Iconic band gets crowd dancing

If the live music scene is under threat, as 54-40 frontman Neil Osborne suggests, then a small but devoted fan base managed to keep it thriving for another night in Red Deer.

If the live music scene is under threat, as 54-40 frontman Neil Osborne suggests, then a small but devoted fan base managed to keep it thriving for another night in Red Deer.

The near iconic B.C. band 54-40 got an older crowd dancing, foot stomping and singing along to I Go Blind, Ocean Pearl, Baby Ran and many other hits on Monday night at an unplugged concert at the International Beer Haus.

“Thanks for supporting a live act,” said Osborne during the encore. “Live music is struggling. It’s like in the movie, The NeverEnding Story, The Nothing is taking over…”

You’d think a band that was a hit machine for much of the 1980s and ’90s would have been able to fill the Memorial Centre, where 54-40 was originally booked, instead of having to be moved to a smaller venue…

Yes, the music industry is changing — with many musicians touring less and their fans vegetating at home more. But judging by the enthusiastic reaction to 54-40 at the smaller Beer Haus, the “human apathy, cynicism, and denial of childish dreams” that summons The Nothing hasn’t settled in Red Deer. Not yet, anyway.

After playing an extended video clip of everyone from Rick Mercer to Jim Cuddy, Dan Aykroyd and Jann Arden introducing 54-40, Osborne took the audience to the group’s beginnings in 1980, when the band’s name was taken from the slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” — coined for an unsuccessful U.S. expansionist campaign.

Much storytelling unfolded during the concert — about Osborne’s unsuccessful attempts to get zen with a Buddhist monk in Boulder, Co… about his dealings with a drunk, belligerent fan in Kingston, Ont.… about his first date with his high-school crush (he snuck her into a Trooper concert at a Vancouver bar before she was of legal drinking age. After she was lured away briefly by a Trooper musician. Osborne remembers thinking. “That’s it! I’m forming a band!”)

I could have used more music and less chatter at times. But Osborne did give us some interesting back-stories.

On the origins of the tune Lost and Lazy: The singer/songwriter and guitarist recalled “lying on my bed, smoking a doobie and listening to Genesis,” when he heard his mother describe him as “kind of lost and definitely lazy.”

Osborne spoke movingly about his father during the introduction to Crossing a Canyon. When his dad was losing his battle with cancer, the singer had trouble expressing his feelings, so he rolled his unmoored emotions into this song. Given the acoustic ballad treatment, it was one of the most powerful of the evening.

In between Osborne’s banter (and virtually none from the other band members), many other familiar 54-40 tunes were heard — She La, Since When, a cabaret-like performance of Casual Viewin’, Lies to Me, a hypnotic East Indian-sounding One Gun, and a fast, countrified version of Baby Ran (with banjo).

These were balanced by newer and lesser known songs, including The Waiting (which could have been called “the Brad” because of all the waiting group members regularly do for bassist Brad Merritt, joked Osborne.) There was a rollicking, version of the inspiring Keep on Walking, and melodic Beatlesque arrangements of A Hundred Songs, Lucy and Laughing.

Dressed in matching dark suits, the musicians — including multi-instrumentalist Dave Genn (formerly of the Matthew Good band) and drummer Matt Johnson — looked more like dads these days than rockers. But then, 54-40 was always more about the music than the attitude.

After playing together for so many years, the engaging group members proved consummate entertainers, who deserved the standing ovation they got from 100-plus fans.

But let’s heed Osborne’s warning: We can only keep The Nothing at bay by supporting our live music scene.


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