With the blood moon lunar eclipse fast approaching, there was a touch of lunacy in the air Friday night in Montreal. Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers’ performance at Bar Le Ritz managed to capture the madness and turn it into something very special for the crowd!
I arrived just in time to see a packed house standing at attention as Montreal act Po Lazarus kicked off their opening set. I had the chance to review these guys last August when they opened for Ol’ Savannah at Divan Orange. The indie-rock quartet features Joshua Carey on lead vocals, Luc Delisle on guitar, Paul Mascarenhas on bass/rhythm guitar, and MO Novak on drums. They are releasing a new album soon, and it’s clear from the tightness of this set that the guys have been hard at work polishing the new material.
Carey was in fine form, with beard trimmed since the last time I saw him; all the better to see the emotion grip his face as he swung from a low, bluesy growl to a high, tender crooning throughout their edgy rock repertoire. The band did a couple numbers before they brought up Johnny Griffin of John Jacob Magistery to sing along on the infectious single “Will You Be My Baby.” Griffin is involved in the production of the new Po Lazarus album, and it’s clear from the camaraderie on stage and the complimentary vocals of Griffin and Carey that this is set to be a fine musical collaboration.
Po Lazarus had the audience dancing away as they shimmied and grooved on stage. Glasses were raised as the whole room swayed and sang along to the tender track “If You Are Alone.” With the moon playing tricks, there was a somewhat aggressive vibe in the audience; people reached onto the stage with drinks and high fives, while others shouted out from the back of the room. This energy swelled as the show progressed, and the whole room seemed swept up by the thunderous finish of “Backyard Voodoo” with people thrashing and screaming along.
Johnny Griffin was up next doing some solo material on acoustic guitar. It was an odd arrangement of acts, and at this point the crowd became divided between those pressed up close to the stage to share in some intimate acoustic numbers by Griffin and those fired up from the last set, eager to hear the main act. Despite the brouhaha in the back, Griffin held his poise and delivered some fine poetic musings with his heartfelt voice while he picked and strummed with finesse on guitar. He managed to almost silence the place with this amazing sustained vocal on “Shadow of the Whip,” and he showcased some excellent songwriting skills with the tender breakup song “Alice.” He handed out some cards with download codes for the John Jacob Magistery track “Carol” at the end of his set, and announced that JJM have a debut full-length album entitled “Phantom I” coming out this fall. I was later told that two of the songs he played, “Bite the Bullet” and “Voices,” will be featured on this upcoming LP. It was a bit sad that the set seemed somewhat abbreviated , but the crowd was riled up and ready for the headliner.
Caplan’s road crew hit the stage and arranged the gear with such intensity and purpose that one immediately sensed something great was about to take place. The lights were lowered and The Casual Smokers took the stage first. A low rumble emanated from Jaime Kronock’s drums as Ron Hynes made mournful wails on his upright base. Tayrn Kawaja made strange sounds on melodica while Donald MacLennan shivered out notes on fiddle. It felt ominous and theatric, as if Goethe’s Faust was about to take place on stage. And sure enough, as the mood was set, the devil himself, Ben Caplan, emerged.
When he gets on stage, everything about Ben Caplan is larger than life; the voice, the beard, the acerbic wit and, of course, the musical talent. He burst forth on guitar with tremendous energy, and led the audience on a journey through the darker regions of his imagination. With vibrant musical accompaniment and his own signature whiskey growl, he seduced, chilled and cajoled every ear in the house.
They kicked off with the title track of the new album “Birds with Broken Wings.” The song is a shining example of what Caplan does best: animating gripping narratives through powerful vocals and rollicking klezmer/folk inspired tunes. It’s not long before the entire audience is “la-la-la-la-ing” along with Caplan and undulating in time on the floor.
The whole band is a treat to watch: MacLennan’s erratic movements and sinister leers over dark tinted shades were simultaneously menacing and fascinating to behold; he played fiddle with the finesse and expertise that can only come from a born Cape Bretoner. Kronock produced a wholly symphonic sound from a simple-looking drum kit, while brandishing a devilish grin. I teased him after the show that I kept looking for the kettle drum he was hiding back there! Haynes leant casually against his upright bass in between songs, but when the band was in action he emphatically provided the rhythmic backbone, occasionally dipping his instrument low and taking her for a spin across the stage. Kawaja was a sparkling vocal and performative accompaniment for Caplan, and although she did not remain on stage for every number, she floored me at one point by not only singing and playing alongside him, with two of them on one piano, but also managing to weave in melodica solos during the same performance!
It was not all raucous reels; Caplan brought the mood down with “Drift Apart”, one of his more somber tunes about a love that fades over time. The familiar song was welcomed by cheers, but Caplan’s haunting, honest lyrics silenced the room, and the crowd got lost in its own melancholic reverie.
The audience was affected by more than just the lyrics and music. Caplan has a commanding stage presence, and a phenomenal ability to integrate the crowd into the show with cheeky banter and “call and response” songs like “Got Me A Woman.” The audience may have been on different wavelengths earlier on, but you could hear a pin drop as he purred out an anecdote about a woman he met who explained the nature of sighing.
They finished the set with their latest hit “40 Days & 40 Nights.” Caplan returned to do a solo encore, with the touching choice of “What a Wonderful World.” The audience sang along and shared in this truly lovely closing moment. The Casual Smokers rejoined him for “Stranger.” The set ended with maniacal dancing and band members literally writhing around on the floor. A sincere “Merci!” from Caplan and the night was done, but not before they all spent the next hour by the merch table chatting away and signing autographs.
Perhaps the moon affected the crowd that night, or perhaps it was the whiskey. But one thing is certain: Ben Caplan knows the secret to harnessing the madness and taking everyone along for the ride.
Written and Photographed by Courtney O’Hearn
*edited by Kate Erickson