Prince Rupert’s Lester Centre has been known to punch above its weight class when it comes to attracting big-name acts and next weekend’s event “Two Nights With A West Coast Band” is no exception.
Tsawwassen’s 54•40 is Canadian alt-rock royalty having been inducted into both the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, both in 2017, with a string of Juno awards and platinum and gold albums under their collective belt.
Their song, “I Go Blind,” popularized by Hootie and the Blowfish when it reached #5 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1995, was inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2021.
In August, they released their latest single “West Coast Band,” a preview to a new album by the same name.
Largely considered a 1990s band, which was when they first claimed widespread commercial success, 54•40 had been kicking around the music scene since 1981. During the 1980s, they were mostly a west coast band, a favourite of college radio stations and the club scene in western Canada and the United States.
Their 1980s album offerings yielded singles such as “I Go Blind,” “Baby Ran,” “One Day in Your Life,” “One Gun,” “Miss You,” “Baby Have Some Faith” and “Over My Head.”
In 1989, after almost a decade of recording and touring, the band received a Juno Award nomination for Most Promising Group of the Year.
That success yielded a compilation album in 1991 titled, Sweeter Things, which became their first Canadian certified platinum album.
None of that success or frequent touring, however, translated to financial independence. It wasn’t until a label change and the 1994 album Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, which produced their breakthrough single “Ocean Pearl,” that the band members were able to quit their day jobs, admitted founding guitarist and lead singer Neil Osborne in a 1998 interview.
Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was a reference to the famous nightclub in Vancouver that opened in the 1950s and was a staple of the music scene for 60 years before closing its doors permanently in 2019. It was where 54•40 held its debut performance on New Year’s Eve in 1980.
Even in the band’s heydey, the name 54•40 was an obscure reference to a pivotal period of British Columbia’s history.
In the 1840s, British Columbia was still part of the Oregon territory (known to the British as the Columbia District), which by agreement between the United States and Great Britain was jointly controlled.
James Polk, who would become the 11th president of the United States in 1845, was a huge underdog to the Whig Party’s Henry Clay when he was nominated by the Democrats for the 1844 election.
Polk, however, tapped into the American zeitgeist of Manifest Destiny by calling for the annexation of Texas and the entire west coast of North America from California to Russian-controlled Alaska, the boundary of which was 54 degrees 40 minutes latitude (just north of Prince Rupert at 54 degrees 31 minutes).
After he was sworn in as president in 1845, the United States annexed Texas, which a decade earlier had declared itself an independent republic, despite Mexico’s ongoing claim to the territory.
Facing a costly war on its southern border, Polk offered to establish a permanent northern border along the 49th parallel with the British with the southern tip of Vancouver Island going to the Americans. The British rejected that offer and the slogan “54-40 or fight!” was born among American expansionists.
Eventually, Polk conceded all of Vancouver Island and the two powers signed the Oregon Treaty establishing the southern border of B.C. as it is known today.
While the band’s fame peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the release of its highest-charting album Since When (1998) and its title track that reached #11 on Billboard’s Canadian Singles Chart, 54•40 has not rested on its laurels. Throughout the past two decades, they have produced six albums of new, original music, the latest of which is 2018’s Keep on Walking.
They also produced a compilation album of their greatest hits reimagined called La Difference: A History Unplugged (2016).
Their latest offering is a live EP released this year, which they recorded in 2020 at what is arguably the most famous live music nightclub in Canada, Toronto’s El Mocambo Tavern.
54•40’s lineup for the Prince Rupert shows Oct. 20 and 21 features founding members Osborne and bassist Brad Merrit as well as their drummer since 1986 Matt Johnson. Joining them are lead guitarist Dave Genn who has been with the band since 2003 and David Osborne (Neil’s brother) who joined in 2015 on organ, saxophone and harmonica.
Tickets are still available for both nights online and at the Lester Centre box office for $59. Lester Centre manager Chris Armstrong said Prince Rupert has always been kind of a last-minute town when it comes to events and is expecting a huge rush on ticket sales in the days leading up to the two concerts.