For Dan Blakeslee, one of New England’s premier singer-songwriters, the Somerville connections spread far and wide
By Adam Vaccaro
For the month of October, Dan Blakeslee goes by Doctor Gasp. He spends 25 days on the road, playing gig after gig between New England and New York, dressed in a makeshift Halloween costume built from a shoestring budget at thrift stores, performing an original and beloved set of ghost and goblin tunes. Having been raised on a farm in Maine as a self-described “Halloween kid,” Blakeslee relishes his time as Doctor Gasp. “I have my Master’s in disguise,” he says, smiling.
But now that spooky season has come to an end, Blakeslee, 40, is back to doing what he’s known for in the area. The Teele Square resident has lived across New England and toured all along the Atlantic coast, releasing five full-length albums in becoming a mainstay on the independent folk scene. His last two albums, including July’s ten-track Tatnic Tales, were released by Peapod Recordings out of Portland, Maine.
Even if Halloween is over, Blakeslee’s music still has the capacity to send shivers through an audience. In terms of genre, the songwriter can be placed in the folk category, which he partially attributes to his rural upbringing. But it’s not a perfectly neat fit. Despite a hearty Johnny Cash diet in his upbringing as an artist, Blakeslee’s slow melodies and occasional soft bellows resemble less the Man in Black than they do Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. At his Sept. 15 show at TT the Bear’s in Cambridge, he performed without his band. The petite Blakeslee (5’8, 155 lbs.) seemed to sink into the stage with his eyes closed. Surrounded by the vacant equipment of the bands he opened for, the sounds of his voice and acoustic guitar overpowered even his own image before the microphone. “People have said my music’s more in the realm of haunting or mysterious,” he says.
Blakeslee hasn’t worked what he calls a “real job” in years, last popping up at a seafood restaurant up north, but 160 gigs a year, album sales and occasional performance underground in MBTA stations aren’t his sole sources of income. He supports himself with his visual artwork. Blakeslee’s drawing hand has been contracted for book covers, beer labels, album art, and show flyers. His talents have also allowed him to produce his own album art and to sculpt the octopus design adorning his guitar. Supporting himself with his creative endeavors, Blakeslee says, is both liberating and exhausting. “It’s definitely nice but everyone says the grass is greener on the other side,” he says. “I have my freedom but I make myself work way too hard.”
He’s lived in Somerville three separate times, amounting to five years total. His connections to the city spread wide. He served the first ever residency at Arts at the Armory (191 Highland Ave). When asked to name some of his favorite musicians, he lists Somerville acts like Township and Audrey Ryan. More than half of his visual artwork in the last three years has been produced in evening sessions at the Diesel Café (257 Elm St). In September 2009, he hosted his first art show, putting 112 of the show fliers he’s produced on display at Bloc 11 (11 Bow St). He often leaves his apartment at two in the morning to sneak into a stone chapel at Tufts and practice his music there. Even his lyrics play local, highlighted by a melancholy love tune titled “The Somerville Line.” “Somerville,” he says, “is the only place I’ve lived around Boston that really feels like home.”
Fame has never driven Blakeslee, and he feels “very fortunate to do what [he does] for a living.” But he said the last year and a half, including the release of Tatnic Tales, may represent a starting point for him – as if up to now, it’s all been warm-ups. “I kind of just feel like this album I just made, like it’s my first,” he said. “I’d say this is my start.” Touring the United States and getting more music online are his short-term goals.
And when Blakeslee travels the country, Somerville will travel with him – at least in name. “When I play in New York City and someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t say Boston. I say Somerville, Massachusetts. That’s where I’m from.”