Canadian music Hall of Famers 54-40 (left-right: Dave Genn – guitar, Neil Osborne – vocals/guitar, Brad Merritt – bass, and Matt Johnson – drums) have been champions of Canadian rock and roll for 37 years and are still going strong with their 14th album, Keep On Walking, released in January. PHOTO: courtesy of 54-40
by David Branigan
54-40 play the Yukon Convention Centre on Saturday, April 28 at 8 p.m.
My first 54-40 flash was when the band’s career was burning hot. That is symptomatic of a life lived in rock. Memories are short, what remains is vivid like ayahuasca. The past, present and future sear like a brand, like a Tinder cocktail in a swingers’ bar.
It was 1994, the band was coming off their first ever global smash album Dear Dear, which featured “Nice to Luv You” and “She La”. This was peak grunge. I was in year 6 as DJ DNA at the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, B.C.
54-40 has been described as Canada’s answer to REM, hyper literate, alt-rock, conscious with tight hooks, left coast intel and killer musicianship.
54-40 in Whistler in ’94 were a big deal. I sold out 300 tickets in six minutes.
We liked to constantly reinvent the ‘Horn, moving the bands around, for some reason, for this show, we put 54-40 up in the pool table section just off the front entry. Odd placement, can’t remember why we did that. Two songs into the set, the local gendarme did a walk through.
The crowd had crushed up to the stage barricade the moment the band kicked off their set with a smokin’ version of “Baby Ran”. The RCMP member says that we have to clear the pathway that usually serves as a walkway to the bathrooms below, as it’s a fire exit.
I give him the politest WTF I can.
“You want to me stop the show? We’ll do it, you will walk out, they will surge back. What’s the point?”
But she persisted, so I go to Neil Osborne as they finish a torrid “One Day in Your Life,” arms waving for a quick, intense conversation; pointing to the blue team.
Osborne was not amused. Whistler was like a hometown show for the band. It was nipple hardening excitement in the room that was now coitus interruptus.
With Neil glaring at the cops, I advised that we had to move the crowd back or the authorities were going to stop the show, which would have created a full BC Stanley Cup riot. The crowd steps back. The cops leave.
Neil cranks up his lighter, screams, “Fire,” and fans surge back moshing to “Assoholic” before Vancouver’s best burns down the rest of a fierce set.
This April 28th will be my third 54-40 show. It sees the boys touring in support of their first major album in seven years, Keep on Walking. They remain a tight foursome with Brad Merrit tweaking the bottom, locking in with killer drummer Matt Johnson.
Gonna start dressing,
Maybe just nothing,
Maybe just a dream.
These shards of lyrics float through what’s left of my decadence marred mind, the moment I booked the show for the Territory that raised me.
Don’t she look happy now,
That he’s gone away from here,
Riff after riff falls on my pain like rain.
54-40 stands in rarified air when judged by song catalogue. They started out in U2 territory with the plaintive acoustic rocker “I Go Blind.” The quartet recorded with such major labels as Sony, Columbia, Warner and Reprise, kicking out monsters from 1986 through 2005, filling CanCon alongside contributions from the Hip, Blue Rodeo and Spirit of the West.
“One Gun” led the album Show Me. “Baby, Have Some Faith” highlighted their fourth album Fight for Your Love. From that album, released in 1989, through Casual Viewin’ in 2000, 54-40 had four platinum albums and one gold.
In 2003, when guitarist Phil Comparelli left the band and Matthew Good band alum David Genn stepped in, they reloaded with the brilliant album Yes to Everything with its AC-DC influenced “Easy to Love” and reggae tinged “Golden Sun” stand-outs.
Then the wet coast Beatles’ recordings receded like hydration from a Burning Man hangover.
For the last decade, their career has been in its gardening stage. Few rockers are selling records now that streaming is the thing with hip hop, R&B and country having killed the once immortal rock. Touring and raising families in the utopia that is Victoria, that is life with 54-40 as elder statesmen. But their live set is their métier.
Osborne and Co. were inducted into the West Coast Music Hall of Fame in Whitehorse in 2011. Now seven years later, the band has regrouped and is putting real marketing energy into a record – 32 years after “Baby Ran”.
Their 2018 release is called Keep on Walking, and the lead single, “Sucker For Your Love” is classic guitar driven 54-40.
These legends are fired up, rocking out once again. Are you ready to go?
54-40 plays Saturday, April 28 at 8 p.m. at the Yukon Convention Centre as part of Northern Vision Development’s Winter Concert Series presented by Air North, CHON FM, Solid Sound and North of Ordinary Media following the Trews and Delhi to Dublin shows. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.