Neil Osbourne leads the crowd through a sing-along at a recent concert. Catch 54-40 this Friday night at The 40.
There aren’t too many bands around these days that are still touring, let alone still relevant, 30 or more years after they first hit the scene.
Thanks to consistently touring and releasing albums at a steady clip, 54-40 is one of a handful of groups on the Canadian rock music scene to be considered as one of Canada’s favourite bands.
This four-piece rock unit hit Vancouver’s post-’70s punk scene, originally starting out as a trio. After quickly landing a record deal, they emerged from the West Coast scene and onto the national scene where they amassed 13 studio albums, including three consecutive platinum sellers ("dear dear" 1992, "Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret" 1994 and "Trusted by millions" in 1996).
They’ve also released various hits and or singles compilation packages as well as a live DVD.
Apart from a couple of changes, the group has managed to stay intact throughout the past few decades. The two founding members Brad Merritt (bass/vocals) and Neil Osbourne (lead vocals/guitar) are still going strong along with two relative newcomers to the group, Matt Johnson (drums) and former Matthew Good Band lead guitarist David Genn.
Genn has been cranking out the riffs for 54-40 since he joined in 2003. He took some time out of his tour preparations to chat with Happenings about the current state of 54-40 and what keeps them going strong well into their fourth decade of existence.
The veteran guitarist says what has helped keep them not only relevant but a viable commodity on the live entertainment circuit is, first and foremost, giving the people what they want. And what most of 54-40’s audiences want these days is a hard rock show, which they’ve been delivering all summer long.
"We’ve been working hard over the summer and the summer shows tend to be, you know, like festival shows with loud rock sets, sort of loud and bombastic," Genn said. "Get in, hit ’em hard, get out, then go have a Heinekin in the hotel bar."
The fall tour may be a bit of a contrast.
"The shows that we’re going to be doing this fall may be sort of understated. In some places we’re going to be doing two sets and in some cases we’ll be doing some acoustic stuff in the middle, some re-workings of older songs and a few songs will be done," he said. "Plus we do some fan favourites and band favourites, songs that we don’t play all that often."
Genn says he looks forward to the challenge in delivering that type of show in a theatre setting. Most of the dates on this tour will be done in soft-seats, apart from a few club dates that include the Brandon show at The 40 this Friday night.
Genn says the band always enjoys playing The 40.
"That’s a great room! People come out and are very excited to rock. Brandon is a rocking town. It’s always fun to go there because we always tend to be extra sweaty when we leave the stage."
As for any specifics on the songs they rework, Genn said he didn’t want to give too much away but did throw me a couple of bones.
"We’re doing a sort of dark solo piano version of ‘Crossing the Canyon’, we’re working up a slightly different version of ‘Baby Ran’ right now and we’re also doing a couple songs that we don’t usually play," he said.
"The point for us is just keeping things fresh. The easiest route is just being a jukebox but it’s not the most rewarding for us."
Any band’s sound may change slightly over the years but the better groups tend to evolve in a way that their fans will agree with. Some bands have taken too much of a risk as their sound strayed too far from what made them successful in the first place.
54-40 has gone through many sound changes throughout the past four decades, perhaps the most notable being the past decade since Genn joined them. However, he says he hasn’t noticed much change in sound or direction since he joined.
"I think that when I came into the band as the new guy holding down the lead guitar spot, I think it took us a few years to feel each other out and develop that pulse or that swing that a band gets once they’ve been playing for awhile," he said. "If we haven’t figured that out by now, it’s time to hang up the skates."
Every group has a certain modus operandi and Genn feels fortunate that his personal approach matches that of 54-40’s.
"Playing in a rock ’n’ roll band is about long drives and avoiding occupational hazards and then getting on stage every night and doing what you love as well as you can," he said.
"In the case of 54-40, I can tell you that we are great friends and we look forward to getting out on the road together as well as hanging out.
"From my perspective, you know, having three kids the oldest being five, being in a band is my social life — I don’t get out much. So I get to fly out somewhere and sit down and have a steak with my friends and talk about adult things like hockey, U.S. politics or theology or whatever we chose to talk about.
"So it’s a win-win situation for all of us because we like each others company and we love playing music."
Genn says another great thing about being in this band is the response from the audiences.
"At a 54-40 show there are so many great songs and such die-hard fans when you’re up on stage and you look out in the crowd there’s nothing but smiles," he said.
"People are so happy to be there, they’re happy to hear these songs from their past and present or hopefully their future. It’s a great feeling, it really is! I couldn’t ask for a better band to be in."
Check out the full 25-minute exclusive interview on my blog at www.kx96online.com. Among the topics we touch on are: the state of the music industry, merchandising, repackaging music, playing an entire classic 54-40 album in concert, writing the next 54-40 album and the possibility of a mini digital cd.
As of press time advance tickets were going fast but there may still be a few available at the front desk of the Trails West Motor Inn. To charge by phone call 204-727-3800. Or you might be lucky enough to purchase at the door the night of the show (this Friday, Sept. 21) but I wouldn’t wait. The last time 54-40 were in B-town, the place was packed and they had the joint jumpin’!
Frank McGwire is a radio personality and booster of the music scene in Brandon and Westman.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 20, 2012