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Bon Jovi Bonhomie

The New Jersey rock band left happy fans dancing in the aisles

By Sarah Quelland

Photographs by George Sakkestad

ASIDE FROM the teenagers in the back of my school bus blasting AC/DC's Back in Black and Pink Floyd's The Wall every chance they got, Bon Jovi was my introduction to hard rock. Before then, like so many young girls, I'd been thriving on the sounds of Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran and Cyndi Lauper.

But in 1986, Bon Jovi's breakthrough album, Slippery When Wet, became the talk of my middle school, and tapes were traded like contraband when we thought the teachers weren't looking. Bon Jovi really kick-started my love of hard rock, and songs like "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Livin' on a Prayer" were great primer material for glam-rock bands like Poison and more serious metal bands like Metallica.

Bon Jovi

It took 15 years, but I saw my first Bon Jovi concert last Monday (April 23) at the Compaq Center (formerly the San Jose Arena). And I'd bet my worn copy of New Jersey that the band's live show, like its music, hasn't changed too much over time--which is a huge relief.

Most of the rock bands that dominated the charts in the '80s, including Bon Jovi, became the butt of the music industry's jokes in the '90s. I have a lot of respect for the bands from that era that are still playing their music on their terms today--whether it's in arenas or clubs.

Imagine if Bon Jovi had tried to adapt to the prevailing trends of the '90s--if the band had adopted the whiny "poor me" angst, the shy shoegazer melancholy or, even worse, the angry rap-rock fury. It would have alienated everyone who's ever been a Bon Jovi fan.

Bon Jovi

No, Bon Jovi hasn't changed, and that's a good thing. The band has matured with grace and dignity, something not always easy to come by in this day and age. Its seventh album, Crush, has been certified platinum in the United States and has sold more than seven million copies worldwide.

Like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi has built its fan base by consistently delivering working-class songs, blue-collar ballads and arena-rock anthems that people can relate to. Though admittedly clichéd at times, the band's lyrics aren't cryptic or esoteric. They're straightforward and get to the point.

The ballads are sung in the heartfelt spirit of a sentimental gentleman, and one gets the sense that frontman Jon Bon Jovi means every word. Being a bit of a romantic sap, myself, I find lyrics like "You were born to be my baby/and, baby, I was made to be your man" ("Born to Be My Baby") sweet rather than cloying.

Bon Jovi WITH THAT IN MIND, anyone who doesn't at least casually appreciate Bon Jovi probably wouldn't have enjoyed Monday's show. But Bon Jovi gave a strong performance that made everyone in the cavernous arena (which was absolutely packed) feel close to the band.

A huge screen behind the set (a red brick artifice designed to look like a factory) and overhead TV screens broadcasted close-ups of the band (Jon, guitarist Richie Sambora, keyboardist Dave Bryan, drummer Tico Torres and new bassist Hugh McDonald) throughout the night.

Bon Jovi kicked off with the tour's namesake, "One Wild Night," jumped into the classic "You Give Love a Bad Name" and rocketed into the present with "It's My Life," the hot single from the band's Grammy-nominated "comeback" album Crush.

One of the most striking things about the performance was the band's friendly rapport with the audience. The group seemed comfortable onstage and didn't seem to put any walls up between it and the fans. Several of the female contest winners, who watched the show from the sides of the stage, darted out to dance with Jon; he obliged with a radiant smile and joked, "The girls over here are definitely drinkin' the punch."

Bon Jovi

As promised, the night was full of clapping and sing-alongs. Jon was a bundle of energy, sweaty by the 10th song ("Blood on Blood") and slightly limping by the 15th ("Bad Medicine"). The band tweaked its familiar material: part of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" found its way into "Keep the Faith," and Jon stood centerstage for an a capella intro to "Living on a Prayer."

Other songs that made the cut included "Wild Is the Wind," "Just Older," "Lay Your Hands On Me," "Someday I'll Be Saturday Night" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." Interestingly, Bon Jovi didn't perform Crush's latest single, "Thank You for Loving Me."

Bon Jovi The band went easy on the ballads and concentrated on those songs that are already part of the soundtrack to people's memories. When he sang, "I'll be the water when you get thirsty, baby/When you get drunk, I'll be the wine" ("I'll Be There for You"), I was flooded by memories of my nascent forays into the bittersweet hell that is young love--a time when I believed it couldn't get more profound than that. When he played the guitar-slingin' road-warrior anthem "Wanted Dead or Alive" during the first encore, I got chills.

The band included three covers in its generous set: the Isley Brothers' "Shout," the Champs' "Tequila" and the night's energizing closer, "Twist and Shout" (first recorded by the Isley Brothers, but better known as a Beatles' song), which effectively turned the arena into a scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Maybe it's a nostalgia thing, but I like the new material; it's vintage Bon Jovi. And though the crowd mostly consisted of 25- to 40-year-olds, there were some teenagers in the audience. One girl, who looked to be about 16, was wearing faded jeans with "BON JOVI" written down the legs in big, bold, colorful letters. I wondered if they were hers or if they belonged to her mother once upon a time in the '80s.

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Web extra to the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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