The tagline on 54-40's website is "Mining for Gold Since 1981," the year of their first live show, giving the whole thing a kind of established, family business kind of feeling.
In a way, it's fitting. For 32 years since then, 54-40 has been reliably rocking the Canadian music scene in a distinctively, blue-collar way. At one point they were playing 120 to 130 shows a year while continuing to release albums every two to three years. Last year they played 45 shows, connecting with fans new and old.
And while some bands may slip out of the rock category into adult contemporary over time, paring off the sharp edges and slowing down the tempo, 54-40 has instead doubled down on its trademark sound — raw guitar licks that draw you in, songs that build into iconic choruses that get lodged in your brain, and thoughtful lyrics that punch — sung by Neil Osborne in a deep, smooth and laid back voice that is one-a-kind. It's as easy to pick out Osborne's voice in a song, as it is to pick out a tune sung by Geddy Lee, Neil Young, Gord Downie, Raine Maida and other journeyman Canadian musicians.
And after 32 years, 54-40 is still going strong. With 13 albums and an EP in the bank, including 2011's "Lost in the City," the band knows what it is. For Brad Merritt, lead guitarist for the band since day one, that's a family business.
"I don't want to be glib here, it's very important to me obviously, but one of the ways we look at it is as a niche kind of family business," he said. "We know who we're responsible to, and we're going to take care of those people... there's a special relationship with our fans, and we want to honour that."
With the Rolling Stones still touring after years and Rush passing the 45-year mark with a critically acclaimed new album, the issue of longevity in music is a hot topic these days. But Merritt said it's not something they spent too much time thinking about.
"I don't really think about it that much to be honest because this is just what I do, what I've always done," he said. "But if I take the time to reflect on it, I'd say we're grateful. We're at a point in our lives right now where — how to put this? — where our expectations are not unlimited anymore. We appreciate life, we appreciate what it is that we do, we appreciate each other and the band. If you were to ask what it's like to right now after all these years, I'd say it's amazing. It's absolutely amazing."
To be able to play on Canada Day weekend in Whistler was an opportunity the band jumped at. The last time they played here was in 2011 during the RBC Whistler GranFondo's after party with 6,000 or 7,000 fans watching. Before that they've been a semi-regular to the resort, going back to the band's first show in 1987 (possibly 1986) that Merritt remembers clearly.
"It was at the Savage Beagle downstairs. Our first big record came out (54-40, which included songs like "Baby Ran" and "I Go Blind") and I think we played it in its entirety," Merritt recalls. "I think there were probably a hundred people there, or something like that, and I remember that we were very happy to be there. We were getting some radio play and people knew the songs."
That year 54-40 would also release Show Me, which included "One Day in Your Life," "One Gun," and "Walk in Line," and by the end of the '80s, 1989, they had another hit album on shelves, Fight for Love, which featured "Miss You," and "Baby Have Some Faith."
Merritt describes some of the band's early music as post-punk, but by the '90s they were firmly in the rock'n'roll section, with diversions into pop, alt-rock and blues and the occasional shade of rockabilly. They had three albums go platinum in a row, Dear Dear, Smilin' Buddha Cabaret and Trusted by Millions, followed by Since When, which achieved gold at a time when digital downloading starting taking off via Napster and other peer-to-peer services.