Concert Review – Bon Jovi live in Las Vegas
Bon Jovi arrived in Las Vegas last night in support of their feisty new album, This House Is Not For Sale. After seeing them in September of 1989 at the Miami Arena (thanks mom!) and wearing out my New Jersey cassette, I’ve stayed faintly aware of them over the decades as they (d)evolved from one of glam metal’s biggest stars into a heartland rock and roll band and a calculating music brand.
Starting with 2000’s Crush and the smash “It’s My Life”, the band tapped into a safe, easy to replicate formula of adult contemporary rock that sounds equally good on the radio or in a DirecTV commercial. Jon Bon Jovi’s ragged determination to keep the band filling arenas makes him incredibly likable and it felt like a good time to revisit one of the most memorable bands of my teenage years.
To enjoy the band these days, you have to come to terms with the irony of a This House Is Not For Sale tour when everything Bon Jovi is in fact for sale. For a couple of thousand dollars, you can experience an entire Bon Jovi weekend with tickets to the show and a meet-and-greet with the band. Too much for you? No problem, just download the Bon Jovi app to your phone which provides a built-in “lighter” for the ballads and a link to their store where you can spend $34.99 for a USB bracelet with a copy of the concert you already bought a ticket for. Feeling lucky? Enter the “Upgrade Your Seat” contest for the show and you can find your $19 upper level ticket turning into great seats near the stage. Every television in the arena (a house sold to a mobile carrier), offered new ways to spend money on the Bon Jovi experience. Much like Starbucks, Bon Jovi have perfected the consumer experience and the sold-out show speaks to their success as a band and a brand over the last three decades.
The sincerity of Jon Bon Jovi always shines through and on this tour, the band is giving “local” bands a shot at opening each night. As a huge fan of seeing support acts, it was a thrill to see Daring Greatly, a roots rock act out of Canada, make the most of their 20 minutes of fame. The family band’s vocal harmonies won over the disinterested fans finding their seats and it was lifting to see the band’s friends and family experience the moment from a nearby section. Few bands ever reach the arena size stages and for a far too brief moment Daring Greatly lived that dream. The short set turned out to be appropriate because Bon Jovi had a lot of music to cover on this night.
Opening with the new album’s title song and going straight into “Knockout”, a manifesto about the band’s new found attitude, the band seemed determined to prove that the new songs have plenty of muscle despite the absence of guitarist Richie Sambora. Filling Richie’s sizable shoes on this tour is studio ace Phil X and Bon Jovi’s producer John Shanks, who plays Steven Van Zandt to Jon Bon Jovi’s Springsteen affectations, which color most of his stage antics these days. Equal parts television preacher and humble average Joe, the crowd roared in appreciation with every move Jon made. When the band launched into “You Give Love a Bad Name” the concert took off and it finally felt like a Bon Jovi show, briefly.
The musical transition out of the dated glam metal scene was necessary for Bon Jovi’s long-term survival but that doesn’t mean the current setlist needs to cram twelve songs between “You Give Love A Bad Name” and the New Jersey classic “Lay Your Hands On Me”. In-between those Bon Jovi classics, the band pulled heavily from the new album with songs that were a mix of Reckless-era Bryan Adams b-sides and generic modern rock tracks that would suit Rob Thomas just as easily as Jon Bon Jovi. The laughable “We Don’t Run” flashed political messages across the see-through curtains framing the stage which were intentionally vague and open to interpretation. Choosing the middle of the road in such turbulent times is a disservice to the power and purpose of rock and roll but a smart business decision.
Not only did the long stretch of newer material cripple the flow of the night, it handcuffed the hard hitting Tico Torres on drums. The “Hit Man” hasn’t lost any of his power but it wasn’t until late in the set when he could unleash his fury. “Born to Be My Baby”, one of the best pop songs of the glam metal era, absolutely shook the rafters and “Bad Medicine” took me back to the band’s glory years. Bon Jovi can still deliver the goods on stage; which made the night even more frustrating. When the band finally gave us “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” to end the 24-song set, the trust between fan and artist had already been broken. There would be no “Never Say Goodbye”, “Runaway” or “I’ll Be There for You” for us to sing and only the most loyal of fans could consider this tour a success.
It is hard to blame Bon Jovi for the current state of arena rock or even fault them for peddling every aspect of the experience. With so much at stake financially on a tour this size, little can be left to chance – even the stage banter. When Jon Bon Jovi said he came back to Vegas because he likes to make the Vegas girls scream, the Vegas girls didn’t seem to mind that he said the same thing to the Dallas girls a few nights earlier. The entire night was scripted to the smallest detail using a populist recipe. Much like Starbucks, consistency ensures repeat business and keeps the Bon Jovi brand strong even if the band’s identity gets lost in the transaction. In Las Vegas, there is a Starbucks on every corner but only one Bad Owl Coffee Company. There used to be only one Bon Jovi. I miss them.