At some point, when we weren’t looking, Jeff Bridges turned into Kris Kristofferson.
The resemblance is physical, and then some. Both are handsome, laconic actor/musicians with an affection for Americana and singing voices that are rough-hewn yet appealing.
Bridges and Kristofferson note the likeness every time they see each other, Bridges said in a recent phone interview.
“We look at each other and laugh,” Bridges said. The similarity is especially great “when I have a beard on,” he said.
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Kristofferson helped start Bridges, who will perform with his band the Abiders on Thursday at the Crest Theatre and Friday at Grass Valley’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium (the latter show is sold out), on his current musical path.
The actors were making “Heaven’s Gate,” the notorious 1980 Michael Cimino epic, together when Kristofferson “invited a bunch of musicians to come play,” Bridges said.
Kristofferson introduced Bridges, a guitar player since childhood, to T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. Bridges would work with Burnett and Bruton three decades later on “Crazy Heart,” the 2009 film for which Bridges won a lead-actor Oscar for his performance as a grizzled country singer. Bruton, who died from cancer just before “Heart’s” release, wrote or co-wrote several of the film’s songs, including the memorable “Fallin’ & Flyin’.”
“Heart’s” success, which included an Oscar for the Burnett co-penned song “The Weary Kind,” led to Bridges’ collaboration with producer Burnett on the 2011 album “Jeff Bridges,” his first since his jazzy-pop 2000 debut album “Be Here Soon,” on which he collaborated with producer and singer Michael McDonald. Bridges’ latest album is 2014’s “Live,” recorded on tour with the Abiders.
“Live” includes country as well as jazz-inflected songs. Bridges writes songs, but most songs on “Live” either are covers or songs written by others for the “Heart” soundtrack, the 2011 album and “Be Here Soon.”
Bridges’ musical encounters with Kristofferson on the “Gate” set panned out better than the movie, which was considered one of the bigger flops of its day. Bridges, though, calls it a “masterpiece,” and said that “the more time goes by, the more people agree with me.”
Regardless, the poor reception of “Gate” did not hinder Bridges’ acting career. He became a big star in the 1980s, with films such as “Against All Odds,” “Jagged Edge” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys” – the last another musician role.
Bridges said he has been playing guitar and writing songs since he was a teen. But “Crazy Heart” “lit a fire under my music,” Bridges said. Now he has two built-in audiences to tap: “Heart” fans as well as fans of his 1998 film “The Big Lebowski,” a.k.a. the 40-year-old, straight-guy groupie faction.
Bridges’ “Lebowski” character the Dude is a hero to robe-wearing stoners everywhere. Devotion to the film, which the Crest is showing tonight in advance of Bridges’ concert, is great enough to support “Lebowski Fest” conventions. Bridges and the Abiders – named for the movie’s most famous quote, “the Dude abides” – played the 2014 Los Angeles fest.
Bridges lives in Santa Barbara with Susan, his wife of 37 years and mother to his three grown daughters, one of whom, singer-songwriter Jessie Bridges, will open the Abiders’ shows this week.
Bridges tapped Santa Barbara guitarist Chris Pelonis to be the Abiders’ bandleader. Pelonis really tied Bridges’ sound together when he brought in Santa Barbara musicians he knew to complete the band.
In naming the band, Bridges had considered another Lebowski reference, “the royal we,” as a band name.
“But the guys said, no, no, ‘The Abiders’ – it’s a natural,” Bridges said.
Bridges counts the Dude among his top-five roles, and “maybe top three,” he said. The film’s enduring appeal, he said, comes down to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan.
“You have masters directing it. They make it look as easy as falling off a log, but that is one of the earmarks of mastery – to make it look like it is no big deal.”
He could be talking about himself. Pauline Kael nailed Bridges’ on-screen appeal when she wrote, in a review of an early Bridges film, that he “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived.”
You can hear that same ease on “Live.” The Abiders are tight musically, but their front man sounds relaxed, whether singing or joshing with the audience.
“All of my creative endeavors, I kind of look at them the same way, through a movie-actor filter,” Bridges said. “When I get up to perform in concert, it is kind of like I am doing a long improv with the audience. It is kind of that feeling.”
He’s wrapping up his “music phase,” he said, with his current stretch of live shows. He’s shifting his focus to movies again, though he could not yet confirm any forthcoming projects, he said. (His most recent film, the action fantasy “Seventh Son,” co-stars fellow “Lebowski” alum Julianne Moore and comes out Feb. 6.)
But music “is part of my life – I have music projects slowly cooking on the back burner.”
A lot of musicians are still touring in their 60s – especially Americana musicians, who tend to grow more interesting with age. Few musicians start touring in earnest in their 60s, as Bridges did.
“It is pretty wild to be living this teenage dream at 65,” Bridges said. “There is nothing like playing music with a bunch of friends.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.