If beards could sing, they would sound like Ben Caplan: deep, coarse, and all over the map (in a great, messy-on-purpose way). His intensity is certain, and comes with ease, but it’s not Ben’s booming voice that makes him a great live entertainer: it’s his ability to find the balance between soft and coarse, to know when to hit a ten or opt for a seven on the loud-o-meter.
A different Ben opened for Caplan at The Electric Owl. Vancouver-native Ben Rogers took to the dimly lit stage sporting his own beard and a casual sports jacket look. The venue hadn’t quite filled yet; most people were still arriving or outside pulling on (jazz) cigarettes. The dull buzz of casual chatter and clinking glasses dominated the room. Ben’s first song, “The Dealer”, a story about, you guessed it, a drug dealer, captivated the audience and silenced the clinks and the buzz to a murmur. Rogers reminded me of Bob Dylan with his style of songwriting and proficient playing of the mouth harp between verses. His onstage persona is a little awkward, but it’s obviously part of his performance. As a result, the awkwardness, instead of inducing a cringe, welcomes a laugh. Little anecdotes about bums, and the overwhelming struggles of a bad cup of coffee (sarcastic), and the death of Tupac Shakur were great segues into his acoustic ballads. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed his set from start to finish and had a few chuckles in between. I would keep an ear open for this guy.
Following Ben Rogers was Ben Caplan without his band, The Casual Smokers, to back him up. Alone with a guitar, a piano, and his beard-like voice. Like Rogers, Caplan was also sporting a jacket. He made sure to note that it was freshly pressed from that afternoon, which explained the lack of off-yellow sweat stains (he took the jacket off about halfway through his set due to a high amount of perspiration). Caplan’s stripped down set allowed the focus to centre on his voice and his onstage antics. Between each song were moments of back and forth chatter with the crowd. During his set, Ben travelled between his guitar and his piano, playing songs from his album, In the Time of the Great Remembering. Without a band to support him, Ben’s lyrics were really able to jump into the foreground. Songs that touch regular themes of love, heartbreak, and lonely travel, but in an irregular manner, without the overuse of words such as “hands”, “hold”, and “heart” – a nice change from the well-trodden trend found in contemporary folk music.
The emotional low point of Ben’s set was a span of four or five love songs in the middle of his set. To be fair, Ben proposed the idea and the crowd replied enthusiastically.
“Do you guys want to get SAD TONIGHT?”
He followed through on a promise. Nothing wrong with that. We asked for it!
Besides the collection of low-energy love songs, Mr. Caplan put forth a high-intensity set. With the bulk of the songs performed from his album, there were a few new songs, and a haunting cover of A.A. Bondy’s “Lover’s Waltz”. With this, he managed a balance characteristic of seasoned performers. With a voice like his, I’m surprised he wasn’t belting out every note.
Ben’s charisma is obvious, he had the whole venue laughing at the flick of a finger. He carries a personality that is naturally magnetic. People are drawn to his presence. His talent is apparent as well, if you don’t believe me, ask the girl who screamed out “BEN, YOU’RE SO TALENTED” during one of his many exchanges with the audience.
To carry a crowd for ninety minutes, alone on stage, demands exceptional talent – the kind of talent that doesn’t go unnoticed for very long, and I think that everyone felt lucky to catch his show at a small venue like The Electric Owl. Next time, we probably won’t be so lucky. Look out for Ben Caplan.
Read Thomas’ interview with Ben Caplan.