Jeff Bridges at The Arizona Biltmore, 7-3-11

Jeff Bridges
Arizona Biltmore
Sunday, June 3, 2011

Jeff Bridges
is a likable guy. He's the kind of character you root for, even when he's beating up Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, even when he's playing a cold-blooded killer in Jagged Edge. He's got a quality that just endears people to him, and in the 1971 film The Last Picture Show -- a film banned in Phoenix after a city attorney cited it as obscene upon seeing it at a drive-in in 1973 -- he was chosen by director Peter Bogdanovich to play play Duane Jackson, a character described as "disagreeable" in the Larry McMurtry novel the film was based on, in an effort to give the character a warmer tone.

Bridges has recently taken some time off from making movies, a move many would consider odd given that his last few, Crazy Heart and True Grit, were big movies, the kind of movies that have absolutely cemented him as "America's leading man."

But Bridges has aspirations other than movies. He's an artist, a photographer, and a philanthropist, but most unabashedly, Bridges has devoted himself to playing music. It isn't the biggest stretch. Crazy Heart's soundtrack asserted him as a good-to-great singer, and the music, produced by T. Bone Burnett, was the kind of amiable, pop-driven country pop that dominates country radio. 

Bridges has an album out on August 16, his first for a major label, and as a pre-record cycle warm-up, he's hit the road with his band, The Abiders (a cheeky reference to the Lewbowski fans out there, and lord knows I'm one).

Clad in a denim shirt and looking every bit the image of "Bad" Blake, the character he portrayed in Crazy Heart, Bridges took the stage to the hoots and hollers of every woman in the room. The Biltmore doesn't host shows often, but they pulled out all the stops for this one, filling the Grand Ballroom with chairs and sound-system.

Bridges and band didn't focus much on his first album, Be Here Soon, but leaned heavily on Crazy Heart tunes and songs from his upcoming Blue Note release. There was plenty to like about Bridge's set. The band was a clearly a cast of pros, consisting of a drummer, stand up bassist, lead guitarist, and one talented gentleman who traded off between pedal steel, lap steel and accordion, the latter instrument giving the songs a wonderful Tex-Mex coloring. Bridges' voice was in good form as he sang the opening bars of "Hold on You," and the crowd was excited at the prospect of "The Dude" standing before them.

The crack backing band was a clear blessing to Bridges, who is clearly still developing as a performing musician. "Like the song says, 'I don't know much,' but I do know I'm playing with a hell of a band," Bridges said after playing "I Don't Know." Tellingly, things went best when Bridges let the band do the heavy lifting. His guitar work was decent, but occasionally he would stumble with the chords, visibly looking frustrated with himself.

The songs alternated between the kind of music that could genuinely be CMT hits, songs like "What a Little Love Can Do," "Nothing Yet," and songs that aimed for something different, something more restrained. "Slow Boat," a song co-written with the upcoming record's producer T. Bone Burnett, was one of the latter, a creeping, eerie song that featured Bridge's vocals in their lowest register.

Bridges devoted some stage time to his philanthropic pursuits, too, giving a quick speech about his No Kid Hungry campaign, stating that one in four children in America doesn't get enough to eat, and summarizing the problem with a very Dude-like "That's obscene, man" while shaking his head. Bridges was auctioning off art during the show, with proceeds being split between his organization and the Phoenix food bank. He painted live during the show, splashing paint on the brick wall behind the band, who played quiet, airy instrumentals as Bridges did his thing.

It was clearly a fun night for Bridges, and it's commendable that his vacation away from movies involves such noble causes. "There needs to be a word for when you combine play and work," Bridges said. "Plork, or something."

When Bridges finished "The Quest," an rambling, long-form song poem, Bridges began tuning his guitar, announcing to the crowd that he had messed up and turned a tuning nob the wrong way. He went old school and tuned the guitar by ear, and then headed straight into "Fallin' and Flyin'," which helped him recover from the gaff nicely, and the song has a lot to do with why the venue was sold out.

The band's pro-style helped a lot when Bridges tore into "Somebody Else" with the capo on the wrong fret, adjusting to Bridge's impromptu key change and back again when he tore the device off. He smiled broadly, clearly a guy who's unique station in life has given him the opportunity to simply "make a go at it" as a musician. Bridges has a lot of heart, even if he doesn't necessarily have the chops just yet.

Following a brief intermission, the band returned to give an encore to the shouting crowd. Bridges bumbled "The Weary Kind," getting lost in the intricate picking the song requires, but his voice sounded great, even has he winced at his own mistakes. But like I said earlier, Bridges is the kind of guy you root for, whose easy, carefree enthusiasm is contagious, and when he tore into the last song of the evening, Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me," a song near and dear to a lot of Lebowski fans (me included), all of Bridge's stumbles were forgiven, as the crowd sang along with the "la la la la's."

Bridges still needs some work as a performer, but in a lot of the ways that matter -- charisma, charm, great material and a killer band, he's got it all locked down. And anyhow, no matter what he's up to creatively, it's good to know that he's out there on the road, "taking 'er easy for all us sinners."

Critic's Notebook

Last Night:
Jeff Bridges at the Biltmore

The Crowd: Plenty of silver foxes and foxettes. There was one rowdy group of young rock 'n' rollers seated in front of me, who's drunkenness earned them the ire of many patrons seated nearby. They shouted and cat-called like they were at a punk show, but left after loudly breaking a bottle of beer. I missed them when they were gone.

Overheard: A gentleman referring to The Big Lebowski as "that bowling movie."

Random notebook dump: How crazy would it be if he played "The Man in Me?"

Set List:

"Hold on You"
"I Don't Know"
"Everything But Love"
"Tumbling Vine"
"Blue Car"
"Missed the Point"
"She Lays Her Whip Down"
"Slow Boat"
"What a Little Love Can Do"
"Nothing Yet"
"The Quest"
"Fallin' and Flyin'"
"Somebody Else"
"The Weary Kind"
"The Man in Me"


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