54-40 just reached a bit of an inception-esque milestone, playing their 53rd and 54th shows at the Commodore Ballroom over Thanksgiving Long Weekend. Thanksgiving in Vancouver and 54-40 shows are synonymous events these days, and it’s a proper blast – a relaxed, at-homey band in front of an energetic, fueled-by-alcohol sold-out crowd. There’s not much I can say about these gigs that hasn’t been said before – these guys have 35 years of experience and material to draw on to perform, and if anything, they are just getting more fun to watch with every passing year. They have that sneaky sort of Canadian fame, where their songs have woven themselves across the country almost without anyone noticing. Once they start playing, you realize just how many of these songs you know every word to, and that can fling you back to whatever moment in time you’d be able to hear it on the radio or watch the video for it on good ol’ MuchMusic (RIP – always in our hearts…). They’ve played about a million billion shows, and everyone knows and loves them, though they mystically never really tippy-topped the charts, even in this here Great White North. They are one of a rare breed of Vancouver ‘house bands’ – groups that formed here and stayed here over decades, ignoring the siren song of Toronto’s music scene that pulls many a band into its vortex. Hearts all around.
So a set list from 54-40 is no huge surprise, which is part of the joy of seeing them play. You’re going to know pretty much everything! Mid-set, they did introduce and play a couple tunes from their new album, which is apparently two songs away from being finished at the time of this show (title TBD). The test run went over well with the audience. One of these tunes was introduced by way of a Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going” (which may or may not have actually be said by him, but I digress). The song carried into a line I rather like: It’s not what you want / but it is what you have. Touché. Anyhow, beyond that, there was a pile of all those songs like “Lies To Me,” “Radio Luv Song,” “Baby Ran,” “She-La,” “Ocean Pearl,” “Music Man,” I Go Blind.” The crowd, increasing its collective blood alcohol volume by the second, responded to each new familiar song intro with a wave of hollers and cheers.
On stage, the usual players – singer/guitarist Neil Osbourne; guitarist/keyboardist Dave Genn; bassist Brad Merritt; drummer Matt Johnson. But as well, tucked behind an organ most of the night but also taking on harmonica and saxophone duties, Osborne’s brother Dave. Osborne introduced him during the set and mentioned how he joins them from time to time but he can’t take him on tour with them because he’s in France most of the time. Osborne is a complete nut on stage. It’s wonderful. Again, I think this has increased over the years I have seen them – I think the first time I saw them was at The Rage (!!) in 2000, and I remember them being relatively demure. That was a weird show though, to be fair. I saw them a few more times but now realize I hadn’t seen them prior to this gig since the same sort of Thanksgiving-time show at the Commodore in 2003! So Maybe a few things have changed. Anyhow, his antics are fun to watch. Sometimes playing entire songs holding his guitar upright beside his face, sometimes hugging himself, sometimes making an intense face while staring down the crowd. The cavorting between him and Genn primarily was fun to watch, cracking smiles at one another or leaning over on one another’s shoulders while playing.
Johnson and Osborne started their grand 1987 single “One Gun” alone on stage under sombre lighting. As the tune turned the corner into the first repeated one gun added on to the one gun chorus, Osborne retreated from the mic, hollering silently to the crowd as they filled the room with their voices, singing everyone back on to the stage. Sticking with the 1987 era, they then wheeled right into “One Day In Your Life.” I remember sitting on my bed with my guitar at home as a kid, proud at having taught myself the simple, signature riff that opens that song. We all have a few 54-40 memories. Then they moved us forward five years for “She-La,” and then another six years, under rainbow-coloured lights, to “Since When.” Genn moved onto keyboards for this song, and he could be seen behind the wash of lights singing intensely or sometimes cracking up at whatever Osborne was up to. At some point he got up briefly to lead the crowd in a clap-along before taking a pull on a beer behind Osborne, who was busy playing his guitar at a weird angle while making curious faces again. Once Genn was back behind the keys, Merritt and Osborne appeared to engage in a little crossover-step choreography across the stage with each other. I mean, they’re just having fun up there.
They did a quick bit about giving thanks on this Thanksgiving, and then played “Ocean Pearl” to end the main set. I had my face in my camera so I don’t even quite know where this guy came from, but suddenly, there was a guy on stage, hopping about with a pair of crutches in the air. Perhaps security was reluctant to tackle a fellow on crutches, or perhaps they didn’t quite know what was happening either, but Osborne was all ear-to-ear grin as the man leaned over, handed his crutches into the crowd, stood back for a second to dance, then eyeballed a couple people below him before reeling back and taking a big stagedive on top of them. Ankle-sprain boot high in the air, he was passed over the crowd for a short time before disappearing – I’m not sure 54-40 fans are particularly keen crowd surfers most of the time. Merritt approached the stage front to cajole some singing out of the crowd (or maybe to see what happened to the stagediver), and one by one, they all left the stage, leaving Genn to carry to song’s lick and keep the crowd singing the waning Iiiiii-i-i-hiii’ve got an ocean pearl lyric. He kept them singing even as he stopped playing, spinning his mic around to amplify and emphasize this.
Before long, the band emerged again – still playing “Ocean Pearl!” It was an encore-break-spanning song. Merritt walked the stage front and flipped his and Osborne’s mics towards the still-singing audience as well. When Osborne did come back out, he positioned himself between his mic and the crowd, and yelled into it, somewhat awkwardly, “What?… I can’t hear you!” They really carried that tune on well. After that, Osborne noticed someone at his feet who had been trying to get his attention. “What have you got there?,” he asked, kneeling down. He began signing something, and then stood up to show it off. It was a copy of La Difference, the band’s new ‘unplugged’ album of some of their biggest hits from their whole history. He spoke a bit about the album, while casually tapping it on the mic. “While I’m doing this, I’m getting hit by water [saliva]… my own DNA is coming back to me,” he mused, pointing out that this fit nicely with his Buddhist sensibilities. Suddenly, the disc itself was dislodged from the case he was still tapping on the mic and fell. Everyone gasped, and Osborne’s face showed a flicker of terror as it seemed to disappear. He looked around for a moment at the floor, and then realized that somehow, the disc had gotten caught between the strings and the fretboard of the banjo he was now carrying, and was quite nicely nestled there in place. A few expressions of shock were had at that occurrence, but this also made a nice segue into them performing “Baby Ran” in, as he put it “La Difference-style.” It was a high-tempo, banjo-ified version of this classic song.
Onwards, a little ditty was sung about strolling around various places in Vancouver or the Island, each new location mentioned eliciting a series of whoops from the audience. This morphed into “I Go Blind,” which is of course best known for becoming way more famous as a Hootie & The Blowfish song in the 90s than it had for 54-40 ten years earlier (though it did gain a lot of retroactive interest as a result). Osborne introduced the band then, as if they need any introduction. “Brad named this band, so if you don’t like it, go to Esquimalt…. Matt on the striped shirt…” He continued by thanking the venue, stating they’d played that room more than anyone else had (“…it’s in some book…” – aka the brilliant Live at the Commodore book), and more times than they’d played anywhere in Toronto. He then thanked us, stating that live music is always in danger, but as long as people go to see live music – any live music – it will stay alive. “I love you all!” was the final holler before they ended the show with, appropriately, “Love You All.” This was a killer way to end – it’s a vibrant song, and somehow in the middle of it, they shoehorned in a healthy chunk of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” featuring some sizzling sax by brother Dave. They shook hands and clapped each other on the back as they walked off stage, grinning and waving to the room. Everyone hoped they’d come back for a couple more, but nope, it was time to go home. They did this again the following evening, and have since proclaimed on their social media that they can’t wait to do it again next year!