Iconic Canadian band returns to Courtenay

Sid Williams Theatre hosts 54-40 Unplugged

54-40 has a lot to celebrate over the past year. The iconic band — known in some circles as the Godfathers of Canadian grunge — was twice inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame last spring, at the Independent Music Awards (INDIES), and at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards. Then in January, the group added another album — Keep On Walking — to a musical resume that spans 38 years.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” said bass player Brad Merritt, noting the band worked on the new album intermittently over the past five years.

54-40, which headlined Vancouver Island MusicFest two years ago, returns to Courtenay Wednesday for an unplugged concert at the Sid Williams Theatre.

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Merritt said of the March 14 show. “We’re going to play 10 songs off La Difference: A History Unplugged…some kind of deep album tracks, and then play at least two songs off the new record.”

Merritt, a Victoria resident, co-founded 54-40 along with high school buddy Neil Osborne, the band’s singer and guitarist. Its first gig came on New Year’s Eve 1980 at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, the former Vancouver nightspot where Jimi Hendrix used to play. The band later acquired the sign, then donated it to the Museum of Vancouver.

“We built a big case for it, toured with it, and used it on a record,” Merritt said. “It’s on permanent display at the Vancouver Museum.”

Along with Osborne and Merritt, 54-40 consists of drummer Matt Johnson — who came along a few years after the band’s inception and is therefore an “honorary original member,” Merritt said — and guitarist Dave Genn, who replaced Phil Comparelli. Each member is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

Over the years, the band has performed extensively throughout North America and Europe, and produced a string of hits: Baby Ran, I Go Blind, One Day in Your Life, Nice to Luv Ya, One Gun, Ocean Pearl and She La, among others.

In some respects, Merritt said recording and performing music has become even more fun.

“It was fun when we first started,” he said. “You’re working a day job. You play your show, and it’s exciting. (But) It’s a bit of a grind.

Once 54-40 reached “mature band status,” Merritt and company had the luxury of saying yes or no to a gig, and could make a record on their own time.

“I think you can make a better record now,” he said. “You realize this isn’t going to go on forever. You appreciate it more.”

The band has fond memories of a previous performance at the Sid, but their favourite venue is Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, where they have played nearly 60 times.

“We play the Commodore every October,” Merritt said. “We have the record for the most performances.”

Check sidwilliamstheatre.com for ticket information about 54-40 Unplugged.

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