Terra Spencer & Ben Caplan: Live at the Dakota Tavern

Terra Spencer with Ben Caplan

Team GDW sure had many things to smile about over the US Thanksgiving holiday.  With our ‘travel bug’ back in full-swing, we opted to forgo the traditional festivities at home and instead spent a few days in Southern Ontario – adding in some extra concert experiences to our 2022 music calendar for good measure.  Being not quite ready for old-man-winter, we smiled as we quickly passed what remained of Buffalo’s recent blast of snow and crossed into a sunny, unseasonably warm Canada. We smiled even more as the Toronto skyline appeared in the distance, growing larger as we drove closer, before absorbing us into a ‘welcome back’ embrace as we entered the city.

Long-time readers will recall that we consider Toronto’s Dakota Tavern one of our favorite live music venues – a room that we had unfortunately not had an opportunity to revisit since the summer of 2019 – our last time in the city prior to the global pandemic that followed less than a year later.  Hosting the opening night for Windsor, NS singer-songwriter Terra Spencer’s “Old News” album release tour (project with Halifax, NS artist Ben Caplan), this was an event we absolutely could not miss, and our smiles were a mile wide as we descended the staircase into the iconic basement room. We were back in downtown Toronto – back at The Dakota Tavern – and not only would we finally catch live music from good friend Terra Spencer (and her debut headlining show, to boot), we would also be privy to one of just two shows on this tour that includes a guest appearance from her friend and collaborator, Ben Caplan.  Ben was even spotted tinkling away at the piano keys on stage as the doors were opened, before heading to the green room as patrons started to arrive. Smiles galore, right?

“The last time I was here [at the Dakota Tavern] was in 2019, and it was in a snowstorm in February – a beautiful time to visit Toronto, I learned, and there were maybe eight people here,” Terra shared, as she greeted the room.  “I’m here to celebrate a project, a new record I made with my dear friend Ben Caplan, who is tonight’s special guest, and we’ll pull him up for a couple of songs later on.” Performing across two 45-minute sets, Terra would perform for the first half of the show, before inviting Ben on-stage for a duet prior to the intermission. Ben would take the lead to kick off the second set with a handful of his solo tunes (and one very special cover – you really had to be there), before being joined by Terra to share some of their stunning collaborative album work. Terra would add a few more solo pieces, before inviting Ben back once more to close with their popular duet, “Good Friends.”

Terra Spencer

“If you don’t know much about me at all, over the past couple of years while I’ve been traveling around playing music – which happened to me accidentally – I also had another accidental career working as a funeral director in Nova Scotia where I live,” Terra shared, as a prelude to “At Your Service,” one of her new album tracks. “And neither of those paths were really planned out. I became a funeral director because I played the organ at the funeral home, and it kind of spiraled out of control. So, I don’t write a lot of songs about working at a funeral home.”

Continuing with some of the new material, Terra would discuss her previous visit to this room (in a support role for singer-songwriter Ryan Cook), reminiscing about touring in Ontario in February before heading over to the UK and Germany for her first excursion outside of Canada – leading into a tale about staying in the very room where a previous tenant had died. “Which is fine, I’m familiar with death,” she added. “But I’m just here to tell you, good people of Toronto, that if you’re going to be putting up someone for the night, and that room they’re staying in, that someone had died in it recently, you don’t have to tell them that.”

Terra would throw a trio of unexpected tunes into the mix, with two new and unreleased compositions performed around a John Prine cover. “My husband sent me a link to a podcast … with a disclaimer that it would be a bit of a heavy one, and maybe I should choose when I listen to it,” she shared, prior to “Something About Paris,” a new tune about a couple having to make a hard decision. “So, I chose while I was on a train with the other musicians I was traveling with, and just sat across from them and sobbed for the whole time without them knowing what was going on with me.”  Ben Caplan would be invited to accompany Terra for the first duet of the evening, and together would close the first set on an emotional high with a flawless and uplifting rendition of the album’s opening track, “Brick and Mortar.”

Ben Caplan

“Hello Toronto, hello my friends, hello Terra Spencer fans out there, how’s everybody feeling?” Ben asked as he arrived alone on stage to commence the second set. “I have the distinction of having had the honor of producing Terra’s newest record, Old News, and Terra asked me to come and be a special guest, and I’m honored to be here, and I’m glad that you’re here too.”  Seating himself at the Dakota Tavern house piano, Ben would perform three popular tunes from his 2015 “Birds with Broken Wings” album – including “Night Like Tonight” and “Under Control.”   I have mentioned in previous recaps of Ben’s shows that it is always a pleasure to witness this incredibly charismatic and theatrical entertainer first-hand – one who transforms his humble self into an eccentric soap-box preacher, whipping a room into a frenzy with his rambunctious on-stage persona. And on this given night, Ben delivered one of his spectacular sermons.

“This here’s a song I wrote about your death, because I feel that when people come out for music on a Friday night, they want to be reminded of their fragility and mortality. That’s what I look for,” he commenced, pausing as the crowd responded enthusiastically. “You know, it’s a shame that … that you’re … that you’re gonna die … but you will, and you know, a lot of different religions and cultures have this beautiful idea of this place you get to go to after your life. Some sort of … AFTERLIFE.”  Another pause, as his flock once again responded.  “I love the comfort of that thought. You know, the idea that after it’s all over you can get to go spend some sort of eternal infinity in some warm embrace of some kind or another, depending on what book you prefer.”  Another pause, an engaged audience prompting him to continue.

“And I love that. But, you know, I started thinking about it, tried to break it down just a little bit from just a mathematical point of view, and started thinking about infinity as a mathematician might and it suddenly occurred to me THAT IN A BILLION YEARS, THE SUN WILL EXPAND AND SWALLOW THE EARTH WHOLE and destroy any evidence of our vain various little cultures ever having existed. And relative to the time of infinity, it’s nothing. So, it just occurs to me that it’s just likely more time – I wish – to experience consciousness of any form at all. Because, don’t get me wrong, I love consciousness most of the time.” And, with one final pause, before wrapping up this speech and sharing “Belly of the Worm,” Ben would add: “The rest of the time is why I drink, so you know, the eternal afterlife is a little intimidating to me.”

Terra Spencer with Ben Caplan

Closing out his solo segment with a song I wish I’d written, Ben delighted the room with a short cover of “Rubber Duckie,” a popular Sesame Street tune, before being joined by Terra for a handful of duets. “What do you want to play, friend?” she asked, as Ben stood center-stage and Terra seated herself at the piano.  “Well, Jeez Terra, I think it would be nice to play the song that gave birth to this whole collaboration,” Ben replied. “Terra called me up one day mid-pandemic when I happened to be sitting at home doing not too much of anything at all, and she said, I’ve written a song that maybe you should sing, and I said, well okay, come on over to my house and…”  “Wait, that you should sing, I don’t think that’s what I said,” Terra retorted. “Well, how would you put it?” Ben asked.  “Dear Ben Caplan. You don’t know me. I’m a nobody, but I write songs and there’s a song that would be a dream to hear you sing,” was Terra’s heartfelt response, earning applause and admiration from the room. “So, I said, well come on over for a cup of tea, and she played me the song, and I thought, it’s not terrible,” Ben added. “Terra writes songs that are not terrible, which I was pleased to discover, and this gave birth to this whole project that I was delighted to participate in.”

Together, the duo would share that first song as discussed (“VHS”), before adding an ode to a loving dog (“Harry”), and a tune about being lonely and looking for love (“Maybe”).  Terra would add three more solo pieces once Ben took his leave, before inviting her good friend back one last time for their final hurrah – an absolutely stunning version of the album’s closing track, “Good Friends.”  And with no horn section, as found in the studio recording, Ben improvised with some brief bursts of harmonica – earning plenty of hoots and hollers from the appreciative crowd.  A fabulous finale, from a fabulous (and unique) pairing of very talented musicians – made our return to The Dakota Tavern another memorable evening to add to our ever-expanding list of excellent concerts.

Set List:

  1. Other Side of Goodbye
  2. Mr. M
  3. At Your Service
  4. Messy
  5. Drip (Unreleased)
  6. Angel From Montgomery (John Prine cover)
  7. Something About Paris (Unreleased)
  8. Brick And Mortar (ft. Ben Caplan)
  9. Night Like Tonight (Ben Caplan solo)
  10. Belly Of The Worm (Ben Caplan solo)
  11. Under Control (Ben Caplan solo)
  12. Rubber Duckie (Ben Caplan solo – Sesame Street cover)
  13. VHS (ft. Ben Caplan)
  14. Harry (ft. Ben Caplan)
  15. Maybe (ft. Ben Caplan)
  16. Hungry
  17. The Circus
  18. Feels Like Home
  19. Good Friends (ft. Ben Caplan)

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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