Dan Blakeslee Is Better Than Me

April 15th, 2010

Dan Blakeslee is better than me.

The way I know this is because I lost to him in the open mike playoff at Bloc 11 in Somerville last month. Now, I don’t believe in folk competitions, in general, because folk music is not actually a competition in the normal sense of the word – there’s no folk music fantasy league, for instance, where you can trade your Ellis Paul for Peter Mulvey and Vance Gilbert because you believe that Peter and Vance will have a better capoing average against lefthanded audiences next season. But this particular evening, it was us folk musicians, mano a mano – well, there were about thirteen manos, including my pal PJ Shapiro, and judges, and prizes, and the whole shebang.

And I lost to Dan Blakeslee. Some of you might call him a ringer, because he’s a fairly experienced performer, but then again, everybody in the playoff was pretty talented, including me, and I’m a pretty experienced performer myself, so that’s not much of an excuse. You might also point out that, technically, I lost to two other people as well, because I didn’t make the final round of three, but that’s because I didn’t really bring my “A” game that evening – I’d just gotten back from Cleveland, and my stage patter was off kilter, and, um, the sun was setting behind home plate and I just dropped the ball – no, wait, that’s an excuse for something else. In any case, while I lost to all three (and perhaps others, for all I know), it’s Dan Blakeslee who I want to talk about.

And he really is better than me. It might sound kind of strange for me to say that, since I don’t believe in folk competitions and all, but let me tell you why I think that.

First, he’s got a better voice. I’ve been taking vocal lessons for about thirteen years now, and It’s interesting how, as one learns more about it, one appreciates more and more the little things about really good voices – the effortlessness, the clarity, the absence of breath. Technically, Dan is really, really sound, and he’s really expressive to boot – in fact, the character and timbre of his singing voice is considerably richer and more technically sound than his speaking voice.

He’s also a better guitarist than I am. Certainly, of all the skills one needs to master, guitar playing is the least important, and as long as you know more than four chords and can play them reliably, most people won’t care, but still, it deserves to be noted.

How much do I care about these things? Well, I’m taking both guitar and vocal lessons, currently, and I’m getting as good as I’m getting – I have this hideous habit of practicing so seldom that, to the unaided eye, it frequently looks like not practicing at all. I’ve been like this since I was twelve, and it’s kind of a miracle that I’ve learned any instrument at all – must be my abundant natural talent or something. I used to scold myself about not practicing, but I’ve finally figured out that this is just the way I am, and if I learn vocal techique at a snail’s pace (and if you’ve ever heard a snail singing, you know how slow that is), that’s just the way it’s going to be.

But back to Dan. The third thing is that he’s a more conventional songwriter than I am. I actually mean this as a compliment – there’s this rich, broad vein of standard male singer-songwriter material that he can plow and I can’t. It’s confessional, or rootsy, or a sea shanty (or even a confessional rootsy sea shanty), and it’s stuff I can’t write. While I’m deeply enamored of writing ska tunes about children who won’t go to bed, or waltzes about my father’s home repair strategies, I’m not about to believe that that’s what your typical Passim-goer is expecting from a night of contemporary folk music. I’m more than happy to be a niche, which is good, because I have no choice – if you’d ever heard the confessional crap I used to write, you’d be delighted with my decision, too. So I’m not worried about this, either.

No, what really, really fascinated me about Dan was his stage performance. Of all the ways I think Dan is more appealing to audiences, this is the one I’m fascinated by, because I don’t understand it yet. I’ve encountered his style before, and I find it utterly compelling – he’s casual, but intimate in a way that I just can’t pinpoint or describe. I don’t know whether it’s something I can do – because I don’t know how to do it.

So I’m going to go see Dan again. I want to know what he’s doing. It may not change my stage act, but at least I’ll understand it, so the next time somebody asks me, “Sam, why is Dan Blakeslee better than you?”, by gum, I’ll be able to tell him.

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