Ben Caplan is on a mission to romance you, and he’s doing it one town at a time. The Halifax-based folk singer’s ten-year love of touring has never waned, and unlike musicians who tour once every couple of years, Caplan’s experience is one of dedicated traveler. Though he has evolved from the whiskey-swilling hitchhiker, it’s soaked into his music by osmosis and is still a driving force. His commitment to touring is a key component to his music. It allows wanderers to find a home in his gypsy anthems. On his fresh tour he brings Taryn Kawaja to supplement his gypsy guitar with her light touch of piano and vocals.
Caplan and Kawaja have kicked off their tour in Saint John, giving a tease of Caplan’s upcoming album ‘Bird With Broken Wings’. The love of small towns started early in his musical career, and he’s staying true to his usual form of stopping in smaller communities like Grimsby, Ontario and Woodstock, New Brunswick. “I’ve always done a lot of touring in the Maritimes. When I first started touring I hitchhiked to all my gigs around rural Nova Scotia. Once you get outside of Halifax, there’s a gig in Sydney, but it’s not like going to Montreal where it’s ‘worth it’ to drive 5 hours. Go three hours to Five Islands for the 200 people that live there! I got a taste for it.” That connectivity and humble gratitude to his fans is transparent; he is amazed by how warmly he is received, and the many forms audience appreciation can take, “It’s different for every venue. At Pepper’s it’s a lot of people with more hippie vibes, that may or may not be on acid, and I love that, and it’s a great crowd. At the Somerset it’s was more of a working class type of crowd. At the gig at Pepper’s you get this really effusive response, people dancing the whole way through, and at the Somerset there wasn’t that behavior but after the set someone could come up to you and say ‘That changed my life’ in a way that makes you understand you really did.”
His commitment to this tour has led to some experimentation: cutting out the more unnecessary ‘rock and roll’ aspects of the lifestyle, “This tour is a new frickin’ thing. I think that I always get off tour and feel like I put on five pounds and have to get back into the natural flow of things. And with this tour I feel that, well, this is my lifestyle. I’m almost 30 and it’s getting to the point that I feel like my body is this meat sack that I have to carry around all day. I mean, it’s good, and beautiful, and empowering to realize that.” When he maps out the progression of tours it highlights how the archetype of the musician’s experience is taken for granted, “You go out for dinner, have a drink. Get to the venue and have a drink. Have a drink on stage with you, and afterwards you’re like ‘that was a great show’ and you have a drink, and go back to the hotel room and have a drink! The drinks are usually free, and that’s on a ‘let’s not drink tonight’ night, and then a couple nights a week someone is like ‘I wanna buy you shots!’ and then you have a few more drinks at the bar. You don’t every day get drunk, but you look back and think ‘shit, I had five drinks yesterday’. I just want to unpack that and examine, is it a crutch? Is it a habit”
It’s clear how much the pair admire each other’s sound and process. Taryn speaks palpably about her writing and composition procedure, “I don’t sit down to write, I just find myself at the piano, and if I play for X amount of time. I’ll just sing something and play something. I just start to weave with my left hand, which is my voice, and my right hand which is the piano.” Ben beams, “I love that, I’ve never heard you say that before.”
Taryn Kawaja opens for Caplan, with her somehow orchestral ballad ‘Cruel’. Her music is clear and sweet, but never trite and not without anger. At times her lyric-centric sound makes us want to pull away; the instinct to push harsh truths and sadness. Taryn invites us to fully feel. Listening to her, we sense that the self-preserving method of emotional denial, while it might help us survive, keeps us from truly thriving. Her painfully personal meditation on relationships ‘Husbands and Wives’ (and the things they do…) paints a portrait so naked one almost wants to look away. Likening the process of behavior during failing relationships to self-amputation, and the incredible line that we “drown ourselves in our own bathwater”, a nod to her own intimate experiences of harsh self-reflection. Holistic, yet bizarrely confrontational, her sound increasingly shows that through her healing process she does not grow scar tissue, rather a whole new skin.
Ben Caplan is an exuberant and flirtatious stage presence, his traveling anthems showcasing him as a natural raconteur. His opening number, ‘Southbound’ is huge and percussionistic, making it hard to believe that there is only one man with a guitar on stage. The punchy, crooney song ‘Beautiful’ proves that folk doesn’t have to be soft and moody, it can be sexually charged and zesty. When they, together, perform ‘Seed of Love’ Taryn’s voice not only competes with, but at times, overpowers Ben’s baritone, utterly strong. As a duo they are incredible: while harmonizing Taryn’s voice takes flight while Ben’s ploughs into the earth. When Taryn exits the stage, leaving the mic adjusted for her height, Ben wryly looks at her across the room and says “I mean, I put the toilet seat down!”, seriously begging the question why has he been through so many breakups? Increasingly it feels like a playful seduction, with songs like ‘On a Night Like Tonight’ Caplan earnestly says he just wants to sing you a love song (the woman sitting next to me fairly swoons). Poking fun at himself for writing it as an isolated young man in Europe (‘Lonely in Europe, boo hoo’) the lyrics of the song prophesied his new commitment to not getting sauced on tour, with weary lines like “.. (I’m) so tired of the usual sins.” He has, by this point, sweated completely through his pink button up and explains to the audience his rule about not drinking, but how badly he could go for a glass of whiskey. His sample of ‘Bird with Broken Wings’ is a freshly fast song with strict references to the Old Testament story of Abrahram and Issac. His writing is pithy, and his biblical references bring to mind the parable of the prodigal son. He is both the father and the son; we find him on the road, and he invites us to feast.
For their penultimate piece they play a kitchen-party-esque ditty with the pair of them playing the same piano with interjections of Taryn’s melodica, which lends a crazily charming Parisian element to the song. Ben’s man-bun bounces as he bangs open-palmed on the keys like a big kid. After his second encore a glass of whiskey has magically appeared on stage, as if distilled from his own barrel-soaked sounds. While principled, he is thankfully not above accepting this communion.
Some drinks are meant to be drank, and feelings demand to be felt. Between Ben Caplan and Taryn Kawaja we are reminded that to feel is to be, to create is to digest, and expression is as visceral a need as shelter. For Ben and Taryn, art is where they live, and we are invited over.