There’s a new breed of movie star these days. They’re talented and tireless and very ambitious. They want you to buy tickets to see what they do at their day job, and they’re also hoping you’ll support their other, between-movies career: moonlighting as a musician.
Some of them succeed beyond their dreams. Jared Leto, who recently visited Mansfield fronting 30 Seconds to Mars, took five years off from acting because his band was filling stadiums. Jack Black is equally known for his comic acting skills and the outrageous rock of his band, Tenacious D. On the other hand, there are usually plenty of empty seats at concerts featuring Juliette Lewis and the Licks, Kevin Costner and the Modern West, and — heaven help us — Steven Seagal & Thunderbox.
So why should audiences want to see Jeff Bridges at the Wilbur Theatre on Wednesday, a guitar slung over his shoulder, when he makes his initial splash in Boston on a debut East Coast tour with a quartet he calls the Abiders?
Well, take that band name. Bridges has achieved cult status for starring as the Dude, and as “The Big Lebowski” acolytes know, the Dude abides. Don’t count out the more mainstream filmgoers who were thrilled when Bridges won Oscar gold for his portrayal of troubled country singer Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.”
Turns out Bridges is damn good at this music thing. He was playing guitar and writing songs years before he clicked as an actor in “The Last Picture Show” (1971). His voice and self-penned music have been heard on movie soundtracks for more than four decades – the first was the laidback psychedelic ditty “Lost in Space” in the 1969 film “John and Mary,” and the most recent was “The Better Man,” the laidback country tune over the end credits in last year’s “R.I.P.D.” He’s also released two albums: “Be Here Soon” in 2000, and “Jeff Bridges” in 2011.
Bridges, 64, is the real thing: a bona fide movie star who’s never let that line of work get in the way of his love for creating and performing music. His easygoing manner at the microphone, whether singing a song or talking about its back story, makes a Bridges concert very Dude-like. He spoke by phone from Santa Barbara, Calif., where he can often be found hanging out in his home recording studio.
Q. As a film actor, you get reactions to what you do from a small group of people on a set. Now you’re playing music to big audiences who are cheering. Is that a big kick for you?
A. Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s like doing an improvisation. That’s how I relate to it. I kind of feel like I’m in it together with the audience. It’s not an us-and-them kind of thing. We’re sort of having a party together.
Q. Had you thought much about a going for a second career in music before “Crazy Heart?”
A. Prior to “Crazy Heart,” I did tool around and stuff. But that film really set a fire under my musical tail. I was working with [producer-writer-arranger] T Bone Burnett and that great band that he got together for it. And with the success of the movie, I thought, well, maybe I can get a band together with my local buds here in Santa Barbara, and tour and make records and stuff, and that’s kind of what I’ve been doin’.
Q. Was the band called Jeff Bridges & the Abiders from the start?
A. We were all sittin’ around trying to figure out what we were gonna call ourselves. I was making another “Lebowski” reference, thinking of calling us The Royal We. But the guys thought that was a little too obscure, and they were all diggin’ the Abiders, so that’s what we ended up with.
Q. Introduce me to the Abiders.
A. I sing and play acoustic and electric guitar, and some piano. My buddy Chris Pelonis, who I’ve been playing with for about 20 years, is on guitars and harmonica and keyboards. We’ve got Bill Flores on pedal steel and accordion and lap guitar, Randy Tico is on bass, and Tom Lackner is on drums.
‘It’s like doing an improvisation. That’s how I relate to it.’
Q. The band’s been playing out west for a few years now. What took you so long to come east?
A. We played different late-night TV shows there, but we’d never done a tour. We’ve toured the West Coast pretty extensively, and we did New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and Texas. So we’ve been workin’ our way over. It was just time to hit the East Coast.
Q. What were you listening to as a kid that might have influenced you when you started writing?
A. My brother Beau, who’s eight years older than I am, turned me on to all the great classic early rockers: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, James Brown, and those guys. So that’s who I was kind of raised on. Then of course in my era, we’ve got Dylan and the Beatles, and those cats.
Q. So how did you come to be playing more country than rock?
A. I think the first time I really got into country was on “The Last Picture Show.” We shot that in Texas, and the soundtrack was almost exclusively Hank Williams. Then my buddy Johnny Goodwin moved to Nashville a while ago. He’s always been interested in country tunes, and we’ve been writing a lot of country together. And of course Dylan has got a lot of country in his stuff.
Q. What did playing Bad Blake do to your musical tastes?
A. When we were doing “Crazy Heart,” and we were trying to figure out what kind of music Bad Blake played, T Bone gave me a real gift. He made me a list of all of the musicians that Blake would have listened to growing up in Fort Worth. He knew what he was talking about because that’s where he grew up. On that list was Hank and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, and all those guys. But there was also Leonard Cohen and the Beatles and Ornette Coleman.
Q. Ornette Coleman?
A. Yeah, Ornette was also from Fort Worth. T Bone’s point was that he didn’t want to create a totally recognizable country sound. He wanted to make sort of an alternate country universe for Bad Blake. I appreciated that, and I took that to heart in the kind of music I present, as well.Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.