'It's like I'm your plumber'

54-40 frontman Neil Osborne reflects on the pleasant familiarity of playing 'foundation' songs like Baby Ran

PREVIEW

54-40 (opening act Grapes of Wrath)

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Where: Royal Theatre (also Saturday at Campbell River's Tidemark Theatre)

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $41.50 (premium seats $86.50 with partial proceeds going to Amnesty International). 250-386-6121

Meet Neil Osborne, musical plumber.

Osborne is a guitarist and lead singer for 54-40, one of Canada's most enduring rock acts. On Friday at the Royal Theatre, he and his band will perform a hometown show (at least, it is for Osborne). Fans likely won't be disappointed. On this, the so-called Gold, Guts and Glory tour, they're serving up hit after hit.

Interviewed recently at a downtown coffee shop, Osborne said 54-40 - now in its 31st year - takes a practical approach to dispensing radio favourites such as Baby Ran (1984) and One Gun (1987).

"They're our foundation," the 52-year-old rocker said, sitting outside in the October sun. "It's like I'm your plumber. I've done this a million times. I know what to do here. Step out of my way, I'll fix your toilet. Baby Ran? Done."

To keep things fun and fresh, 54-40 has different arrangements of its best-known numbers. Osborne says, for example, there are "two or three" versions of One Gun. And sometimes they play Baby Ran with an Allman Brothers/Southern rock feel.

While never truly punk themselves, 54-40 emerged out of Vancouver's fertile punk-rock scene in 1980. Its epicentre was the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, a rough East Hastings nightclub. When the club closed in 1992, band members not only bought the iconic Smilin' Buddha neon sign, they went on tour with it.

The band went on to become one of Canada's big rock acts. In 1992, 54-40's hit Nice to Luv You propelled the album Dear Dear to platinum sales. By then, with songs such as She-La and Ocean Pearl, they'd reduced their sound to sparse essentials: stinging guitar riffs and anthemic sing-a-long choruses. Many of 54-40's best mid-career songs were influenced by 1960s garage-rock (typically, Nice to Luv You is bisected by a cheesy organ solo).

Last year, the band released its 13th recording, Lost in the City. Osborne says 54-40 is now working on a new album being created in a markedly different way from the others.

"I can tell you, for the first time ever, the songs are entirely lyric-driven," he said.

Osborne, the band's chief songwriter, has already composed seven new tunes in this fashion. He sits in the basement studio of his Victoria home and "sing-reads" words jotted in a thick journal of lyric ideas. This differs, for example, from a process in which lyrics and melody might be added to existing guitar riffs.

The lyrics-first approach is how Osborne imagines a songwriter like Bob Dylan might compose. He says it has resulted in unorthodox arrangements with unconventional chord structures.

"The format wouldn't be A-A-B-A ever. You know what I'm saying?" Osborne said.

Bassist Brad Merritt and Osborne are 54-40's founders. Their long-term friendship is the base rock of the band's longevity. Drummer Matt Johnson joined in the mid-'80s, with lead guitarist Dave Genn, formerly of the Matthew Good Band, replacing Phil Comparelli in 2005.

Osborne met Merritt in Grade 11 at South Delta High School in Tsawwassen. His family had moved there halfway through the year. Merritt, a basketball player who'd injured his leg, good-naturedly took time to get to know the new kid.

The music-loving teens hatched the 54-40 band name after learning in social studies class about American president James Polk's Manifest Destiny slogan, "54 40 or fight!"

Today, performing isn't the do-or-die experience it once was. In the early days, gigging "was like being thrown into a battlefield," Osborne said. Now it's more relaxed. Better?

"Well, it's better because it is now," he added with a chuckle. "I can reminisce all I want. But I'm still here, still playin', still got a gig.

That's pretty good."

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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