Hot Rock

Dan Deacon, a Baltimore original

Virgin Festival 2007

August 04, 2007|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

Dan Deacon isn't your typical rock star.

His giant eyeglasses are more commonly worn by the over-60 set. His hairy belly often spills out of his tight T-shirt. And his stage presence - well, it's virtually nonexistent.

That's because he's too busy performing on the venue floor.

During shows, he bypasses the stage and stands amid the crowd instead; fans cluster around him, singing and dancing to his hammering beats, synthesizer riffs and playful lyrics.

But while Deacon may stay grounded during his concerts, his career is reaching new heights. He's the only Maryland act to make the cut to perform at Virgin Festival, which begins today at Pimlico Race Course. At noon tomorrow, he will bring his electronica-meets-rock 'n' roll sound to the dance tent of the festival, joining an impressive roster of internationally renowned acts such as the Police and the Beastie Boys.

Festival producer Andrew Dreskin chose him above many others because Deacon's work said something about the city.

"Dan Deacon's performance is eccentric and distinctive - much like Baltimore itself," Dreskin wrote in an e-mail. "His flavor is local, and we want the festival to not just be in Baltimore, but be a reflection of Baltimore."

Local musician Lexie Macchi agrees that if anyone fully embodies the energy and quirkiness of this city, it's Deacon.

"The amount of people that respond to him is totally stunning," said Macchi, who shared the bill with Deacon at last month's Whartscape Festival in Baltimore. "I don't think I've seen that in a long time - someone who comes in front of a crowd and really commands them."

In concert, sporting a scraggly mini-beard and some fuzzy growth on a balding head, the 25-year-old is a manic maestro. He starts by hunching over his pile of musical equipment, tweaking knobs and pedals and pressing keys. He could be piloting a spaceship. Then, when the song gets rolling, he flails his arms, stomps his feet and sings into a microphone in a fluid frenzy.

Deacon's music is whimsical and, above all, danceable. He usually performs alone, with the help of instrumental tracks. His songs may rub you the right or wrong way, but they will rub you.

Deacon has toured the country several times, and he played the Pitchfork Music Festival, one of the country's largest indie-rock festivals, last month in Chicago. This year, he signed with the Washington-based label Carpark Records.

His new album, Spiderman of the Rings, is selling well, said Philip Ley, general manager of the Fells Point record store Sound Garden. In the first couple weeks after its release, the album cracked the store's Top 20 sales list.

The New York Times featured him in an article about the under-the-radar music scene. And the video for "Crystal Cat," a song off his new album, has racked up more than 400,000 views on YouTube.

From the beginning, Deacon was determined to spread his music by any means possible. Born in West Babylon, N.Y., he developed an interest in performing early in life. To this day, he considers himself a performer first and a composer second.

He moved to Baltimore in 2004, after earning a bachelor's degree in music from Purchase College in New York.

Deacon and several friends moved to Baltimore because it was affordable and unpretentious. They formed the art collective Wham City.

Halfway through his first national tour in February 2005, the car he was riding in broke down in California. Rather than cancel the remaining dates, he hopped on a Greyhound bus. Using the bus schedule, he saw the tour through, making it to the 25 or so remaining stops.

"I'd never been on the road before and I'd never been out West, and had all these shows booked and didn't think I'd ever get the chance to go out on tour again," Deacon said. "So I bought the bus ticket, bit the bullet and just did it."

With his gear packed into suitcases and a backpack, Deacon spent 30 days on buses between tour stops. He ran into plenty of characters and the occasional luggage problem along the way. In Seattle, bus officials mistook his musical equipment for explosives, and only let him board after a lengthy interrogation.

Deacon played in people's basements and almost-empty bars on the first tour. The crowd size varied - he drew more people in New York City, Chicago and, of course, Baltimore than elsewhere - but Deacon particularly enjoyed playing to unsuspecting pub patrons.

There were times he knew his music wasn't going to win over the crowd.

"They would leave saying, `Man, I saw this total jackass dancing around; it was hysterical.' I think it's important to have an impact on an audience, be it positive or negative," said Deacon.

But his audiences grew every time he returned to a city. Empty basements became full basements, and then warehouses, and now, clubs.

On his most recent tour, Deacon and opening act Video Hippos sold out some club shows. The day after his Virgin Festival performance, he sets off on a month-long European tour.

Music has kept Deacon from having to work a day job since his last couple of years in college. As of this year, he has been able to pay back college loans. But he still doesn't have a car, and he crashes at his girlfriend's place in Mount Vernon.

Deacon's biggest sense of validation comes from crowd reactions to his live shows. Being on the same level as his fans changes the context of the show.

"You can see so much more," Deacon said. "You can see the whole scope of the audience's reaction. It's a lot more than watching a dude up on stage doing something."

More and more people are shouting out song titles from Spiderman of the Rings and singing along with him.

"When I start a song from the album, hearing people cheer for that, it just feels really great," he said. "Like a childhood dream come true."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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