Bon Jovi At Madison Square Garden, Saturday, April 15th, 2017, Reviewed
Nearly four years after Richie Sambora quit Bon Jovi, Jon has figured out how to perform without his lead guitarist. He dumped the ballads, even “Bed Of Roses” isn’t there, amped up the energy, and blasted through two hours of straight up Bon Jovi rockers at Madison Square Garden last night. The 55 year old took the stage to a second banana New Jersey heroes welcome and while with a catalog as spotty as Bon Jovi’s a non believer might find himself watching the clock, the members of the audience certainly didn’t and neither did my companion for the evening, my niece Louba Lababedi. She pointed to his dazzling “40 wattage smile” and you really need sunglasses to catch him from the second row, and her smile matched his.
The last time we saw Bon Jovi was at Metlife, June 2013 (my review here) and he was not good at all. I wrote at the time “This was a terrible concert, Jon kept shouting “Are you still with me?” and no, folks, they weren’t with him much. Nobody was standing except for the hits, the noise level was pretty low and an attempt to get a singalong to “Because We Can” -a good song, by the way, was simply embarrassing.” At MSG last night he got it right, he rode the stage well, he spoke intelligently about his new songs, appreciative for his longevity and very energetic, dancing (well -what goes for dancing) and singing at the top of his lungs, all laryngitis that caused Jon to postpone the gig for a week, gone. The band is a goodie, keyboardist David Bryan wrote the Broadway musical “Memphis” (and won a Tony), Bryan has been with the band since 1978. Bassist Hugh McDonald was on Bon Jovi’s first demo, “Runaway” (they performed it Thursday but we didn’t get it last night). Second guitarist John Shanks has produced every Bon Jovi album since Have A Nice Day, drummer Tico Torres is a newcomer, he joined the band in 1983, and Richie’s real replacement Phil X is given exactly one big solo all evening but is obviously a talent. They are a tough little rock band with no thrills, no tapes, just straight up no chaser Bon Jovi, and the uncomfortableness of his MetLife performance (the constant “Are you still with me?”) has given away to a very smart lead singer performance.
But Jon’s problems remain constant and you can hear it on every drawn out song he sings, he has a callowness that is impossible to miss. His latest album is lousy and despite his sincere attempts to give the songs weight by explaining them, they are shallow musings by a blessed man who till this day can’t show his heart. In his mid-50s, his concerts are incalculable, he remains hidden in plain sight, a vision of piety as a proto-riff monster. He never achieves what he attempts, it is not that he has no “Born To Run,” it is that he has no “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” -his songs and his thoughts have all the depth of a fortune cookie. Decades after he formed the band all his best songs were on the first album. He lacks depth, he doesn’t grow into his music, he doesn’t represent anything over and above the brand. Jon may be the nicest guy on earth but he comes across as a bit of a dick.
At Madison Square Garden, the band got their mojo back. The fans lapped it up and Jon seemed to be doing one long victory lap. With “You Give Love A Bad Name” third in the night just as the initial excitement began to wane, a crowd pleasing “Roller Coaster” soon after, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” building the energy to “We Got It Going On” to the very popular # 1 country hit “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” Jon rides a full tilt six songs in a row tear him through to the five songer encore culminating with “Wanted Dead Or Alive” and “Livin’ On A Prayer”. This was textbook arena rock, even the mid gig lull was helped along by a loquacious Jon. In straight black jeans and a leather jacket he looked incredible and when he changed into a partially unbuttoned shirt for the encore, his freshly shaved chest glistening in the lights, the women in the audience swooned.
Afterwards, Louba said it was the best she had ever seen Bon Jovi. I’d still go with the mini 12-12-12 set, but it was certainly a huge improvement and proved Jon learns from his mistakes… just not musically.