Draw the Line – 54-40

54-40 as a band measures their performance in steps, navigating from song to song, and building a relationship with an audience. Sometimes that relationship is tenuous as was witnessed tonight.

The opening song, “Nice to Luv You” was casually received by the audience, but before their lackluster response is noted, the band moves quickly into “Lies to Me” which might be considered a tongue-in-cheek retort to the audience’s low energy if the set list had not determined beforehand. From the look on the face of front man Neil Osborne, guitar and lead vocals, he didn’t appear to suffer the lack of energy well. It’s almost as if he was thinking that if the audience didn’t get excited, then neither would he. He drew an imaginary line and he wanted the crowd to cross it.

This isn’t to say that the band lacked energy; their contained spirit was evident in the way they confidently played their material, but there was something missing that takes the performance from great to magical. Osborne’s quixotic expressions reminded one of the 70s punks and their general distain for an audience, but in Osborne’s case it didn’t appear to be mean spirited, simply disappointment. He wanted reciprocal energy from the audience, not just their presence-he wanted the audience to drive the show. A set list has a structure, and the band performed the songs with a sustained energy, but the tipping point occurs when a crowd adds the fire-that fire coughed and sputtered and was in danger of going out tonight.

Deerfoot Casino, Calgary | January 12, 2013
Photography by: Charles Hope

The title track from their last album, “Lost in the City”, a plaintive story of a journey through a moody urban landscape where the word ‘lost’ represented so many levels of the human condition engaged the audience, but not completely, not fully.

Before playing “Waiting,” a new un-recorded song, Osborne remarked, “We hope it makes it to the new record, but that depends on you.” A pause for dramatic effect and then, “You know what I mean.” This was not a plea, simply a statement of fact. 54-40 is a straightforward band, allowing their music to speak for itself. It’s as if they saying ‘yes, you came to the show and we appreciate your effort, but now the real work begins’. It’s too bad the audience didn’t respond enthusiastically since the song was rhythmically quite strong and should make the new album.

Through this building of a relationship, Brad Merritt on bass and Matt Johnson on drums provided a solid foundation that wonderfully supported Osborne’s narrative travels. Newest member Genn’s guitar work expertly danced around Osborne’s voice while tour member Tom Hooper from The Grapes of Wrath provided additional keyboard textures on many of the songs, though his volume in the mix was often so low as to be non-existent.

By “Radio Luv Song” the band was steaming along, finding their own fire even if the audience wasn’t quite up to the task. Perhaps the straight back chairs and seating arrangements were causing early fatigue, because it certainly wasn’t the band-they were locked into a groove that was pure power.

On the folky “One Hundred Songs” Genn brought out a banjo and harmonica to accompany Osborne’s acoustic guitar, a dynamic shift for which the audience responded joyously. “One Gun” received a great response as Osborne began the song without accompaniment as Genn adding textual punctuations. The piece slowly gained power as the other members smoothly moved into the mix with increasing volume to match Osborne’s intense delivery, pushing the song towards its anthemic possibilities. 54-40 has always utilized dynamic arrangements with their repertoire and maybe this is what the audience really wanted to hear.

“Since When” and “Casual Viewin’” wove dynamic layers as the crowd finally expressed some emotion though it wavered when they were prompted to sing the choruses. Osborne was quick to note their lethargy “Must be the turkey-haven’t you finished it yet?” This up and down, sine wave audience response continued until the end of the show when they finally erupted with some real excitement. The encores “I Go Blind” and “Love You All” were heartily cheered and at the end Osborne graciously thanked the audience “for rubbing that genie bottle”, but I think he was referring more to the group’s history than what transpired tonight.

54-40 is a band that builds: builds momentum, builds interest, builds response. Their shows, like their music, don’t hit you over the head or knock you on your ass, and certainly don’t allow you to be passive. They are a band similar to fine Scotch; meant to be savoured and well considered after the initial taste. Though their music is truly hook-laden power-pop, it is intelligent and has multiple layers that are more complex and multi-dimensional than a passive listener would notice. Within the tasting of powerful music is careful consideration and passionate response. It was too bad this crowd failed to engage and taste the band.

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