With conventional wisdom as our guide, we felt secure in anticipation that Jon Bon & Co. would treat us to the quintessential rock spectacle. Unlike most rock acts, Bon Jovi is 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, as led by Jon Bon Jovi’s consummate showmanship. So why then, did we come away from this show 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.” 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 hobnobbing among classier folk and taking advantage of liberally dispersed drink tickets over at the Iron Fork shindig, we sauntered across the street to Bridgestone Arena, made our way through the crowd of fortysomethings and found our seats just in time to catch the tail-end of Emo (with a capital E) openers Dashboard Confessional — an act whose inexplicable inclusion on the bill is bewildering to say the least. We can only assume Bon Jovi selected the sensitive, pomade-dependent emoter of emotions to make themselves look tough by comparison. It worked. Mercifully we only caught two songs, one of which was a cover of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” which we suppose is better than hearing “Screaming Infidelities.”
With the arena appearing sold-out on a Wednesday night, you’d have never guessed we were in the middle of a recession, making it clear Bon Jovi have succeeded in getting the fan base they cultivated as ‘80s pop-metal pinups to follow them into adulthood. From our perspective, though, the tragic thing about Bon Jovi is the “maturation” of the latter-career material that dominated their setlist.
With our seats well up into the Bridgestone’s nosebleed horseshoe, the feeling of seeing the iconic band come onstage was like seeing a recognizable landmark from a airplane window.
After opening with 1988’s “Blood on Blood” — a song not seemingly familiar 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 were 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 a 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.
As the band eased into selections from Lost Highway, their 2007 country endeavor — which really just sounds like modern-day Jovi dressed up in cowboy boots and studs — we eased our way out to the smoking deck to kill both time and brain cells, waiting for the hits to start again.
Upon our return, we were treated to a nine-minute rendition of “Bad Medicine,” complete with a mid-song medley of “Shout” and The Doors' “Roadhouse Blues.” Despite The Spin’s disdain for The Doors, this was actually the most spirited part of the show. What followed was the crowd-galvanizing Backstreet-Boys-plus-talk-box hit “It’s My Life” and a blue-balling version of “Lay Your Hands on Me” that featured Sambora on lead vocals. Listen, if we wanted to see a guy who isn’t Jon Bon singing this song while wearing a silly hat, we would’ve just gone to Paradise Park.
While that moment was confounding, nothing prepared us for what came next — 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-angels 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 over-cooked vegetables. The pay-off made the show worth 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.