO FINGER RAG, WHAT WOULD JESUS DO, and IT’S NOT THAT SHE DON’T LOVE ME – and MP3’d them to Brad, Dom, and Steve and asked if it were possible to add them. Everybody had them on that Friday. Brad was in Ireland at a music festival, playing with his regular band Milish, and Dom was in MI. I got off the road on Sunday morning. Went into Harvest’s studio on Monday with Dom and played our tracks together, live. Brad got back from all things Irish and came in and added his mandolin on Wednesday.

AND YOU’RE HAPPY WITH IT?

As happy as I’ve ever been with anything I’ve done, musically. I meant what I said on the back of the CD. Arthur Miller, the great American Playwright, said he looked forward to seeing what his work inspired in others. I love writing something, playing it, and then giving it to talented people who take it and run. It’s one of the great joys of music; coming in with an idea and never telling someone what to play but instead, asking them what they hear. One of the best directions I ever got was, “You can’t do anything wrong. Action.” Same thing with Brad & Dom. Surround yourself with great artists. Give them the material and turn ‘em loose.

And the title track, KEEP IT RIGHT HERE?

It’s a cousin to “in the pocket” or “in the zone”. You hear Sinatra as he counts a song off. As he’s snapping his fingers in front of the mic, he says, “That’s it. Right (snap) about (snap) here (snap).” Then I started thinking about how the world is so instant, so never in one place, always on the move, all resulting in all of us having the attention span of a gnat, or so it seems to me. It’s me going, “Let’s slow down. In fact, let’s all…just…stop.” If only for one song. Then, of course, the song takes off at the end. At my annual “Jeff Daniels & Friends” show over Thanksgiving Weekend, we had 30 musicians on stage, including the Saline Fiddlers with an arrangement that Brad wrote for them, as well as special guest Alto Reed from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band. My boys, Ben and Luc were by my side. A great way to end that show and a song that’s all kinds of fun to play. It’s probably my version of MAMA DON’T ALLOW, the song made famous at least to me by Steve Goodman where solos get passed around to every instrument. It’s a great finale. For them and for me.

L to R: Brad Phillips, Ben Daniels, JD, Alto Reed, Luc Daniels, Amanda Merte, and Charlie Marcuse performing “Keep It Right Here” at Michigan Theatre. Ann Arbor, MI. November 28, 2010.

And what’s with the BIG BAY SHUFFLE?

That’s an actual dance – well, more like a drunken sway – that they do up at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, MI. I came upon this backwoods choreography about 32 years ago. Kathleen’s family has a hunting camp up there. We stopped in to the Lumberjack on a Tuesday Morning and we were late to the party. There were these two women three sheets to the wind Big Bay Shufflin’ to Englebert Humperdink. It’s very simple: feet stay anchored to the floor, your hips sway side to side, and you hold a beer in each hand. That’s it. Now, years later, every time I do the song I get Audience members up on stage to doing it.

“The Big Bay Shuffle” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Chelsea, MI. December 28, 2010.

After the whole Audience is up Shufflin’, my son Luc comes out to an introduction not unlike Bruce Springsteen’s introduction of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons.

Luc “The Roadie” Daniels making his entrance for “The Big Bay Shuffle” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Chelsea, MI. December 28, 2010.

Luc takes the stage and puts a modern day spin on it complete with Michael Jackson moves, something called The Worm where he hits the floor and “worms” his way across the stage and, as a finale, finishes by jumping five feet into the air, and coming down into the splits with a style and execution that would make Mary Lou Retton proud.

L to R: Brad Phillips (hidden), JD, Dominic John Davis, and Luc ” The Roadie” Daniels performing “The Big Bay Shuffle” at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, MI.  December 28, 2010.

And no one was injured?

Only those of us watching.

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Thoughts on “Keep It Right Here”

New Album Available Here

The beauty of the Internet – and its curse – is that anyone can do anything. I’m not sure what’s happening to the Music Business and have no clue what the Movie Business thinks it’s doing, though my guess is it probably has something to do with every film and television show having fifteen producers. But I digress.

As a big fan of clarity, I like to let things stand on their own. The nakedness that goes with this is what it is, take it or leave it. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to the acoustic guitar. On KEEP IT RIGHT HERE, my fifth CD due out in December (jeffdaniels.com), I’d like to think I’ve turned a musical corner. In the past, I’ve tended to record myself live. Solo. In front of a living, breathing audience. All the blame, all the glory. Partly to prove I could play without a band ready to save me at a moment’s notice, but also to use all I’ve learned as an actor to help feed the performance. Give ‘em all you got and step on the gas.

Then in August of ‘10, I went on tour with Brad Phillips.

Brad is a wonderful mandolin and fiddle player out of Saline, Michigan. Known throughout the state wherever acoustic players play, we jumped in the RV and embarked on a two week “truck stop, Walmart sleeping, Denny’s eating” tour through Michigan, Indiana, on down to Nashville and Memphis. We even shot a documentary of that epic journey (check out The Official Jeff Daniels Channel) chronicling our musical trek. Playing those gigs, the songs tightened up. We played off each other like a friendly tennis match. Coming off the road, we went right into my son Ben’s Home Recording Studio (www.bendanielsband.com) and put down the songs while they were still fresh.

We sent the tracks up to Boomadeeboom Records at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, MI. Steve Curran put Lansing’s Dominic John Davis and his Upright Bass on them. Back out on the road, I was somewhere between Fargo and Duluth when I heard what we had. I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much, I all but pulled the bus over and skidded to a stop so I could send Steve three more demos: IT’S NOT THAT SHE DON’T LOVE ME, TWO FINGER RAG, and WHAT WOULD JESUS DO – all songs I was playing solo every night. He shot them to Brad and Dom. When I got back to Michigan, Dom and I went into Harvest and with Mark Miller manning the board, we laid ‘em down. Off I went to Alaska for three more gigs (see GIGGIN’ THROUGH THE FALL OF 2010). Two days later, Brad came into Harvest and laid down his mandolin tracks. Joshua Davis of the great acoustic band Steppin’ In It added some fine banjo on WHAT WOULD JESUS DO and with Amanda Merte’s background vocals on THE MICHIGAN IN ME, we were there.

Over the years, I’ve worked very hard on my music. Coming from the world of Actors Who Suddenly Sing, I wanted to earn the right to be thought of as a musician. So, quietly, for decades, I took it seriously. I’ve sat with Stefan Grossman (one of the great acoustic players and teachers) as well as worked my way through a mountain of his Instructinoal DVDs (www.guitarvideos.com). I’ve learned at the feet of Keb Mo (a true blues artist). I’ve gone to school on songwriters like Cheryl Wheeler, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, Steve Goodman, Christine Lavin, Todd Snider, Kelly Joe Phelps, Catfish Keith, and anybody who ever played the blues down in the Delta in the ‘20s. It’s been a wonderful, frightening, challenging, and now, with this CD, rewarding journey.

Every writer is writing his or her way towards that thing inside them that only the laborious, demanding, grueling creative process can bring. Playwrights, Novelists, Poets, Songwriters; we’re all chasing the same thing. When we find it, it all but crystalizes. So simple. So clear. As if it were right there all along, just waiting to be discovered.

That’s how it felt when I heard KEEP IT RIGHT HERE. Enjoy.

Lansing, MI.

November 30, 2010

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Radio Show and Interview

Recently did an interview for a radio show down at Smith’s Olde Bar in Georgia.

Listen here.

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Giggin’ Through The Fall of 2010

“GIGGIN’ THROUGH THE FALL OF 2010”

Just back off the road with Kathleen and our two dogs. We called it the “EMPTY NESTERS TOUR”. Twenty six gigs in five weeks. In an RV. Which I drove. That’s right. Lewis & Clark with DirecTV. Onward we pioneered from the Midwest to the East Coast – to The Barns at Wolf Trap to City Winery in NYC to Club Passim in Boston – on up to Maine…

…back down to Connecticut. Sleeping in Truck Stops and more than our share of Walmarts, we slid South and played both Carolinas, Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, then on to Aspen, back to Denver – tired yet? – up to Sioux Falls, Fargo, on our way to play Duluth, Minnesota we stopped to say hello to our friend Paul…

…then kept playing our way to Chippewa Falls & Stoughton Wisconsin, until we finally arrived back home in Michigan.

Two days later, we jumped on a plane and flew to Alaska for three dates! A Glutton For Gigs! Played a Sold Out House at the Blue Loon in Fairbanks. Loved that place. Full of great people, ready to have an even greater time.

Okay, so it was -21 degrees, but hey? As hard core Alaskans say, “Cold? -40 below, now that’s cold!” And, I am happy to report, all the Sarah Palin jokes worked.

Next, we traveled to Talkeetna to play Latitude 62. Located at the base of Mt. McKinley…

…this was another great Yukon venue and another sell out – 50 people strong and we were packed to the rafters! One of the great gigs ever. Cool crowd, ready to laugh & willing to listen, and the Reindeer Sausage was excellent.

Then down to Anchorage and home. All in all, a great way to spend the Fall. Have guitar, will travel.

Jeff Daniels
November 25, 2010

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