Wednesday night in Denver, Jon Bon Jovi launched his thirty-show tour that includes a stop in Cleveland, where the band will be inducted as a fan favorite into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 14. And if the first stop on the This House Is Not for Sale tour is any indication, he plans to fuel this journey with his band’s talent rather than spectacular production design. It’s a bold move in an era of flashy concerts, and he’s pulling it off.
Sure, the Denver show opened with a gargantuan American flag — which I feared foreshadowed a long night of tedious nationalism. Thankfully, that was not the case. There was some fancy video production setting the mood with images of roads and an old abandoned house, lighting towers that rose and lowered and lights that angled up and down.
Compared to modern pop arena extravaganzas by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or even Bon Jovi contemporaries like Metallica, Wednesday night's concert came off as minimalist. After all, we live in an era when an arena show's razzle-dazzle too often overwhelms an act’s raw talent. So much glitz is the stage-design equivalent of AutoTune. It makes for delightful spectacle, but too often songwriting, instrumental skill and vocal talent are dwarfed by larger-than-life props and technological wizardry.
Bon Jovi relied on none of that. Skill drove the show.
He opened with “This House Is Not for Sale,” the title track of his most recent album, and while the audience seemed generally glad to be there, they weren’t yet enthralled. In part, some of us were hesitant to have too much fun; last year, Bon Jovi canceled his Denver show to make good on higher-profile gigs at Madison Square Garden he had previously skipped because of a bout with bronchitis, irking Mile High fans royally. In part, that cancellation was so troubling because he had recruited a Fort Collins band, The Patti Fiasco, to open the 2017 concert and then left the musicians hanging.
To be fair, inviting local bands to open is one of Bon Jovi’s more endearing practices. Instead of dragging along national acts who might boost ticket sales, he uses his star power to give locals a chance to take the big stage.
But flake on a hometown hero, and you might as well not come back. Even after he announced he would be returning to Denver, it was still unclear if the members of The Patti Fiasco were victims of a Bon Jovi fiasco. Good news: They weren't. They took advantage of the outsized opportunity, showed up and slayed.
But even if he made things right with the Fiasco, could he smooth things over with us, the audience?
After coming on stage, Bon Jovi didn’t waste time before acknowledging he had ditched us.
“It’s been one year since I had to cancel that show,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of making up to do.”
Then the lights went dark and the band launched into “You Give Love a Bad Name.” From that point on, the crowd was under his spell.
Throughout the show, the outfit played newer tracks and older hits, and while the audience was clearly there for the Bon Jovi of yesteryear, his set list proved he is just as active an artist as ever, still churning out crowd-pleasing rock anthems, even if they haven’t quite caught on as much as his older songs.
The gang vocals, the masterful guitar riffs and the overwhelming drum solos gave Bon Jovi everything the band needed to prove worthy of a Hall of Fame induction.
It’s no wonder the group won that Hall of Fame popularity contest, even decades after its heyday. Bon Jovi, with his shiny-toothed grin, knows how to win over a crowd.
His appearance is close to a flamboyant evangelical's, and he doesn’t hesitate to use a preacher-like affect to drum up enthusiasm from the crowd. He’s gone from long-haired outlaw rocker to clean-cut star, and unlike Axl Rose or the even younger Marilyn Manson, Bon Jovi appears no worse for wear and maintains — and perhaps has even magnified — his sex appeal.
During an earnest, quiet moment, he appeared in the crowd, surrounded by the crowd, and sang “Bed of Roses.” From there he wandered the aisles and slow-danced with a fan; people around me erupted in squeals. He’s a charmer and knows it.
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He wrapped his set up with “Livin’ on a Prayer.” There was a seventy-something-year-old woman with dyed red hair and painted-on eyebrows standing in the row beneath mine, and the look of wonder and enthusiasm as she watched Bon Jovi play was otherworldly. She was with a towering, stoic man who never quite relaxed during the show; he would mouth a few lyrics, but mostly looked like he’d been awake way too long and faced an early day of work the next morning.
The couple started taking selfies, and he melted. Their grins, on this date night, suggested decades of fandom and an almost parental pride in the band. Children, too, watched the show with awe and sang along. As did bromantic lunkheads. As did we all.
The only sourpuss I noted was in the line for the bathroom after the show. The fan was wasted and worn out, slurring as he shouted: "Who else here is pissed the dude didn't sing 'Runaway'?" — a song that Bon Jovi noted Denver radio had played long before the band had an album, which was the reason he wanted to start the tour here.
The reply to the drunk: silence. Other than that guy, fans were thrilled.