A night in Burlington with musician Dan Blakeslee’s Halloween alter ego 'Dr. Gasp'
It’s not unusual to go on a cemetery tour or watch a scary movie to get in the mood for 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 an entire set of spooky songs with names like “Vampire Fish” and “Teeth of Candycorn”? That’s what Dan Blakeslee’s done every October for the last 19 years.
Blakeslee is a Maine-based folk musician and artist. On Wednesday afternoon, he was unloading creepy dolls, jack-o-lanterns and light-up vampires from his red van. A mannequin was seat belted into 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 drawings from cans of Heady Topper and other local beer labels.
But in the lead-up to Halloween, he ditches his folksy persona and transforms into Dr. Gasp, his Halloween alter ego. He tours all around New England singing spooky original songs.
The idea for Dr. Gasp came about two decades ago, when a friend in 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’d written his first Halloween song. He decided to play it at a gig the very next night, at a little venue in Portsmouth, N.H.
“I played this song, and I immediately apologized to the audience,” he said. “I was like, that was the worst song I’ve ever written, I’m really sorry. I’ll never do that again. And then someone shouted out from the back of the room, ‘Hey, I want to put that out on vinyl next year.’”
The guy wasn’t kidding. Blakeslee recorded the song, and then more, and more. His Dr. Gasp act eventually got so popular that he created a New England tour route that looked like a jack-o-lantern if you drew it out on a map. (“It’s a really bad idea, I don’t suggest it to anyone,” Blakeslee said with a laugh.)
Being Dr. Gasp gives Blakeslee license to be silly and creative when he puts together songs. “I like using eerie chords or strange whistling or other elements,” he said. He draws inspiration for his lyrics from stories friends tell him and places in New England. He wrote the song “The Phantom Saloon,” for example, about a roadside tavern in Maine.
Blakeslee played a set at the 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 glued to the head. (It’s his friend’s wisdom tooth.)
The crowd ate up Dr. Gasp’s high kicks and creepy laughs like a bag of free candy. It was clear Blakeslee was loving it all, too.
“I get so much joy out of it,” he said. “I can get that weird outsider punk art freak out of me every October. It’s like a really nice exorcism.”
Blakeslee said he’ll keep performing as Dr. Gasp as long as people will come to listen.