When charismatic Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora left the band in 2013, many guessed that would be the end for the Jersey hard rockers. After all, without his right-hand man, wasn’t this just Jon Bon Jovi’s solo gig now?
That’s not actually fair, though; in fact, until Sambora flew the coop, the only previous departure from the group had been bassist Alec John Such, back in 1994. So original drummer Tico Torres and keyboardist David Bryan are still in there, and that’s not a bad level of turnover for a band that formed in 1983.
There was a point in the mid- to late ’80s when Bon Jovi was pretty much the biggest band in the world. The group had a mega-smash in 1986, Slippery when Wet, followed by an arguably even better record in ’88, New Jersey. In truth, the group has struggled to match that level of mania since, but Keep the Faith and These Days in the ’90s were better than decent, as was 2005’s Have a Nice Day. This House Is Not for Sale, from 2016, was the first album recorded without Sambora, and while he’s clearly missed, new player Phil X is a badass.
The band has spent much of the past decade or so transforming from a nostalgia-heavy pop-rock group to something more akin to the home state that also birthed Springsteen: blue-collar, Mellencamp-esque hard rock. Still, there are anthems on the latest album that will please longtime fans, not least the title track. Drummer and OG member Tico Torres has been ecstatic with the reaction.
“It seems like people really like it,” he says. “To be able to have something that’s so popular — it came out at number one. These days it’s different, but we’re so happy to see our fans enjoy the music, because you have no idea when you put out a record.”
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He’s not kidding when he says that things are different now. Back when Bon Jovi was dropping albums in the ’80s, the money coming in (and going out) was almost obscene, certainly by today’s standards. Multimillion-dollar deals and glitzy video shoots led to an era of rock-and-roll excess and storied debauchery. So how does the band approach making an album in this decade?
“I think we approach it the same way we always have,” Torres says. “We went backwards and recorded everything, then put the album together inside the studio. More like we did with Slippery, New Jersey and stuff like that. We recorded it pretty much live. As long as we’re happy with it, then we put it out there, and it becomes its own embryo and grows with the fans. Subsequently, we’ve been blessed that the fans really love it.”
The band Bon Jovi is more than three decades old and has now seen two original members leave. Bassist Such was effectively replaced by Hugh McDonald back in 1994, though his inclusion was only made official last year (perhaps because he always looked a little out of place with his Dad hair, until the rest of the band caught up).
“We’ve gone through different members, and [the band’s] gone through a lot of time, trials and tribulations,” Torres says. “The wonderful thing is to be able to create something that’s very current, enough where people can relate to it. We’re not reverting back to anything that we did in the ’80s or ’90s. Except our gut feel, which has always been our mainstay. And try to do something a bit positive, as well. Our message it to always try and be positive.”
Regarding Sambora, Torres says that the band has been able to use the past three years to transition Phil X in, which helped the group get over losing a key member.
“Phil X filled in and did the last tour with us, and it’s like anything — you have to move on,” he says. “Richie has to find his own path; we’re finding ours. We had Phil X play on the record, and we also had John Shanks, the producer who took that Clint Eastwood-type role, where he would direct the film and also act in it. John Shanks was in the studio recording with us, and that process was more organic for us. All playing at once, recording that way, working off each other with a lot of feel.”
Still, you lose a character as big as Sambora, and you’re going to feel it. The six-stringer co-wrote songs for Bon Jovi and played pretty much all of the band’s more recognizable licks. Indeed, there are people out there who have been saying for years that the band should be called Sambora.
“Richie was a big entity of this group — not only writing, but his voice and guitar playing,” Torres says. “You just have to be open-minded and say, ‘Okay, we’re going with other players.’ Open your mind and creativity to form that. It’s no easy task to find the missing piece in the puzzle, but I think we did well with Phil X and John Shanks.”
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In March, Bon Jovi plays the Pepsi Center, and Torres says that once he gets used to the lack of air (same old story), he loves coming to this region.
“We’ve always done well there,” he says. “Let’s face it. It’s almost like the Bahamas of the snow. People go there to enjoy the wonderful skiing weather and to have fun. When we play, they’re in a good mood to have some fun. You’ll hear a lot of the new stuff, as well as the standards — you’re not going to miss out on those. We did a run of small theaters before the tour to do a listening party of the new album with stories in between, which gives you an inkling of where they all came from. There’s a little bit of that in the show, and people have been very receptive to it, because it’s a more personal view.”
Strip away the big hair and ’80s fashion, and that’s really what Bon Jovi is: personal stories told in the form of blue-collar rock anthems. And few do it better.
Bon Jovi, 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 14, Pepsi Center; 1000 Chopper Circle, 303-405-1100.