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With his untamed beard, burly figure, and large-framed glasses, Ben Caplan is the physical embodiment of his music. His grizzly facade translates into vigorous vocals that powerfully command the Casual Smokers eclectic sound, and its complemented by the genuine sentimentality that seeps through the lyrics and shows up in the stage banter—in spite of his sarcastic tendencies.

Caplan and his excellent four-person backing band graced Toronto’s Mod Club stage Friday night with an electrifying set that packed quite a few punches into its relatively short runtime. Their sound, which could probably most easily be described as roots music, draws on various influences from East-coast folk to Eastern European klezmer. Like many orchestral rock outfits, it features guitar, piano, drums, violin, and standing/regular bass; but it comes together in an unusual way, with waltz-like rhythmic variations and the unleashed energy of a launched champagne cork. One of the songs finished with an “A Day in the Life” type of crescendo that made me look up at the chandeliers overhanging the venue’s lounge area to make sure they hadn’t shattered from the sheer force of it.

Although Caplan masterfully carried those frenetic, aggressively sensitive—and occasionally angry—songs, he stumbled a bit with the slower ballads. His volume level dropped while trying to sing in that range and he was frequently overpowered by the other instruments.

My only impression of Caplan prior to the show was from what I had heard on his new album Birds With Broken Wings, an 11-track offering whose album artwork features Caplan overlooking a scene that’s meant to resemble the famous Romantic era painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. I was curious to find out what other major cultural references might show up in his music, and my curiosity was rewarded when I picked up a Dylan Thomas shoutout in “Down By the River” when Caplan sings, “You gotta rage against the dying of the light.”

The audience in general was also rewarded with Caplan’s humour, which surfaced frequently, like when he talked about selling merch, shaking hands, and kissing babies after the show; or when he pulled out the line, “Here’s an old traditional folk song I wrote.”

Here’s a line for you, Ben Caplan: well played.