Dan Blakeslee, Nicole Berke and Jess Baggia at Toad
Earlier this year, I had the chance to photograph a great show at Toad with local favorites Dan Blakeslee and Jess Baggia, and with a rare local appearance by Nicole Berke. What transpired was hours of musical enjoyment from some great performers at the top of their game. I love Toad – it’s free and there is always good music and an appreciative crowd there. It gets crowded though, and tonight it was packed. These folks drew friends, family and the usual locals who drop in knowing there is always good music at the Toad.
Dan Blakeslee is an accomplished artist as well as a musician. He plays a very sweet, melodic style of folk, using his voice to create texture over solid guitar work. And his guitar is hard to miss. At Toad, the musicians hang their instruments on the wall behind the stage when they are not playing. This is a shot of Dan’s guitar, complete with his signature octopus pick-guard. The instrument produces a rich, sometimes jangly sound and he plays it hard, as you will see in a moment. Dan is always friendly, always excited to play and loves to talk about his songs and the meaning within them. He had to hold himself back a few times while performing, because in his words, “I don’t want to be one of those performers that explains every detail of a song before I play it.” But sometimes he can’t resist. For one song, after noting that there were a lot of musicians and songwriters in the audience, he explained that the upcoming song was about sailing across unknown waters. “You’ve all got one of those songs in your pocket, don’t you, ” he joked.
Anyone who knows Dan knows that art is also a major passion of his. He designs all his own show posters and album artwork and he has occasional exhibits of his work in galleries. You can see an example of his work in the album cover for his recent album Tatnic Tales.
Dan is also a busker, and draws some of his material from those experiences. Here’s a video I took of him playing On The Watch. Partway through the song, a car outside honks it’s horn. I talked to Dan about this after his set, expressing regret that it spoiled a great performance. But Dan was unflappable. “I like it,” he said, “it just captures the moment so well.”
On his second to last song, he manages to break the A string on his guitar. For those of you that don’t play acoustic guitar, I will simply tell you that this is not the string you typically break. It’s a heavy, wound string and while Dan doesn’t beat on the instrument the way others do. It’s notable too because he tunes his guitar two steps down from the standard tuning – the low E string is actually in D with the others tuned to standard tuning from there.
Even though his set is almost over and he could just pack it in and stop, Dan doesn’t quit. He takes the time to change the string, tunes up and finishes his set. Now that is a class act.
When I found out Nicole Berke was playing this show, I had to attend. I’m a long time fan and have covered her before on numerous occasions. She’s moved out west, but she was touring with Kiernan McMullan and the end of the tour took her through New England and she managed to get on the roster at Toad this evening.
Nicole was sounding great. One thing I love about Nicole is her amazing songwriting capability. She always has new material when I see her, although she did play several songs from her EP Frondescence. Her set was made all the more difficult by the fact that the pedal for the keyboard wasn’t working. But Nicole has a lot of performance experience and didn’t let it get to her. When she got to the end of her set, she asked the audience for requests. I immediately asked for Frondescence. She paused for a moment, knowing it was going to be difficult to play without the pedal, but then started right in with a beautiful version of the song. The recorded version has a lot of reverse-echo and other effects at the end of the song which make it impossible to perform in that manner live. But Nicole has arranged a beautiful ending to the song by rotating through the chord sequence that starts off the song. It’s just down right beautiful. You can hear Frondescence with that ending sequence in this YouTube video shot in Portland, where she now resides.
The headliner of the evening was Jess Baggia, playing with her full band. Jess is well known on the local scene for her well crafted folk-rock style, wonderful vocals and precise arrangements. I’ve seen her perform solo many times at the Lizard Lounge open mike night, where she also runs the sound board. This was the first time I had seen her play with the full band, though, and I was not disappointed. With Ken Budka (guitar), Steve Breman (bass) and Chris Harris (percussion) backing her, she played a great show to a large crowd of appreciative fans.
When Jess plays solo, the one thing that really strikes me is the precision with which she plays guitar. She is able to create a full texture, sometimes from just a few, sparsely played notes and she does this using finger-style playing – she doesn’t use a pick. Her accuracy and consistency on the guitar is impressive and provides a rich backdrop for her voice. I think the label of “folk-rock” is pretty accurate. Her voice reminds me of Joni Mitchell in some ways.
Playing songs like Saturday Night, Right Beside You and This Day Is Mine, Jess put on two sets of solid music.
Jess isn’t above having fun with some cover tunes, though, and she and the band played a great version of Crosstown Traffic with Ken Budka really shining on guitar.
Check out her MySpace page and keep your eyes open for local performances. She can often be found playing at Toad, the Burren and the Lizard Lounge and this is a show you will definitely want to catch.