It’s been 42 years since 54•40 made their debut at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret in Vancouver, but this west coast band can still rock any house.
Prior to the first of two shows on Oct. 20 and 21, co-founder Neil Osborne (rhythm guitar/lead vocals) promised the set list would feature a variety of tunes.
“We’ll play all the songs that have been on the radio over the years,” he said. “We’ll play a couple of new songs. We always like to do two or three deep tracks from albums because we like them. So that’s kind of it, say 10, 12 radio songs plus a couple of new songs, a couple of deep tracks, maybe a cover here and there.”
They did not disappoint, playing pretty much the entire catalogue of singles from their MuchMusic debut “Baby Ran” (1986) to their breakout hit “Ocean Pearl” (1994).
A nod to the new album, now scheduled for release on Nov. 3, came in the first set with a song called “Options.” Introducing the song, Osborne told the Friday crowd the band was only going to do two songs from West Coast Band because he himself knows what it’s like to go to a concert (Elton John in his case) wanting to hear all your favourites and not so much unfamiliar tracks.
“So, maybe this is a good time for you to go to the bathroom,” he quipped.
Osborne also paid tribute to the origin of the band’s name, which comes from an American political slogan from the 1840s referencing the expansionist intention of the United States to take over B.C. to the border of Russian Alaska at 54 degrees, 40 minutes latitude. That is just north of Prince Rupert, he explained, at 54 degrees, 30.5 minutes.
“Tonight we’re not 54•40, we’re 54•30.5,” he said.
They saved the title track “West Coast Band” for the encore, followed by “I Go Blind,” which was a 1980s single for the band, but made famous by Hootie and the Blowfish in 1996.
As for other bands’ songs, they didn’t so much “cover” them as seamlessly weave them into their own songs, paying homage to The Tragically Hip (“Blow at High Dough”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”) and The Clash (“Should I Stay or Should I Go”).
Despite the formal setting of the Lester Centre, some of the audience could not stay in their seats turning the space between the front row and the stage into an impromptu dance floor creating a club-type atmosphere that seemed to really please the band.
“I’m really glad they did that,” said Chris Armstrong, Lester Centre manager.
While the band is not a stranger to the Northwest having played in Terrace, Kitimat, Smithers and Gingolx over the years, this was their first time in Prince Rupert.
“It’s beautiful,” said the other founding member Brad Merritt (bass). “It’s like where we live (Lower Mainland) except less spoiled, in every sense.”
Rupertites also got first crack at buying a CD version of the new album. Although still awaiting its formal launch, the band had copies available for the first time, along with other merchandise before and after the show.
Osborne and Merrit said they are not usually the kind of people who look back, always moving forward, but that kind of changed in 2020.
“I’ll just say we had some downtime for a couple of years,” Osborne said.
During the pandemic, they started reminiscing about their storied past via Zoom, which turned into lyrics and music that they passed around electronically.
“So then it’s like, yeah, let’s do this,” Osborne said. “Let’s tell the story about the band for once.”
The aforementioned “Options” for example, is a story about meeting up with Blue Rodeo during a gig in Regina. Osborne said he told Blue Rodeo singer Greg Keelor that at that point he didn’t think he could do anything else but be in a band.
Keelor replied, “It’s nice to know your options are behind you,” which led to the chorus of the song.
All the songs on the new release are stories about the band and its members and span a wide variety of styles, which is appropriate to the band’s history.
For example, “West Coast Band” is reminiscent of the post-punk sensibilities that characterized their formative years on the Vancouver scene, while “Options” harkens more to their more alt-rock offerings of the 1990s.
Osborne said he didn’t think that was so much intentional as organic.
“We bring a lot of experience and a catalogue of, I don’t know, 15 albums or something like that,” he explained. “And the process is always different; the songs kind of go where they felt like they should go. That’s what happens.”