With conventional wisdom as our guide, we felt secure in anticipation that Bon Jovi would treat us to the quintessential rock spectacle — they're a band you really only want to see in an arena, and we most definitely got the parade of powerhouse radio staples and shout-along choruses. So why did we come away from their Wednesday night show at Bridgestone Arena feeling a little disappointed? It's not because we felt bad fist-pumping to "You Give Love a Bad Name" while missing out on seeing Levon Helm sing "The Weight" at The Ryman. It's because the handful of obligatory hits we came to see was dispersed throughout a heavy-handed "miss"-laden set of overly earnest thematic train-wreckage. Plus, there was no pyro. WTF?
After opening with 1988's "Blood on Blood" — a song seemingly unfamiliar to most in the crowd — things immediately got uncomfortable as they followed the New Jersey deep cut with "We Weren't Born to Follow," the lead-off track to their latest, The Circle. The overwrought anthem was accompanied by a wall of video screens, which bombarded us with hackneyed platitudes like "move forward," "break the chain," "act now," "stand up," etc., most of which were lost on the crowd, some of whom booed when the words were displayed next to images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. We booed when images of Richie Sambora (mid-guitar solo) were juxtaposed with images of Jimi Hendrix, and images of Jon Bon were juxtaposed with images of Bob Dylan. Which brings us to the central problem of Bon Jovi's painstaking earnestness: It's hamfisted, clumsy and callous.
We quickly realized the band would spend a large part of the show making laughably broad, pseudo-uplifting gestures without ever tying them to a specific idea. The most profound examples of this were the Springsteen-for-dummies populist mess "Work for the Working Man" and the set-closing whisper-fest "Love's the Only Rule," which the band was obviously more passionate about than running through "Keep the Faith" for the 2,172nd time.
Luckily, they still remember how they got where they are, and threw us a bone early in the set with "You Give Love a Bad Name," which got us and everyone else on their feet. This is the stuff we came to see. We guzzled our brew and joined the shout-along, and it was momentarily awesome.
The band were at their best when unleashing the hits as Jon Bon — looking like Jane Fonda in a mid-'80s workout video — did his familiar jumping-jack bounce, Richie Sambora wailed ejaculatory false harmonics and drummer Tico Torres pounded away with arms like groove cannons. And of course, keyboardist David Bryan's perennial poodle-perm never gets old. That dude is steadfast when it comes to coiff.
Nothing prepared us for Jon Bon emerging onto the mid-floor catwalk to sing an impassioned rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" — transforming it into an every-bad-boy-has-a-soft-side torch ballad, complete with grab-at-an-invisible-angel histrionics, taken straight out of an SNL sketch. Jaws: dropped. Next came the obligatory mid-show acoustic set (double-neck acoustic, as a matter of fact), which is perfectly acceptable from the guys who coronated MTV Unplugged way back when. We'll give 'em a pass on that one.
After riding through the peaks and valleys of predictable hits, stadium-country and overly serious Coldplay-meets-Van Halen stabs at the stratosphere, the band encored with a balls-out triptych of "Runaway," the long-awaited "Wanted (Dead or Alive)" and the ever-epic "Livin' on a Prayer," which made us feel like kids being rewarded with ice cream after two-hours spent eating overcooked vegetables. The payoff made the show worth the price of admission, which in our case was free.
We wanted so badly to love this show, we really did. We did our part and pre-gamed it pretty hard beforehand, in an attempt to wash away our pretension with alcohol. If only the band had done the same.
Despite impending rain and our plus-one bailing on us Friday night to go to an outdoor fashion show uptown with James Cameron in attendance — a fashion show at which a horse would eventually take a monster shit on the red carpet ... seriously — we opted to soldier on and attend Vanderbilt's yearly Mini-'Roo, Rites of Spring. But just for Phoenix. We parked at Springwater, huffed it down West End and past some truly bumpin' frat parties, and picked up our passes to the sounds of Cold War Kids — then again, it could have just been a really piss-poor Walkmen cover band.
The crew we managed to round up met us at the gate amid a sea of sockless bros and Grodie Fosters. It slipped our minds that Rites of Spring is, of course, a BYOB event. Major fail on our part. You'd think, with the abundance of business majors and all, that some wily Van Wilder type would have thought to set up shop behind the Porta-Potties and sell contraband beers. No such luck, but we did find a dude who was willing to give us a Miller Lite for a buck, just as the pride of Versailles took the stage.
Sound was awfully muddled at sidestage as Phoenix started in on "Lisztomania," so we went and kicked it by the sound booth. Much better. Rain was intermittent but not especially bothersome as Phoenix tore through nearly every song from last year's smash hit Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and several from It's Never Been Like That. They even busted out one of those ultra-safe dance jams from Alphabetical ... or was it United? We're not exactly certain, but it was most certainly from their Maroon 5-esque early days. Frontman Thomas Mars proved to be quite the showman, climbing the stage's scaffolding and demonstrating "How we clap in Paris" — though we wonder what Vandy students' parents would think about their tuition money going toward a bunch of Frenchmen showing their kids how to applaud.
Phoenix, of course, saved mega-hit "1901" for last — you know, the one even your grampa knows because of the Cadillac commercial. By this point sound had gotten much better — or we'd just gotten used to it, as our companion put it — and the entire performance was building to an epic conclusion. They were using those Venetian blind-style stage lights from the video, everyone was singing and dancing along, and that part where Mars yells "Fold it!" over and over again was just about to kick in ... and then the power died. We're not certain what happened (a fuse blew, maybe?), but the speakers went dead silent, despite the fact that Phoenix's monitors and amps still appeared to be functional. Talk about the consummate blue balls moment. Ever the classy showmen, however, Phoenix waited until power was restored and started back in from the refrain, allowing everyone to sing along with the outro. Classy move, Phoenix.
Not particularly inclined to hang around for pop sensation Drake, The Spin headed up to Springwater for a birthday celebration featuring SN6 and Super Bowl Rocket Ship. Good stuff. Oh, and as it turns out, the terrible weather led to cancellations from all sorts of artists on Saturday, so it looks like we managed to just see the good stuff. Phoenix, that is.
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