Review + Photos: Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers and Bees of Burden @ Gullivers – Manchester

Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers
A recent investigation into Twitter activity during the first week of January revealed “… a nation struggling to overcome a lack of sleep and bemoaning an inability to keep New Year’s resolutions. Tweets relating to feeling guilty are nearly five times higher than average on the first Monday in January as people head back to work and realise that all their good intentions have already been long forgotten.” It would appear then, that the January blues have hit the UK big-time. Christmas and New Year celebrations are a distant, soggy memory for many so what could be better than a medicinal dose of live music to get the blood pumping once again. Into the ring to provide this boost bounds the irrepressible Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers.

Derby five-piece Butcher the Bar begin proceedings and although the first track and their sound levels do not do the lads justice, the set improves dramatically with their second song, which possesses Britpop pretensions and invokes memories of The Bluetones in particular. Although forced to rush their set towards the end, the band have at least managed to save the best until last and the final song proves to be a fine indie track full of the spirit and inventiveness of the genre.

Bees of Burden are the next offering in this evening’s musical smorgasbord. Hailing from Manchester yet eliciting the energy and authenticity of a dirty, bluesy hoedown in Kentucky, the four-piece enthrall the room with their cacophonous intensity. Stu Henn’s vocals call to mind Seasick Steve but sound levels again do not do him justice. David Brennan’s drums however are brutal and the infectious rhythms created by Ric Smith’s guitar are crunchingly awesome, combining the raw patterns of early Black Keys material which is complimented and enhanced by the authenticity of his slide guitar.

The room is well and truly warmed up and for the next hour or so Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers ensure that Gulliver’s remains as toasty as a chestnut on an open fire. The tour coincides with the release of sophomore album Birds With Broken Wings and the Nova Scotian opens the evening with the title track which proves to be a glorious shindig, full of an undulating energy that proves infectious.

Caplan is certainly a distinctive individual and his mane of golden locks and staggering beard ensure that he retains the attention of a passionate crowd, but it is his vocal delivery which establishes the man as something a bit special. The comparisons may not be original but there is an undeniable resemblance to Tom Waits in the opener, yet next song Beautiful demonstrates a smoother, sleeker approach. Demanding crowd participation can be a hit and miss affair in Manchester but the audience prove more than game for the challenge and the chorus of the raspy I Got Me a Woman is complimented with gusto by the diverse crowd who are reveling in the entertainment. The band accompanying Ben are equally magnetic in their performance. Jamie Kronick on drums and Jordan Stephens on upright bass are committed, innovative and completely entertaining and this male trio are joined by Canadian musician Taryn Kawaja. Ben proposed to Taryn just six weeks ago and there is a tender chemistry between the pair during their evocative harmonies in songs like 40 Days and 40 Nights.

The evening careens through an array of musical styles, with material hinting at cajun and jazz influences in particular and Caplan’s songs appear to be populated by dark and sombre characters, yet the idiosyncratic design of these songs which are regularly raucous and rambunctious affairs ensures that the mood never really dips below capricious and always thoroughly entertaining. By the end of the evening, the crowd, now equally raucous, demand one more and despite running over curfew, we get it in spades. Christmas may be over but Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers have demonstrated tonight that live music is the the gift that just keeps on giving. Happy New Year!

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Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers

Bees of Burden

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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto

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