I’ve seen a lot soundchecks, but I’ve seldom witnessed a
soundcheck like the one Jeff Bridges and his musical director Chris Pelonis
unleashed on their band before it performed at San Francisco’s Great American
Music Hall last fall. With no sense of hard work at all—just joy—the
musicians ran through the entire set they would be playing for the audience
later that night probably two and a half times. Bridges was scrupulous about
getting a good monitor mix, and, during the second run-through, he even
asked the club to set the house lights as they would when the show was actually
on, rather than leave them bright and full up as they are for most soundchecks.
These guys rehearse like demons to ensure the fans get a well-oiled
and great-sounding performance.
Part of this may be due to Pelonis, who in addition to being a crack guitar
player is also a noted recording-studio designer and audio technician, but a
lot of it is Bridges, too, because it’s obvious he loves playing, loves his band, wants everyone to shine. All of this is evident on last year’s Jeff
Bridges & the Abiders aptly named live album, Live [Mailboat Records].
While it should be no surprise that the Abiders recorded every show
on their tour, the album tracks came down to two performances at the
Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Here, Bridges and Pelonis share some
of the elements of how they strive to wow audiences.
Jeff, it appears you’re still playing the “Bad Blake” guitar from your
film Crazy Heart.
Bridges: One of the things that was instrumental in making Crazy
Heart an authentic movie about a guy like Bad Blake was picking the
guitar. That was so important. And Scott Cooper—who wrote the script
and directed the movie—was tight with Merle Haggard, I think, and he
asked him, “If you could have any guitar, what would you want?” And
Merle said, “A Country Gentleman.” So we went to Gretsch, and we got
this beautiful Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, and that’s my guitar.
We also looked at Telecasters, actually, but we settled on the Gretsch.
Pelonis: I’m using a TV Jones Spectra Sonic Supreme. I have
Gretsches and all that, and I love that stuff, but I found I can do everything
with this one guitar.
What about amps?
Pelonis: A couple of tours ago, I was a using hand-wired, 15-watt
Blackstar 2x12 combo, and Jeff has a Blackstar amp, too. Now, I’m using
a Richard Goodsell Super 17 Mark II—that’s also the amp on the Live
album. You can’t have too many guitars or amps, right? I just discovered
the new, hand-wired 18-watt Marshall the other day, and I have to
have it. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I was trying out those
new hollowbody Les Pauls, and I thought, “I’ll just plug it into this
Marshall because that’s kind of a generic sound.” But it wasn’t really
that kind of sound at all [laughs]. It was very intriguing—very authentic.
Should we talk about the Abiderator?
Bridges: Oh, yeah.
Pelonis: One thing about the Goodsell amp is that the tremolo and
reverb are second to none. I fell in love with them. The reverb has this little bit of pre-delay that lets you drench your
guitar in reverb, but you can still hear every
note. It’s very articulate. And the tremolo
is marvelous. So I asked if Goodsell could
make a preamp, and I have the prototype.
He designed it with my direction and input
from Jeff and [producer] T-Bone Burnett. It’s
pretty fantastic, and we all got excited about
it. It’s all tube, and he also added a great EQ
with really powerful center frequencies, a
Gain, and a Master Volume. You can put it
in front of your amp, or use the line out to
run directly to a mixer. Our pet name for it
is the “Abiderator.”
With you, Chris, and pedal-steel/guitarist
Bill Flores playing simultaneous parts,
it was interesting that there is still a lot
of clarity and space in the guitars on Live.
Pelonis: First, I want to say that Jeff ’s
guitar is an integral part of the rhythm section,
and it’s because he is countering Bill
and me with little lines and melodies and
things. So his guitar is big and present, but
it’s not overbearing at all. Sometimes, guys
play with a touch where it’s impossible to
get anything else through—it’s like a big fog
bank. And then guys like Bill and me or whoever
are trying to figure out parts that can
somehow power through that. But this isn’t
the case in the Abiders. We all listen to each
other, and none of our parts are conflicting.
So we can bring up the guitars where they
are clear and present without clashing with
any of the other instruments or the vocals.
Bridges: One of the pluses of the Abiders
is having Chris as our musical director,
and what he brings to the party. He’s
an incredible guitarist, but he also has all
of this technical knowledge. For example,
I don’t think of myself as a guy who sits
there working with the amps, trying to get
the exact sound. I hadn’t put that kind of
time in. But Chris—that’s what he does.
He tweaks my guitar sound, and I’m loving
what he comes up with.
How do you “sell” yourself live? Do you like
to just play your songs and let them do the
talking, or do you actively utilize your acting
chops to bring the audience on a journey?
Bridges: I consider myself pretty green
Pelonis: Let me just say that you’re about
to hear some bullsh*t. Carry on…
Bridges: I don’t feel as experienced as a
musician as I do in acting. You always talk
about the inner show and the inner experience,
but, ultimately, it gets down to opinion—who’s digging the show, and who’s not
digging the show. I mean, it seems to me
that it’s kind of a natural thing to bring my
acting experiences into the music, because,
creatively, I don’t see too much of a difference
between those two things—or anything
creative for that matter. I approach all
creative activities in a similar way. So when
I’m performing, it’s a bit of—the acting
language, you’d call it—an improvisation.
I look at the show as an improvisation that
I’m doing with this cast, and the audience is part of it as well.
Pelonis: In other words, we wing it a lot.
Bridges: Yeah. You don’t know quite
how it’s going to go. Weird things happen
onstage, and you kind of go with it. We just
try to make those things enhance the show,
rather than let ourselves be thrown by them.
For example, one of the struggles for me, initially,
was the monitor thing. You’re in the
rehearsal space, and everything is sounding
so great and dialed in. And then you get to
the soundcheck at the venue, and everything
is sounding real sh*tty. That really threw
me. I wasn’t having fun, because nothing
was sounding good. Then, I talked to John
Mellencamp about it, and he told me, “Oh,
I know your problem. Don’t think about it.
It’s never going to sound good!” That was
interesting, but it helped me quite a bit.
Pelonis: Now, we have these really good
Tannoy wedges that are totally dialed in. No
matter where you stand, the low and high
frequencies are in phase.
You bring your own monitor system?
Pelonis: We bring our own everything.
So how live was Live?
Pelonis: We didn’t change a thing. There
aren’t any overdubs or fixes or cuts or anything
of that stuff. Well, I can’t lie—I fixed
one wrong note I played by borrowing it
from the show the night before. Other than
that, everything is how he sang it, and how
we played it.
When you were listening to all the recorded
shows, how did you guys know which performances
were “the ones”?
Bridges: It’s the groove a lot, and the
spirit of the thing—how it makes you feel.
Pelonis: Jeff has real ears, and he listened
to the tracks really critically, and he knew
exactly how to articulate what he wanted. It
was really a team effort to choose what we
ultimately released as Live, which was great,
because we recorded the entire tour, and we
listened to hundreds of shows before we settled
on the Red Rock performances. It was the
toughest mixing assignment I’ve ever had.
You guys obviously take the Abiders
extremely seriously, but do you feel some
people might still feel the band is a film
star’s little side project?
Pelonis: Most of the people already
know it’s a real band now. Way back when
we first started playing, they’d come to see
the movie star play music, but now they’re
coming to hear the band, and the songs, and
Jeff’s singing. The fact that the music has
broken through is testimony that there’s
Bridges: Music has always been bubbling
on the back burner for me, and then it
moves to the front burner. So—Chris hates
it when I say this—the greenness I feel as a
musician is giving me this fresh feeling at a
late date in my life. It’s an odd thing: all of
this youthful excitement coming out of an
older, more mature body. It’s nice. This is
kind of my garage band. I’m 65 years old in
a garage band! How cool is that?
JEFF BRIDGES’ DAUGHTER, JESSIE, OPENS her father’s shows from time to time, and often steps onstage
with him to sing a song or two. To date, she has released
a self-titled EP, an album (Let It Breathe), and several singles.
Her guitar is a Taylor 914-CE—a gift from her parents when
she graduated from college in 2006. And as the proud papa
will be happy to tell you if you meet him, Jessie is not only
a fine singer and songwriter, but she also designed some
pretty bitchin’ handmade tour t-shirts for him.
Who are your main songwriting influences?
The Beatles. I pretty much grew up listening to them.
For my ninth birthday, my parents gave me the entire Beatles
CD collection, so it was hard to get away from that
influence. But I’m also a big fan of Jackson Browne, Wilco,
and Jenny Lewis.
What was the trigger for you to turn pro, so to speak?
Actually, I was working with my dad on movies. I was
his assistant for three years. And I realized that I didn’t
want to do movies. It was a wonderful experience, but
my passion was my music. So it was kind of like, you learn
what you don’t want to do to learn what you do want to
do. That was my experience. I did worry for a while that
if I pursued music professionally, it would take away all
the joy and creativity. That didn’t happen, thank goodness,
and the more I do this, the more I realize how much
I love performing.
Your dad sure has a lot of fun playing music—and
he obviously adores you—but it still must be kind of
strange opening shows for him as his daughter.
When he asks me to open for him, it’s a huge deal, and
I do not take it lightly. But at the same time, I want it to be
fun. I don’t want to get sidetracked by people’s expectations
of me—people who don’t know anything about me,
except who my dad is. I’m sure some of them are thinking
I’m getting a free ride, so I’ve got so much more to prove,
because there’s already pressure on me. I feel that pressure,
but I’ve got to go out there and be myself.
Do you feel you are moving towards developing a
unique songwriting voice?
That’s a challenging question. I do feel unique sometimes,
but then I also feel like I am no different from any
other songwriter. I’m trying to challenge myself by collaborating
more, and I kind of unconsciously look for surprising
chord changes or melodies—that’s my Beatles influence,
I guess. But I have to write. In fact, it used to piss me off
when I found out some artists weren’t writing their own
songs. I was like, “What do you mean? You’re just a voice?
You have no claim to that song?” I never understood that,
because it’s so important for me to express myself through
my songs. I know there are like a million people all trying
to do the same thing, but I can only hope that something
I write strikes a chord in someone else.