CAMBRIDGE — A fixture on the local folk scene, Dan Blakeslee is too modest and cheerful to dwell on this, so here goes: The guy just doesn’t get the attention he deserves. That’s meant with utmost respect. One dusky afternoon, you might find Blakeslee serenading Newport Folk Festival attendees waiting in line for the water taxi; another day he’ll be howling into the wee hours at a little club in the suburbs. He does it all with the same zeal and enthusiasm, no matter the venue or size of the crowd.
“I’m compelled. I can’t help it,” Blakeslee says last week over coffee and scones in Harvard Square. “When I take a day off, what do I do? I wander around the city and think about art and play music. It’s not like I took this road because it’s the easy road. It’s the only road I know.”
In a few hours, he’ll be onstage at nearby Club Passim as part of the New England Americana Festival. The audience was probably there to see any of the acts on the multi-artist lineup, but Blakeslee made believers of the uninitiated. Crouching on bended knee in mock rock-star pose, he couldn’t contain his excitement over performing on a Saturday night.
His band, the Calabash Club, had the night off, so it was just Blakeslee. His finger-picking guitar patterns were intricate, steady, and straight-ahead, before twisting into interludes where the tempos shifted and major chords suddenly went to minor. The common thread was Blakeslee’s voice, a majestic croon whose warm vibrato recalls earnest balladeers on old Folkways recordings.
Raised in South Berwick, Maine, and based in Somerville, Blakeslee, 43, has been making music in some capacity for more than 20 years. In another life, he might have been a court jester, quick with a song and a put-’er-there handshake. He’s usually wearing a dapper hat, his beard this close to looking like it belongs on a circus ringmaster, with wide eyes that always seem at play.
“Owed to the Tanglin’ Wind,” his new album, showcases Blakeslee’s poetic gift for setting a scene. “The Tattooed Man and the Saint” recalls an experience at the Newport Folk Festival after he and some fellow musicians witnessed an incredible sunset where the sky was streaked with oranges and reds after a hard rain. In the song, he renders that memory as “a fire on the sea.” “My Lightning Valentino” is based on a true story Blakeslee overheard late one night after a gig. A man remarked to his friend, “My lover gave me a white horse named Valentino as a gift.” Blakeslee got the whole tale and turned it into a song that gallops accordingly.
Ben Knox Miller of Providence indie-folk ensemble the Low Anthem met Blakeslee six or seven years ago, and remembers thinking he had a magnetic quality about him on and offstage.
“When he’s in the room, he gives it a certain life. He’s so positive and excited,” says Miller, who recorded and mixed Blakeslee’s new album at the Columbus Theatre in Providence with fellow Low Anthem member Jeff Prystowsky.
“Working on these songs with him, he was consistent to the bottom of the process,” Miller adds. “There were no tricks in the recording. As soon as he hears what he wants, that’s it: Don’t edit it. Don’t clean it up. He was absolutely right. When you have that kind of philosophy that grounds your approach to recording, that consistency translates into a voice of its own.”
Also a talented illustrator, Blakeslee initially focused on his visual art. He has created album and book covers and concert posters, all with the same rustic whimsy reflected in his songs. He’s designed beer labels, which he finds funny as someone who has never had a drink in his life. (He’s had seven sips of different stuff, and didn’t care for any of it. “Burned my throat,” he says.)
Piano was his first instrument, and he got an acoustic guitar at 18, but didn’t start playing it for another few years. Weary from the workload at art school, he turned his attention to music. Now he tries to draw a line in his schedule: artwork in the winter months, music the rest of the year.
“It took me a good decade, but I finally figured it out: I am very passionate about both,” Blakeslee says. “It’s really hard to choose between them, but I have this bug inside me where I want to go on tour like a madman. I want to be on the road a lot.”
Around Halloween, he masquerades as his alter ego, Dr. Gasp, with his band morphing into an ensemble called the Eeks. Dr. Gasp sings kooky, spooky songs about jack-o’-lanterns and vampire fish. (Dr. Gasp will come to life again at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge on Oct. 28, and Blakeslee’s regular tour dates are listed on his website, www.danblakeslee.com).
At the end of the interview, Blakeslee is told that a Google search cuts off the full title screen of his website. It reads: “Dan Blakeslee is a New England folk musician and . . .”
“Dan Blakeslee is,” he says, his eyes circling in wonderment, “a New England folk musician, an artist, and an optimist.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly spelled Blakeslee’s website. It is danblakeslee.com