The Alley Walkin’ Dan Blakeslee Strolls Home to Somerville

dan blakesleePhoto by Jess Benjamin.

Whether you know him from his decade-spanning career spent making warmly rambling folk music or as one of his many alter egos—the ghoulish, Halloween-loving “Doctor Gasp,” the psychedelic face on Alchemist Brewery’s famed Heady Topper IPA, or, in the case of a 2015 Boston Magazine headline, “The Toothless Troubadour of a Gentrifying Somerville”—Dan Blakeslee is pretty comfortable with his myriad reputations.

Still, he’s happy to clarify a few things… namely, that most of his teeth are still in his skull.

“It was weird, because that was the smallest piece of the actual interview,” Blakeslee says of his BoMag fame via phone. “I was having struggles to pay dental issues I had from an old bike accident. A tooth fell out and I was trying to figure out how to come up with five-grand to put another one back in my head.”

But there’s no frustration in Blakeslee’s voice when he discusses his dental situation, nor when he acknowledges the rising rent in Somerville that finally did, at least in part, lead to his move from the city three months ago. In fact, Blakeslee is nothing but a jovial conversationalist about life’s twists and turns and the characters he’s met along the way, a feeling that permeates his upcoming seventh album, The Alley Walker.

“I do artwork and music for a living,” Blakeslee begins when asked about the move. “I don’t take many days off, and I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, so I didn’t understand how, come the end of the month, it was still a struggle to get rent.”

Originally from Maine, Blakeslee rooted himself (as much as a touring artist can root themself) across a few neighborhoods in Boston over the years, but Somerville remained his home for the last decade.

That his lifestyle was “next to impossible” to sustain while affordable housing dwindled certainly factored into his decision to move to Providence earlier this year, but the Rhode Island capital has long resembled a second home for the musician. He played his first Providence show 23 years ago, and it’s where he forged some of his strongest connections, both musically and personally. The city—with its pop-up art festivals and “weird little vintage-thrift-clothing-store-slash-record-store-slash-cafe things”—always appealed to him.

But the pull toward his new home arguably began on his last record, 2014’s Owed To The Tanglin’ Wind, which was recorded with friends from Providence-based folk act The Low Anthem in their newly acquired Columbus Theatre studio.

“The Low Anthem wanted to record their albums in unique spaces; they recorded their previous one in an old pasta sauce factory or something,” he explains. “So they were like, ‘Hey, how about this theater that hasn’t been used in over a decade and is just sitting there?’” The owner said yes, so long as rent was paid on time and nobody messed anything up. Blakeslee was there for the birth of the studio, which has only grown since.

Columbus Theatre’s rustic, somewhat offbeat location suited Blakeslee’s ageless storytelling on Wind. But the musician had grown particularly attached to his backing band from the album preceding it, 2011’s Tatnic Tales. “I had first seen these guys backing up a couple different people in New Hampshire,” he recalls. He had gone to see the performer they were backing up, of course, but they blew him away. “When we set up to rehearse for the first time [eight years ago], it was a really early morning rehearsal because they teach music lessons in the afternoons. So they arrived in bathrobes and scally caps, smoking pipes. There was something magical and comical and just a little peculiar about these characters.”

When it came time to record The Alley Walker, it only made sense to reunite the four-piece at a similarly unique studio under a new band name: The Calabash Club.

Blakeslee brought the newly christened Calabash Club up to 1130ft Studio, a warehouse space in bucolic Rollinsford, N.H. situated at the foot of a waterfall. Taking breaks just off the train tracks near the studio to watch the waterfall brought a “really, really euphoric vibe” to recording, but Blakeslee’s insistence on capturing their cohesion live proved most transformative to the making ofThe Alley Walker.

“Originally, we were going to record at the same time in different rooms, but I was really adamant with the sound engineer that I wanted to be in the same room with this band creating this music,” Blakeslee says. “It just gives it more life and sections where the songs can breathe.”

The Alley Walker’s live recording only further enhances the honky-tonk-tinged tales of lonesome travelers and tattooed saviors (“Lone Star”), slow-burning admissions of guilt that left him “paralyzed and bleeding” (“The Somerville Line”) and tributes to Johnny and June Cash that have been brewing in Blakeslee’s brain since their deaths in 2003. He says that song was always missing a few lines, until tour took him through Arkansas, where he decided to take an off day for a four-hour drive north along dirt roads that led to Johnny Cash’s hometown. “I ended up passing a sign that said ‘end of county-maintained road,’” he says. “I immediately got stuck in the mud, so I thought, ‘You know what? I should probably finish that song.’”

Unique circumstances and serendipitous interventions not only guide Blakeslee’s songwriting process, but somehow also extend to his touring plans. Look no further than Newport Folk Festival, “one of the dreamiest weekends of the year,” according to Blakeslee, and one he always wanted to play. He first did back in 2015—with less than 48 hours’ notice—and then did it again this year on only a day’s notice.

In the spirit of his can-do, unstoppably creative attitude, Blakeslee was better prepared in 2017, bringing with him some last-minute, hand-drawn posters outlining his upcoming shows—one of which is his return to Somerville on Oct. 6.

But regarding whether the show should be called a homecoming for the one-time ‘Somerville troubadour’ of lore, Blakeslee is quick to set the record straight.

“Well, I still kind of am … I’m one of many [Somerville troubadours],” he concludes. “That was a really great, long period of my life. I feel like it was a huge building block in defining who I am and where I get my inspiration from.”

 

This story appears in the September/October print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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