54-40 thrives on new blood



During Dave Genn’s last year of high school, U2’s The Joshua Tree, the Cure’s The Head on the Door, and the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead were discs that drew heavy rotation on his personal play list. And right up there was the self-titled major-label debut by local guitar-rock upstarts 54-40.

In 1988, a year after he graduated, Genn saw his first 54-40 concert at the Commodore Ballroom and was totally blown away. So it’s pretty damn cool that he’ll be making his first Vancouver appearance as the venerable quartet’s new lead guitarist at the Commodore on Friday (October 21).

“I was a huge fan of the band,” recalls Genn from an Ottawa tour stop, “particularly in their earlier alternative phase-back when alternative meant something besides ‘I’m from Seattle.’ And being a young musician in Vancouver, they were the band that you looked up to, that you aspired to have a career like. They followed their own rules, and weren’t playing music that was like the status quo.”

Exactly one week after the Commodore show, the hairs on the back of Genn’s neck will get another reason to quiver when 54-40 opens for the Rolling Stones at the Saddledome in Calgary. You could say things are going okay for the affable picker, whose first actual run-in with a 54-40 member occurred one day in the early ’90s.

“These guys would put together hockey games in the winter and softball games in the summer,” he recalls, “and all us musicians would get together at a field or hockey rink and act like we were jocks. And that’s when I first met the band, when Matt Johnson, the drummer, tripped me up for a penalty shot.”

The current result of that on-ice indiscretion is Yes to Everything, one of the catchiest, most hook-filled recordings of 54-40’s career, and its first for Toronto-based True North Records.

“It’s a very sort of meat ‘n’ potatoes album,” posits Genn. “We were really using the bands that we had grown up listening to as our template, so the Beatles, the Stones, Neil Young, AC/DC. But we’re already starting to talk about the next record at this point, and, I think, in true 54-40 form, we will take a left turn and do something completely different for the next one.”

Yes to Everything was produced with Warne Livesey, whom Genn had previously worked with on CDs by Emm Gryner and Holly McNarland, as well as Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust and three Matthew Good Band albums. Genn was an MGB member from ’95 to 2001, playing guitar and keyboards and cowriting hit songs, until the group ripped apart in a hail of finger-pointing and accusations.

Before his doomed collaboration with Good, Genn had spent several years backing up Vancouver alt-rock legend Art Bergmann. He cowrote several tracks on Bergmann’s What Fresh Hell Is This? album, which garnered a Juno Award in 1995.

“That was the first Junos I went to,” recalls Genn, “and I’ll never forget it. Art got up on-stage with a smoke in his mouth and they gave him the Juno-which at the time looked kind of like a giant, triangular phallus-and he immediately took it and made a screwing motion with it towards the sky. I said to myself: ‘Ah, it’s great that he finally got a Juno, but I think that’s probably the last one.’?”

Genn reveals that talks are currently under way with a Toronto label for an Art Bergmann tribute album, but his main concern these days is clearly 54-40, which, strange as it may seem, has never actually won a Juno. He’s confident that his recruitment has been a boost for the veteran quartet.

“Neil [vocalist and main songwriter Neil Osborne] likens my arrival to what Keith Richards must feel like when he gets a blood transfusion,” says Genn, who has great respect for his predecessor, original 54-40 guitarist Phil Comparelli. “Phil is an immense musician,” he raves. “Incredible lead player, very much in that Keith Richards style. I think that maybe my style is a little bit more meticulous in some ways.”

On-stage recently, Genn has been blasting forth new songs from Yes to Everything, as well as oldies from 54-40’s sizeable back catalogue, on his trusty ’69 Fender Telecaster. But considering the history of the band, he thinks a change might be in order.

“Phil was always a Strat man,” he points out, “so if anybody’s got a good old Strat to sell me, they can let me know. I’ll play some of his solos on that.”

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