Ben Caplan sells out

Halifax blues explorer returns with expanded fanbase

When Ben Caplan last performed in Calgary he played to an audience of about 150 at The Palomino Smokehouse. Less than a year later the wonderfully unique performer-songwriter from Nova Scotia is scheduled to play three sold-out shows at the Epcor Centre this weekend.

“I didn’t think I had that sort of name recognition in Calgary” says the perennially genial and unaffected Caplan. “To be frank I am flabbergasted that this many tickets have been sold.”

He shouldn’t be. Caplan’s live shows — both solo and with his band The Casual Smokers — were getting noticed long before their Calgary gig.

A medley of blues folk and ragtime sentimental murmurings and gruff yowling Caplan has used about 50 different musicians in his Casual Smokers’ ensemble over the past few years.

“If there is a violinist who can’t make a particular show maybe there’s a cellist who can” says Caplan who said the musical revolving door serves to reinvent both the songs and the band. “I didn’t have any musical education so it’s always fascinating to me to learn just a little something from someone who plays an instrument beautifully.”

If a rich exploratory and creative live act is one of the reasons for Caplan’s burgeoning popularity so too is his album In the Time of the Great Remembering .

The record is based on author Daniel Quinn’s 1966 novel The Story of B . Both the novel and the record however focus more on the notion of forgetting rather than remembering.

“We have forgotten how to live simply and how to be integrated into small local communities” says Caplan bemoaning the double-edged sword of the industrial revolution. “People have forgotten how to make jam or why we preserve fruit.”

The consistently strong reviews that In the Time of the Great Remembering has garnered are a product of both its tremendous diversity lyrically and musically as well as the overall quality of all 10 cuts on the recording.

The album’s first song “Southbound” much like the entire recording is filled with haunting queries. “Waking up in a sea of enmity could this be my last recourse?” the singer asks while violin and clarinet flail in the background.

All is well by the next tune however as Caplan and his crew entreat a damsel with a ragtime banjo and an urging to dance “surrender to circumstance and become something beautiful.”

There are songs about lost love like “Drift Apart” and “Leave Me Longing.” On “Seed of Love” Caplan suggests that the kernels of passion can sprout simply with the exchange of phone numbers.

Two songs in particular best illustrate the range of this album and Caplan’s panoramic approach to songwriting. “Down to the River” begins with an admission that he’s got nine kinds of trouble and is just trying to find his way home. Yet in a passage of poetic defiance the singer soon insists that “There’s no such thing as a dying man / We are alive till the moment we’re dead / And a drowning man is just a living man / Who hasn’t run out of his last bit of breath.”

In “Stranger” the album’s Klezmer-soaked final cut the protagonist is advised by his mother and father not to let his guard down not to be trusting particularly to strangers.

But typically Caplan turns his own song on its head when a university professor cautions the lad now grown that all advice — including presumably that of his parents — is corrupting. “And there’s no such thing as a stranger / We’re all equally backwards and wrong.”

The philosophical bent to Caplan’s music is no accident. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

“For me life is all about contradictions” says Caplan who will go into the studio soon after his Calgary concerts to work on his next recording.

“I consider myself an optimist and try to be positive about the future. I am also a skeptic and in a certain sense believe we are all doomed. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and live in the best possible world.”