It’s not uncommon to take a cemetery tour or watch a horror movie to get in the mood for the Halloween season. But what about donning a red hat with a skull on it, decorating a stage with dozens of plastic jack-o-lanterns, and performing a full set of spooky songs with names like “Vampire Fish?” And “Teeth of Candycorn”? This is what Dan Blakeslee has been doing in October for 19 years.
Blakeslee is a Maine company musician and folk artist. On Wednesday afternoon, he was unloading spooky dolls, pumpkin lanterns and glowing vampires from his red van. A mannequin was attached to the front seat.
At first glance, Blakeslee looks like your typical folk musician – scruffy beard, flannel shirt, old black jeans. He designs his own concert posters and you might recognize his line art on cans of Heady Topper and other local beer labels.
But as Halloween approaches, he abandons his folklore character and transforms into Dr. Gasp, his Halloween alter ego. He tours throughout New England singing spooky original songs.
Dr. Gasp’s idea came about two decades ago, when a friend from Maine asked Blakeslee to be part of a haunted house. Blakeslee dressed up as a dead cowboy, covered himself in cobwebs, and rocked back and forth in a rocking chair in the basement “playing disjointed cowboy chords” for four hours straight.
By the end of the night, he had written his first Halloween song. He decided to play it at a concert the following night, in a small venue in Portsmouth, NH
“I played this song and immediately apologized to the audience,” he said. “I was like, it was the worst song I ever wrote, I’m so sorry. I will never do that again. And then someone yelled from the back of the room, ‘Hey, I want to release this on vinyl next year.’ “
The guy wasn’t kidding. Blakeslee recorded the song, then over and over again. His number of Dr. Gasp eventually became so popular that he created a New England tour itinerary that looked like a pumpkin lantern if you drew it on a map. (“It’s a really bad idea, I’m not suggesting it to anyone,” Blakeslee said with a laugh.)
Being Dr. Gasp gives Blakeslee the right to be silly and creative when composing songs. “I like to use strange chords or strange whistles or other elements,” he said. He is inspired for his words by stories his friends tell him and places in New England. He wrote the song “The Phantom Saloon”, for example, about a roadside tavern in Maine.
Blakeslee performed a concert at Radio Bean in Burlington on Wednesday night. He wore a black suit, a white mask, and a red fez with a rhinestone skull on it. His guitar had a black octopus cutout on it, a human tooth stuck to its head. (It’s his friend’s wisdom tooth.)
The crowd ate Dr. Gasp’s high kicks and creepy laughs like a bag of free candy. It was clear that Blakeslee liked it too.
“I take so much joy out of it,” he said. “I can get rid of this weird outsider punk maniac every October. It’s like a very beautiful exorcism.
Blakeslee said he will continue to play the part of Dr Gasp as long as people come and listen.
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