Passionate. Engaging. Dramatic. Interesting. I could sit here all day using adjectives to describe Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers' performance at Sugar Nightclub the other night and they'd all be true, but no justice would be done. This was a musical masterclass from Caplan, Canada's philosopher troubadour and owner of one of music's finest beards. Caplan & Co's music is ridiculously theatrical and had me captivated more than folk music has got ahold of me in some time.
First off, and most ridiculously impressive, was the band's punctuality! This may seem like an insane thing to bring up in a review, but when a headliner at a club show is on the stage at 10, as advertised, it is a thing of goddamned beauty, especially on a weeknight. It's a small thing that shows a respect for the audience and starts things off on a nice little note. From the get-go, the sound mixing was on-point. Volume distortion is a constant battle at smaller club shows, especially with a powerful (and important) lead singer, but this was crystal clear – the Casual Smokers loud, but Caplan's voice front and centre, like it needed to be. The crispness of the mixing allowed to crowd to focus on and bond with the songs. These magnificent songs deserve to be heard as clearly possible.
The title track from Caplan's last album, Birds With Broken Wings (2015), kicked things off in riveting fashion. It got the small but dedicated crowd moving, allowed each member of the band to spread their own broken wings and the “La da da da, la da da da...” chords got everyone immediately engaged and singing along. Caplan noticed the crowd's enthusiasm and, more impressively, showed off his knowledge of the city when he remarked, “Victoria! I've never seen this side of you. It's always been old people and beaches.” Even Caplan's banter was on-point.
I'm not often one for mushier love songs, but hearing “Lover's Waltz” live was a legitimately arresting experience. It was such a captivating performance – so lush, passionate and gentle. So good was the performance, so genuinely entrancing, it led me to ask myself, “Why in the bloody world are there people talking so loudly around me right now? Why can't these same people conduct their conversations during the louder songs when they won't so readily interfere with their fellow audience members' enjoyment of beautiful quiet moments like this?” Then I felt like a curmudgeon. Then I thought, “Fuck these people. I'm right. Everyone should be paying attention right now.” Thankfully Caplan quickly overpowered these inconsiderate squids. At the other end of love songs was the heart-wrenchingly introspective and honest break-up song, “Drift Apart.” All of those feelings...so, so familiar. Ouch, my feelings.
Caplan's flare for the dramatic reached a crescendo as he “gargoyled” up onto the stool behind his keys during the opening notes of the haunting and skeletal “Devil Town.” I wouldn't feel safe walking around a city at night with this song playing. Shivers. With songs like that and “Under Control,” (which includes the lyric “The world never stops and there's nowhere to hide) I wouldn't doubt Caplan & The Casual Smokers have provided the score for at least a few peoples' nightmares.
Watching Caplan introduce his band, The Casual Smokers, whose names I completely missed (My since apologies. It was bad form by me), I was struck with the idea that Caplan would make an incredible wrestling manager. He had the crowd worked up into more of a fever pitch than I've seen for the non-leads of a band in a long time. By the time the band got deep into “Down To The River” it was almost too much. There was just so much passion, such an output of emotion and energy. I was sapped but I couldn't look away. Lucky for me Caplan saved “Stranger” for the end of the show where it could pack the most wallop and punch out the last little bit of resistance I had left in me.
The combination of Caplan's voice, his ability to write legit interesting songs and the big, bright, unique arrangements that anchor the whole thing make a Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers show made for one of the best Wednesday nights of music I've ever had. From the reaction of everyone around me, I think I'm probably speaking for everyone on this.