Dan Blakeslee performing at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island on July 30, 2023. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Kennebunkport-based singer-songwriter Dan Blakeslee is having several moments.
For one, he’s just released the tender-hearted album “Road Hymns.” For another, he’s in Ireland for a couple of weeks to play several shows before returning for an album release party in Kittery this month.
Blakeslee also is fresh off playing on the main stage at Newport Folk Festival on July 30, and I was front and center to see (and photograph) his stellar set.
Blakeslee said in an email that he was deeply honored to have been invited by festival organizers. “When they asked me to play the main stage I was blown away. It was a beautiful, emotional experience.”
Blakeslee started going to the three-day Newport Folk Festival about 10 years ago and would busk at the end of each day as thousands of attendees streamed out of Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park. He was invited to play a couple of the festival’s smaller stages through the years and was dubbed its official busker. But Blakeslee had never played on the iconic Fort stage, the biggest of the festival’s three main stages.
On the last day of the festival, Blakeslee kicked off the day with a late-morning set, and I’ve never seen anyone happier to be right where they were. He even kicked his heels as he walked off the stage.
Dan Blakeslee “Road Hymns” album cover. Art and design by Dan Blakeslee
One song in particular that I remember from that day is “I’ll Never Call Him My Old Man” from “Road Hymns.” During it, Blakeslee pays homage to his father. “Forever young at heart, though he’s got some battle scars, I’ll never call him my old man,” sings Blakeslee with a sturdy yet emotive voice as he played an acoustic guitar with a giant black octopus on it, wearing a brown fedora and an embroidered western shirt.
Another gem from his set was the “Road Hymns” tune “Overwhelmed And Underpaid.” Despite the humorous title, the song speaks of wanting more human connection in a way that skews more poignant than humorous. “Instead of feeling these walls, we should be side by side. I get down and pray, but nobody listens these days, we’re all overwhelmed and underpaid.”
In a lovely, unexpected turn, Blakeslee closed out his set with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and invited us all to sing along. What a wonderful moment.
Blakeslee said that the songs for “Road Hymns” were written over many years between 2014 and 2020. He had been wanting to make an album like “Road Hymns” for a long time. “I came up with the idea of a solo acoustic audible travelogue many years back, and I am so happy it has now come to life.” His idea was to record songs in spaces that have been sacred to him throughout his career as a musician. This includes by the ocean, in a garden, boat and subway station.
Blakeslee is also a tremendous artist who has created hundreds of show posters including the 60th anniversary one for Newport Folk Festival in 2019.
South Berwick is where Blakeslee was born and raised. While attending art school in Maryland back in the early ’90s, he realized the pull of music was just as strong as art, so he started playing and writing songs in earnest before relocating to Somerville, Massachusetts, in the mid-’90s. This led to busking on the platforms of Boston’s subway system, which evolved into a steady career of making albums (and artwork) and playing about 160 shows a year as a solo artist and with his band The Callabash Club. In 2014, the Boston Music Awards named him Folk Artist of the Year. He moved to Kennebunkport in 2021 after several years living in Providence, Rhode Island.
Blakeslee shared what his creative processes look like. With music, he tends to work out a melody on guitar or a vocal melody. “Then through some steeping, the song comes together,” he said. Blakeslee write songs about true life and only occasionally pens fictitious ones.
As for his artwork, it all starts with an idea, draft or sketch. “I do several sketches and for some of them I close my eyes when drafting the sketch and see what appears. Once I get the image closer to what I am aiming towards, I shape and morph it to a final stage in scratchboard or pen and ink.”
The Portsmouth Brewery is a huge fan of Blakeslee and commissioned him to create eight beer label designs.
You can see a bunch of his artwork and find all his tour info at danblakeslee.com. Head to Blakeslee’s Bandcamp page to order “Road Hymns” and his previous releases.
The album release party for “Road Hymns” is at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 at The Dance Hall in Kittery with his band and roots/honkytonk musician Marjorie Senet.
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