Culture | A religious experience

The shamanic Ben Caplan

I like my drugs in the form of music, sometimes with a beer on the side. Earlier this month, Ben Caplan gave me my fix, delivering spiritual elevation on a cold and snowy night.  The show, held at Quai des Brumes on St. Denis and Mont Royal, was sold out. The crowd, a flannel-clad Quebecois and Anglo mix of younger and older, was ready for the Halifax singer-songwriter to sell his soul in exchange for theirs.  The brew, a light brown buckwheat beer by the name of Coup de Grisou, quenched my thirst as I sweat out my soul in the packed bar.

Like a preacher, wearing a pinstripe blazer over a salmon-coloured button-down, Caplan mounted the small stage at the front of the bar and proceeded to spread the gospel.  He shook, he boogied, and did everything he could to get his message across, which was to keep on living.

With several songs referencing stories from the Old Testament – Abraham climbing the mountain, Noah out at sea – this could have been a new age Friday night celebration of the Sabbath with Rabbi Ben Caplan at the helm.

But this service also spoke of vodka, and misery, and heartbreak.  The artist was free and true. He moved in and out of humorous anecdotes, sing-alongs, nigunim (worldless melodies often sung during Jewish prayer), tender ballads, and passionate roaring. At one point, the audience members were invited to join Caplan as he screamed at the top of his lungs, an exercise of emotional release in the closed-off city world.

And then there was “The Stranger,” a harrowing waltz written in the voice of a misanthropic Eastern European Jewish man. This song was the reason I wanted to see Caplan live; I had heard it online just days before in a video taken at the SXSW music festival. I was not disappointed.  By the time Caplan finished performing “The Stranger,” I was utterly drained and covered in sweat. My voice was hoarse. I had been taken on an emotional ride. Though I trusted Ben Caplan as my guide on this trip, I was exhausted nonetheless. All I wanted to do was get out of that place, to move my knees, stiff from standing still so long, and to go to sleep. Caplan’s talent is that impressive. He has a striking persona as well as a massive brown beard. A member of the audience behind me said that  Caplan looks like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.  I think he looks more like my mystical orthodox rabbi friend Leibish, and the comparison is apt considering Caplan’s presence on stage. He does not hesitate to speak directly to the audience while doing crazy things with his eyes. His voice – reminiscent of Eddie Vedder and Tom Waits – is thick and deep, while retaining a clarity that is nothing short of beautiful.

Watching Caplan, I wondered if this is what it must have been like to see Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young before they got big, or to experience catharsis at an ancient Greek theatre festival. Caplan is of the times. We in the audience knew that something special was happening that night. We could all relate to each other under the same truth. An admirable older couple, still going to rock concerts, was all smiles as they passed me by, lost in the crowd. I saw familiar faces and strangers, and heard French and English, and none of it mattered, because we were all there and we were all alive.

Whether Ben Caplan’s legacy will persist, only time will tell.  But in my books, for all they’re worth, I’m putting him down as a truly great stage performer that I hope will continue appearing for many years to come.

The following day, I conducted a twenty-minute phone interview with Caplan as he was en route to his next show in Joliette. On this current tour, the 26-year-old artist is going from his native Maritimes to Ontario and back again, to Australia for the first time, and then on to Europe.  We spoke about life, music, artistry, and the age of his beard.

I asked Caplan about the sermon-like nature of his performance, and found out that my – dare I say – religious experience was all part of his plan.  He revealed to me that there is indeed a “method to [his] madness.” Each show generally follows a plan to first grab the audience, then mellow things out, and then to end in frenzy. “I want to make everyone leave like they’ve gone through something together,” he stated. For Caplan, ritual should not be feared. These experiences, he told me, belong to a community.

He made sure to explain to me, however, that he uses nigunim because he likes how they sound, not just because they are part of his Jewish background. One can also hear reggae, country, and rock in Caplan’s music.  Where a musical style originates, and whether or not Caplan’s use is authentic, doesn’t matter to him. “I don’t care,” he says, “I’m just trying to write a song.”

Perhaps it is that “I don’t care” attitude that has allowed Caplan to achieve success as a full-time artist. In university he decided to leave his musical theatre studies in order to focus on performing (he graduated with a degree in History and Philosophy). Thus began a four-year process of learning the game of the music industry while trying to stay afloat. He worked at call centres for a time, and was even a singing, dancing, and acting tour guide at an Alexander Keith’s brewery.  As his beard grew – it is now four years old – Caplan stuck stubbornly to his childhood dream of being an artist.

“What’s going on right now is pretty great,” he remarked, speaking of his current lifestyle, which consists of eight to nine months of touring, followed by a period of rest at home in Halifax.  Though his life feels like a dream rather than work, Caplan reminds himself that he does still have a job; and that job is making art. For Caplan, the artist’s life means making sure to cook good meals for himself, listen to the radio, practice piano, and take in as many books and movies as he can before he embarks on another tour.

“Life for me, he added, “is about thoughtfully engaging with the universe.”  This is his winning model in the game of the music industry. Whether he is wailing about love, or loss, or not being able to fall asleep at night, and whichever city he may be playing in, Ben Caplan can be expected to share his curiosity and honesty.

After all, as he sings in “Down to the River”:

“I’m just trying to find my way home.”


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