By Brian Ives
Twenty-something years ago during the alt-rock ’90s, I saw Bon Jovi perform on a bill of mostly alternative rock acts during the height of the Lollapalooza era. Although the Jersey rockers were a multi-platinum arena headlining band, they were not the headliners. In fact, they were playing pretty low on the bill, underneath younger bands who sort of poked fun and the idea that Jon and the boys were playing that night.
As a New Jersey-ite, I was worried how the band would go over. I didn’t want to see the guys get pelted by a younger, snottier audience. When it was their set time, the lights went down, the band started playing their new hit single – the power ballad “Always,” and what could be less cool to the mosh pit crowd – Jon Bon Jovi was nowhere to be seen, for the first few seconds.
But I just thought, “Uh-oh.” A power ballad for the mosh-pit crowd, it felt a bit tone deaf, pop culturally. “They’re about to get killed,” I thought.
I was wrong. They killed it. The younger crowd were instantly won over by the arena rock gestures and the songs that designed to reach the last row of the upper level. The other bands seemed to have chips on their shoulders about playing such a big venue; it was not very “punk.” Bon Jovi, meanwhile, were right in their element and showed the audience what got them there in the first place: great songs, a true love for playing to huge crowds and a charismatic frontman. After the show, Bon Jovi’s shirts had sold out at every t-shirt stand. Which was not the case for any other band on the bill.
So, I learned never to doubt Jon Bon Jovi’s confidence. If he thinks he can do something, he probably can.
Which brings me to last night (October 20), as Bon Jovi (the man and the band) played a show at New York’s Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, doing a very ambitious set: they were playing all fifteen songs from their latest album, This House is Not For Sale, which isn’t even out until November 4. Bands with three-plus decades of history are lucky if they can play three or four new songs in a set: but a full album of fifteen songs that most people hadn’t heard yet? That’s a tough one.
But from the opening notes of the first song, “This House is Not For Sale,” it was clear that he hasn’t lost his knack for writing huge anthems. The song sounded like it could find a home on country radio; with a little luck, it could be a pop hit. At the same time, it sounded quintessentially Bon Jovi.
“Albums meant something to me growing up,” Bon Jovi told the crowd, noting that he knew it was asking a lot for the fans to listen to fifteen new songs. But he seemed intensely committed to the album, and with good reason. Most of the songs were catchy and sounded like potential hits. But he seemed to be going for a bit more than ear candy: the album, he said, is “The story of the people who have been on this journey with us for thirty-three years.” He explained that after he releases the songs, the characters become his audience. “Tommy and Gina [from ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’] became you guys. Frankie [from ‘It’s My Life’] became you guys!”
Throughout the night, he expressed gratitude in several directions: to the fans, to the band — both long time members Tico Torres (drums) and David Bryan (keyboards), as well as bassist Hugh McDonald (who’d played on “Runaway,” all those years ago), guitarist Phil X (who temporarily filled in for Richie Sambora before permanently replacing him), guitarist/co-producer John Shanks and percussionist/singer Everett Bradley (who was in Bruce Springsteen’s backing band a few years ago). “New Year’s Day,” which he said was about the band, and sounded like modern-era U2, and was one of the highlights of the set.
U2 seems to be an influence on him, as does Sting (he mentioned being inspired by Sting’s ambitious Broadway show The Last Ship), modern country music and that other singer/songwriter from the Garden State. Throughout the set, he spoke often of loyalty, integrity and community, values that inspired the lyrics to the album. (He also spoke about his restaurants, the Soul Kitchens – their menus have no prices: patrons select what they want and make the minimum donation. “If you can afford to donate more you are helping to feed your neighbor. If you are unable to donate, an hour of volunteering pays for your meal.” Learn more about the JBJ Soul Kitchen here).
There were a number of standout songs during the set, including the slow, soulful “Labor of Love,” which sounds like it could be a hit on multiple formats. Another smash in the waiting: “Scars on This Guitar.” If it doesn’t find its way up the charts, some young country singer should take a swing at it, because it ought to be a hit for someone. Ditto for the ballad “Real Love,” which JBJ performed accompanied only by Bryan on keys Everett.
Most of the album was played in sequence, save for “Come On Up to Our House,” a mid-tempo soulful number that may have been the show’s highlight. Rightfully, they saved it for last.
When they came out for their encore, Bon Jovi thanked the crowd and again and said, “Now we’re going to play a few number one hits for you,” before going into “You Can’t Go Home Again” and “Bad Medicine.”
Related: Bon Jovi Announce 2017 Tour Dates
As I left the theater, I was still humming “Come On Up to Our House,” and thought that song would be a great closer on their arena tour. I wondered which of these songs will make the cut on those setlists. After all, there’s only so many new songs a thirty-three year old band can add to their hits-heavy set, no matter how good those new songs are.
On the other hand, I’ve learned not to bet against Jon Bon Jovi, and the loyalty of his fans.