Against the incessant din of traffic on Westfall Road, Dan Sprague put down a Blackstar amplifier on the sidewalk near CityGate, plugged in his Les Paul fake guitar, and let a chord tear.
He was hard to miss even without the distorted growl of his amp. He wore a black trench coat with ragged elbows over bright purple Tripp pants. Raven feathers shot from his shoulders. Her face was obscured by cadaveric paint, a white porcelain base with black accents around her mouth and eyes, like a skeleton. It’s her signature outfit, complemented by a soft guitar case.
It was a freezing December day and Sprague, 31, was on his way to Costco when he took a necessary moment to shred. He had just visited his grandmother at Highland Hospital, where she is being treated for dementia. He stops periodically to play the guitar for her. He said it was a way for them to bond.
“I try to jam in as many places as possible,” Sprague said between riffs.
He wasn’t exaggerating. Lately, Sprague has regularly appeared in his outfit on the corners of streets, benches and parks in the area, moaning on his guitar. Maybe one day he’ll play at Roc City Skatepark, and the next day on a suburban street corner. A native of Bergen in Genesee County, he is sometimes seen as far west as Medina in Orleans County.
“Walmart actually fired me for doing this on my lunch break,” Sprague said. “So all that got me to do was take the show on the road.”
Sprague had been a staple of the open mics at Lovin ‘Cup near the Rochester Institute of Technology until the pandemic interrupted its weekly release. But a global virus wasn’t going to end his passion for playing metal for people whether they wanted to hear it or not. As if to reinforce the point on Westfall Road, he performed a tune called “Keeping the Shred Alive”.
His show requires a little dedication. While Sprague had only worn her makeup sporadically over the years, it became a full-time look around December 2020.
“The face paint just started with just an eyeliner, and it got to the point where I was able to draw at least every day,” Sprague said. “I don’t think I’ve taken it off since last Christmas, honestly.”
The corpse painting has been immortalized by Norwegian black metal bands like Mayhem and Emperor and is intended to make the wearer appear inhuman or demonic. But Sprague said her makeup was a tribute to horror punk legends The Misfits, who wore similar face paint in the ’70s and’ 80s.
In fact, Sprague’s unique wardrobe is made up of pieces of her inspirations. For example, his tattered gloves that reach halfway up his forearms are a reminder of World Wrestling Entertainment’s iconic duo, The Hardy Boyz.
“The whole outfit is kind of taken from somewhere,” Sprague said. “Other than the pants, I’ve been wearing them probably since middle school or high school.”
The music, makeup and outfit evoke a certain mystique. Matt Guarnere, who runs the Lovin ‘Cup open mic parties, actively avoids learning too much about Sprague. The character has too much magic to be tainted by the banalities of everyday life.
“I respect his otherness, it’s important,” Guarnere said. “I don’t need to know, I don’t want to, I don’t know if he’s flustered or anything. The point is, when he walks through the doors, I think he wants to be able to be that part of himself.
With the exception of when Sprague drank too much and took an impromptu nap outside the bar, Guarnere said, he’s been a beloved feature of the open mic. Beneath Sprague’s outwardly creepy appearance lurks a soft-spoken courtesy.
“He’s polite like in prep school, it’s unusual,” Guarnere said. “His mom raised him well.”
Upon seeing Sprague on the street, it can be tempting to assume that he is gambling for real money. But he said it isn’t. While he’s happy to take a dollar or two tossed in his guitar case, his real goal is to play sick tunes.
“It’s definitely not my intention, I mean people always throw stuff in my bag and I really appreciate that,” Sprague said.
Outside of his street performance routine, Sprague scratches while doing body work in Bergen and performs in two groups. One of them, Stevil, is a pop mash-up of hip-hop, grunge and metal influences. The other, Election day, offers “feel good” folk-rock.
But in the streets, Sprague plays alone, and that makes him a rarity. Rochester is not a city with a vibrant street culture outside of high festival season. Despite this, he said, most people are very warm in his presence.
“It always sounds very positive,” Sprague said. “People always come to me, some people even ask me things if they’ve seen me play before.”
Sprague said he wished there were more like him; people who are happy to drop onto a sidewalk and show off their talent. Whether he is going alone or in company, he delights in all the opportunities he has to let off steam.
“I live to play the guitar for the most part,” Sprague said. “That’s more or less the first thing I did this morning, pick up an ax.”
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected]