Thursday, July 16, 2009

Catching up with Dan Blakeslee

Dan Blakeslee, back in town to hang posters for his upcoming show at Rockfish, is feeling nostalgic about Newburyport: Busking in Threadneedle Alley until store owners or police chased him away, then setting up on Inn Street or the Boardwalk, and playing for hours because he loved to play. Then, at the end of the day, he would collect his reward — a little jingle-jangle for the pockets and a couple of those 25-cent Richdale hot dogs dipped into a peel-back can of Bush's beans for the belly. Good times. Or the late-summer nights when, unable to get any shuteye, he would steal away to sleepy Market Square with his guitar and play, quietly, for nobody, since the city rolls up its streets long before midnight.

These two memories have had real-life implications: One, an interest in a healthier diet, including an apparent obsession with, yuk, turkey burgers, and, two, a new album inspired by the sights and sounds of the city after it shuts down. It's called "Midnight Vines" for no immediately apparent reason. "I don't know where the name came from," he says. But the city "has a leafy, viney quality," and the album is all tied up with that indistinct image — that and the hushed feeling associated with his time here playing quietly in the Square — and even more quietly in his apartment. “Every song I ever wrote in Newburyport has been quiet,” he says.

But "Midnight Vines" won’t be hitting Port streets anytime soon. Right now, Blakeslee, who moved south (to Brighton) last year after a three-year tour, is looking north (to South Berwick, Maine) and to the 19th century as inspiration for his next project— a quietish, country-tinged collection called "Tatnic Tales," which was recorded over one weekend in June during dangerous Moxie-fueled sessions. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Well, except for the mediciny soft drink. ("Hey, we’re from Maine," he says. "We love Moxie.") The name of the album refers to a small area of recreational land bordering South Berwick, his hometown, and Ogunquit. Aside from Balancing Rock, a local landmark that will be on the CD cover when Blakeslee, a professional artist, finally captures it (“I'm not quite there,” he says), the area is mostly rural bland: forest, fields and hiking trails. But there are stories in the sleepy wilderness if you look hard enough — sometimes buried in your own backyard, like the centuries-old bottles from the old barn behind the home Blakeslee grew up in — and which turned out to have been homebase for a bootlegging operation in the 1800s. And if you can stumble into the right recording situation, the stories, the experience can be magical. And that’s what happened with “Tatnick.” Blakeslee had put together a band — that would be him and Texas Governor drummer Jim Rudolf and bassist Nick Phaneuf — to back him for his Dr. Gasp!!! tour. Gasp, of course, is Blakeslee’s alter ego during the silly season, when he takes his goofy and wildly popular Halloween show on the road.

When it came time to focus on the Tatnic material, 10 tunes that felt old, backwoods and country, he called on his Gaspmates, who had some time on their hands because the Dover-based Texas Governor is, sadly, still on hiatus. Rudolf said he had a perfect place in mind, a location that would capture the emotional weight of the material — an abandoned farmhouse from the 1800s. Blakeslee signed on, but booked time in a “real” studio, just in case.
The barn was certainly rustic, with chickens, hay bales and lots of rusty metal lying around — as well as sparrows and bats in the belfry, which they miked for the ambiance. Like “Midnight Vines,” location, forcing them to play chill and encouraging an understated intensity and lots of atmospherics — tapping on a canteen, shaking half-full gas tanks and dragging boards across the floor — plays an important part. After listening to tapes, Blakeslee abandoned all plans of a "proper" session. He knew they had nailed it. "It was one of the most moving recording experiences I've ever had," he says. "I didn’t want it to sparkle and shine. I wanted something barebones and real, like one of those old Neil Young albums — that kind of simplicity." The issue now is, can he hold on to the raw feel and not tart it up with overdubs — something he’s having a hard time resisting. He’s already lined up not one but two pedal steel guitar players.

Blakeslee’s looking at a fall release date for "Tatnick,” the recording debut for Dan Blakeslee and the Pipe Club. That name comes from the first Gasp rehearsals he had with Rudolf and Phaneuf three years ago. He showed up for rehearsal, and they were already there — wearing bathrobes and smoking pipes. He’ll be assuming his Gasp persona as Halloween nears. So the lean winter season looks like a good time to think about bringing out "Vines," but he’s not ready to commit just yet.

The Newburyport gig is a solo show and a new venue for Blakeslee. He’s filling in for Rockfish regular Artty Raynes. It's probably not the right place for the quiet stuff, but who knows? He’ll have to dig deep into the catalogue. Three hours is a lot of time to fill — long enough that they’ll probably have to feed him. Maybe, just for old times’ sake they should serve up hot dogs and beans with some sparkling Moxie.

Dan Blakeslee will perform a solo show from 8 to 11 p.m. July 18 at Rockfish, 38 State St, Newburyport. He’ll be on the third floor. For more information, call 978.465.6601 or check out

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