Concert Review: 54-40 at the Commodore Ballroom

October 11, 2019

A couple of 54-40 concerts each October at the Commodore has become an autumn Vancouver tradition you can count on. Like the return of heavy rainfall warnings or the start of an ultimately disappointing Canucks season. This long-running local band may not have had a hit single in ages but they can still easily pack one of their hometown's best live venues on back-to-back nights year after year.

The grizzled rockers hit the stage Friday night for the first of two shows with the lesser-known track Here In My House from their 1989 album Fight For Your Love, which seemed fitting because they very much were in their house. Or as guitarist and frontman Neil Osborne later described the Granville Street landmark after an engaged audience singalong to the chorus of Ocean Pearl: “This place is my temple. This is my church. Amen!”

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It's been more than 40 years since Osborne met bandmate Brad Merritt while attending South Delta Secondary School in Tsawwassen. After studying at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Osborne headed back home and formed 54-40 with Merritt on bass and Ian Franey on drums. They named themselves after the mid-19th century battle cry "54-40 or Fight!" coined by U.S. President James Polk in a failed bid to rally popular support for annexing most of what is now British Columbia up to the 54°40′ parallel north. Which seems a nice longitudinal touch for a couple of Delta dudes who grew up living a stone's throw from the eventual American border along the 49th parallel.

The band played their first gig in 1981 opening for local punk pioneers D.O.A. at the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret in Gastown (a venue they named an album for in 1994) and they've been going strong ever since. I was first introduced to them as a teenager listening to Brent Bambury's late night CBC Radio show Brave New Waves on headphones in bed when I was supposed to be sleeping, which introduced me to a swath of great homegrown indie artists who provided an alternative to mainstream Cancon acts before the term “alt rock” entered the musical lexicon.

(This admission no doubt dates me, and it has to be said most of the crowd Friday night were well into their 40s and 50s. Say what you will about aging Gen Xers but at least we know how to enjoy a show without having to document the entire experience on our phones.)

It seems 54-40 was never quite fully embraced by Canadians the way contemporaries such as the Tragically Hip, Sloan and, um, Barenaked Ladies were but these guys put out three platinum albums and one gold over a six-year span in the nineties, and the evening was a reminder of just how many hits they had such as Miss You, Baby Ran, Lies To Me, One Gun, Casual Viewin' and Crossing A Canyon. And, of course, I Go Blind, whose chart-topping cover version by Hootie & the Blowfish appeared on the sitcom Friends and probably single-handedly generated enough royalties to ensure the band would never have to play together again if they didn't want to.

But 54-40 – which now features Matt Johnson on drums and Dave Genn on lead guitar – clearly still do.

“I am so honoured to be a part of your life and I love you all,” a grinning Osborne shouted during the encore after playing their first hit single One Day in Your Life from 1987's Show Me. He was then joined by opening act Kandle – who also happens to be his daughter – for a raucous rendition of Joan Jett's I Love Rock n Roll.

It's hard not to imagine this Juno-nominated up-and-comer might keep the family fall tradition of multiple Commodore gigs alive when the day finally comes that 54-40 give up the fight.

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