In recent weeks and months I have received numerous emails asking me why I will write such polarizing reviews about Bon Jovi. I consider myself a fan (one of the biggest on the planet) but I also feel obligated to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. I love this band; when they succeed, I'll praise them and when they disappoint me, I'll make sure they know why they let me down. I had tickets for their recent Milwaukee show months ago, for their triumphant return to Summerfest (marking the band's fourth appearance going back to 1985). My expectations for this show were low due specifically to the ridiculous ticket prices the band is charging for their upcoming ten-night stand in Newark, NJ. Despite my extreme hesitations, I'm happy to say that Bon Jovi engaged the Milwaukee crowd and performed a two-hour show that was nothing short of stupendous. Even songs that appeared tired (most notably "Bad Medicine" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead", the latter which should be retired indefinitely), the band brazenly punched their way through them absorbing the record breaking crowd. I've said this before and I'll say it again, when Bon Jovi wants to be, they are one of the three or four best live bands on the planet; when they want to be. Tonight, with a little help from the jubilant Milwaukee crowd, they rose to the challenge and were one of these preeminent bands.
Since this was a one-off show, the stage was bare aside from the band's equipment, which I found refreshing. There were no gimmicks, toys or pits full of fans trying to grab band members...just a lot of adrenaline and rock n' roll. In my book there is no better way to see any band. Kicking off with the one-two punch of "Livin' on a Prayer" and "You Give Love A Bad Name" the band rolled through the next two-hours like seasoned pros giving the Milwaukee audience a largely greatest hits set flavored with seven new songs from the band's latest album, 'Lost Highway'. The hits were irresistible; "Runaway", "Born To Be My Baby", "It's My Life", "Someday I'll Be Saturday Night", "Who Says You Can't Go Home" and "Wanted Dead or Alive" all sounded as fresh as the day they were recorded specifically because of the band's aggression and resolve. I was near the front of the stage and as I peered over my shoulder during all of the aforementioned hits, you saw close to thirty-thousand pairs of hands in the air, a sight almost greater than the tight, fit and healthy looking band on stage. The Milwaukee crowd was completely drunk on Bon Jovi and the band in turn ate it up.
What was a one-off gig to support the new album turned into a superlative show due to the partnership of band and fan. There were no Ticketmaster auctions or ridiculously priced seats and it showed. The front of the crowd knew the new songs inside and out. As a result of their infectious enthusiasm, the rest of the crowd followed their lead during the rip roaring title track, "Lost Highway" by surging their arms into the air during the chorus. The first chorus found only the front of the house participating, but by the second chorus, the entire amphitheater was reaching for the sky. "Whole Lotta Leavin'" was equally victorious as it showed the band at their most cathartic and featured some great acoustic guitar work from sideman Bobby Bandiera. The latest single "(You Want To) Make A Memory" becomes more alluring with every performance and listen. This may potentially be a hidden gem years from now and I only hope the band continues to make it evolve. "I Love This Town" will be a future anthem anywhere they play and even the ridiculousness of "We Got It Goin' On" went over well (although I still find it to be the most thwarting song Bon Jovi has ever committed to tape). Aside from one stinker, the rest of the new material ascended to new heights with "Any Other Day" taking the cake. A simplistic song on the first listen, the band demonstrated why they are a driving force in concert with Bobby Bandiera playing a gorgeous solo followed by an equally languid one from Richie Sambora (who looked excellent and alert the entire night). As they segued from solo to solo, violinist Lorenza Ponce performed an extended solo leaving the audiences mouths agape. An already good song was elevated to a new apex. This is what was missing from Unplugged but in Milwaukee the band fused all of these elements together for an explosive reaction.
This was one of the five-best crowds I have been a part of in the last few years with only Pearl Jam coming close to the level of fanaticism on display in Milwaukee. It was exhilarating but nerve-racking at the same time. The fanaticism of the crowd made it crystal clear to me that Bon Jovi does not need money guarantees from AEG, auctioned off seats, pits for radio winners, or even high definition screens. This band is so spectacular live, that if they give the same energy into every show as they did this one, they would sell out anywhere they play. Bon Jovi doesn't need to perform on American Idol, The View or even the Today Show, they just need to hit the road and leave the audience in a spellbinding trance. This is what they do best. They don't need to ever have a concert ticket over $100. Don't follow the lead of the Police and Rolling Stones, but follow the lead of Dave Matthews and Pearl Jam; respect your fans, give 110% every night and don't take care of the suits first. If you do this, the riches and more importantly, respect will follow. All that mattered in Milwaukee were the band and the fans. Sadly, this may be one of the last times I may witness the magic this band has to offer as they are choosing to sell the best seats to their upcoming shows to those who have $750 for a pair of tickets. The roar of the crowd will not be as load and deafening if it was filled with a bunch of suits. The rich get richer mentality is not a road to longevity, respecting your fans is. The Summerfest Bon Jovi show was filled with soul instead of sponsors.
The extra-long encore was seducing. The band performed the Leonard Cohen song, "Hallelujah" which was far better than on Unplugged. I only wish Richie Sambora helped Jon harmonize on this one. Despite it being a good performance, it can't hold a candle to the Jeff Buckley or Leonard Cohen versions (which Jon gave a plug to). But if a few dozen people left the show in search of either of these artists, then Jon Bon Jovi has done his job. The new song, "The Last Night" proved to be more than meets the eye. It's at the end of a terribly long mid-tempo group of songs on 'Lost Highway' and I initially overlooked it and did not fully appreciate its harmonies. The finale of "Twist and Shout" was not planned and while it's not the first time the band has done this, they get bonus points for going above and beyond the call of duty. The crowd deserved an extra song and they got it.
During the penultimate anthem, "Wanted Dead or Alive", I watched the light reflect off Jon and Richie and to the left of the stage their silhouettes graced a wall as they brought the song to its climax. Amidst the darkness of the amphitheater there was inner light shimmering from these two artists. Despite what people may say about Bon Jovi, they bring enlightenment, hope and optimism to millions of people across the world. People who are backed into a corner and feel hopeless find solace in the band's music and performances. I only hope that these lost souls riding down life's highways are not shut out from seeing performances like the one in Milwaukee because of ticket prices.
Anthony Kuzminski can be found at The Screen Door.