CityFolk: The unplugged music of Vancouver’s 54.40 has plenty of fight

54.40 plays CityFolk Friday evening.

The venerable Vancouver alternative band 54.40 has rocked out pretty hard for about 37 years. But lately the foursome that includes founders Neil Osborne and Brad Merritt, along with Matt Johnson and Dave Genn, has gone quiet. They have discovered the power of acoustic music.

And now they are bringing that sound to Ottawa’s CityFolk Festival on Friday night in an hour-long unplugged presentation of the band’s hits such as I Go Blind, One Gun, Since When and Ocean Pearl.

In many ways going acoustic reveals a whole new side to 54.40’s music, said Brad Merritt in an interview over the phone from a tour stop in St. John’s Nfld. where they had landed about 1 a.m.

Nor is unplugging a sign of fatigue. They don’t seem to be running out of steam any time soon.

“As long as you love what you do there is no reason to stop. We realized a long time ago that the reward for what we are doing is being able to do what we do.” Yes, they like the job. “We also make a living at this too.”

Vancouver was a lot different in 1981 when 54.40 began. It was grittier, more a port city and less of a destination for Hollywood actors, and Chinese millionaires.

“They call it a resort city today. It’s become a world city. It has lost that parochial, west coast so far from Toronto feel that it used to have,” he said. “That was kind of the secret of the place. It grew itself without outside influences. That created a natural identity.” And it nurtured a unique local music scene that included 54.40 and dozens of other bands, including Spirit of the West.

In fact the band didn’t cross the Rockies and make Ottawa and Toronto until 1986, Merritt said. They went to San Francisco some 15 times before heading east. (Editor’s note: Merritt came clean in the interview and admitted that like many Vancouverites, he’s sold his home and moved to  Victoria where his buddy Neil Osborne has lived for 14 years.)

The bands that emerged in the early ’80s had their sights on playing in one of Canada’s legendary music rooms, The Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street and 54.40 was no exception.

“When we first started as a band, everybody came through and I saw Blondie, The Clash in their first show in North America, Boomtown Rats, The Police, U2, The Cure. This was all in The Commodore Ballroom.

“It was very important and all the local bands would play there too. As far as I could see then, our whole goal was to open up for somebody in the Commodore, That is all I wanted to do. It had this very important place in my psyche.”

He got his wish in 1982 on a bill with three other bands NEO A4, Images in Vogue and Moev. “It was liked I had fulfilled my dream in 1982.”

But what was next?

The band decided to keep on going and a few years later the hits really started flowing.

“The long and shot of it is that we have played the Commodore well over 50 times.” And they will play it twice more in October and both gigs are sold out. These are now annual concerts.

Two years ago the band released an unplugged record called La Difference: A History Unplugged featuring 10 hit songs. The acoustic take on this music also allows 54.40 to play in theatres and offer a much more intimate performance, Merritt said.

Merritt compares the movement back and forth between a rock show and an acoustic show to the kind of performances that Neil Young does alone or when he’s with his band Crazy Horse.

“As a fan of artists who present their music this way and as a musician who presents our songs in that matter, it is a wonderful thing. It allows people to experience songs in different ways and appreciate them in different ways.

“There is a visceral, powerful experience, where it literally is electricity buzzing, and lots of bottom end pushing up against your chest. This is a great thing. I remember seeing The Who in 1980 and I was way up in the upper level of the Pacific Coliseum and I made my way to the floor and I was right in front of Pete Townsend and you could feel the vibration coming off his amps.”

At the same seeing an artist in a smaller, more intimate venue with a few stories from the road has a lot to commend it too, he added.

It helps some audiences understand the artistry of the musicians. 54.40 plays at least 20 acoustic shows a year.

Their current tour mixes amplified performances with acoustic gigs. They also have a new studio album called Keep On Walking.

“It all keeps it interesting for us. It allows you to look at your songs a little differently.”

The unplugged shows do require adjustments, he said. Merritt will be playing a Guild Acoustic Bass at CityFolk. The instrument totally changes the way he plays.

“First of all, when I play electric bass, half the songs I play finger style and half with a pick. You can’t play finger style with an acoustic bass. It’s a flat pick situation. I also find that the body of the thing is so thick that I have hunch over, get my right shoulder and elbow over it. You get a lot of resonance off the instrument.”

However, “if I had to play one instrument for the rest of my life I would choose the electric bass.” In fact, he will pick up an electric in the acoustic set if he needs to use his fingers. It’s just the way 54.40 rolls.

Where: CityFolkFestival City Stage
When: Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.