For many years Bon Jovi were the kings of the stadium show in the UK and on their frequent visits to these shores I would even attend more than one show on the tour. This high profile also seemed to mean that they picked up and retained fans here more easily than in their native USA where they were pigeonholed more as an eighties nostalgia act.
However it has been six whole years since their last proper UK jaunt, and the ‘House Is Not For Sale’ tour finally hit town nearly three years after the release of the band’s latest (so far) album.
My own keenness had cooled in the meantime with the departure of Richie Sambora, a stream of lazily sub-par albums, plus widespread chatter about Jon Bon Jovi’s declining powers, though I chose not to watch videos and wanted to judge for myself.
For the first time question marks surrounded Bon Jovi’s continuing popularity here – had people forgotten about them or indeed believed the bad reports? Only three dates were announced, but the unexpected news was that Wembley Stadium was absolutely heaving, as evidenced by the biggest crowds I have ever seen leaving the place.
Jon referred during the show to the band closing the old Wembley in 2000, and that they were scheduled to re-open it only for the redevelopment to overrun.
In another neat twist of symmetry, support came from the Manic Street Preachers, who had been the opening act on the bill when they headlined Milton Keynes Bowl some 26 years ago. At the time that struck me as a rather incongruous pairing, but then the Manics are now one of the few bands who can rival Jovi for longevity and having a series of hit singles over that period.
Openers ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ were examples of that, though the latter epitomised an issue I have always had with them, of rather repetitive choruses that seem to run out of ideas.
However stadium rock is an art, and with some Welsh flags draped over the amps the nearest they got to a stage show, it was a difficult 50 minutes for them. Greying at the temples, softly spoken and in a comfortable dad shirt, James Dean Bradfield is a low-key frontman while bassist Nicky Wire, who I’d always viewed as their more dangerous rock’n’roll element looked bored for most of the set and out on a limb to his bandmates.
After a series of rather mid-tempo tracks, including their No 1 ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, ‘You Love Us’ was a welcome, faster-paced reminder of their early and punkier days, but the surprise of the set was a cover of ‘Sweet Child o Mine’. James, who is an underrated guitarist, did very well on the solos but left a lot of the singing to the crowd and the response was notably better than for their own songs. At least ‘A Design For Life’ was a fittingly stirring anthem to close the set but I suspect this was not the best environment in which to watch these otherwise admirable stalwarts.
A twitter feed and ‘who wants to be a millionaire’ style themed quiz were shown on the big screen to pass time before Bon Jovi’s arrival. There had been some line up changes in those intervening six years with a percussionist added, conveniently also supplying backing vocals, and the trimly goateed John Shanks, increasingly JBJ’s right hand man as producer and co-writer, stepping out of the shadows as a second guitarist, even playing a few solos though leaving the flashier and rockier ones to Phil X.
To a backdrop of the eponymous album cover, they opened with ‘This House Is Not For Sale’, one of the few recent anthems that stands comparison with their older work. It sounded great but the way a thick wall of backing vocals carried the chorus was a portentous omen.
At the start of ‘Raise Your Hands’ I took a moment to listen to Jon before joining in on the participatory song of the sort they do so well, and it was not encouraging – he seemed a little out of breath, struggling to fit all the words in and sounding a tad flat.
His once high-energy moves across the stage are now rationed and instead he generally stayed close to his microphone, clad in a hoodie and making the bobbing and weaving moves of a shadow boxer. Yet he remains the consummate charismatic showman; by imploring those all the way up to the top tier to stand up and saying ‘this ain’t television, it’s a rock show’ he created the perfect atmosphere if ever any were needed, for ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’, followed by another singalong classic in ‘Born To Be My Baby’ with its irresistible ‘na- na-na’s.
There was a slight pause for breath in a pair from the country-flavoured ‘Lost Highway’- the last satisfactory BJ release from back in 2007- in ‘Whole Lot Of Leaving’ and the title track, accompanied by a suitable scenic backdrop. In one of his few between song intros, Jon said they would play a career-spanning set, and not only play songs from ‘Slippery’ and ‘New Jersey’. Oddly though at this show that didn’t extend to a single other song from their last album, an indication they have perhaps come to terms with ‘Rolling Stones syndrome’.
After David Bryan teased with the trademark keyboard intro, it was a pleasure to hear ‘Runaway’, the song that got me into the band back in 1984, while ‘We Weren’t Born To Follow’ and ‘Have A Nice Day’ were reminders that they continued to add to their canon of anthems with stadium- friendly hooks well into the 2000’s.
‘Keep The Faith’ actually sounded re-energised with a revised arrangement, an extended jam featuring David Bryan and the guitarists, the latter both going out onto the walkway in front of the stage for their solos. The set was almost entirely up-tempo but after one ballad in the utterly forgettable ‘Amen’, another in ‘Bed Of Roses’ saw a rather special atmosphere. It helped that the ballads probably suit his voice these days, but as Jon went onto the walkway, at one stage dancing with a woman from the crowd, he milked in the atmosphere with a huge grin on his face, revealing a set of teeth beyond the reach of us ordinary mortals.
From then on though it seemed to be one anthemic crowd pleaser after another -I was delighted to hear one of my own favourites in ‘Blood On Blood’, and ‘Its My Life’ remains an irresistible, life-affirming anthem that should not only be associated with famously crap tattoos. The one let down was ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’, through no fault of the band, where visually, musically and vocally Richie’s absence was particularly felt.
A relatively new and modern sounding song ‘We Don’t Run’ was surprisingly good with lyrics helpfully popping up on the screen; and ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ another mass participation anthem with a great stained glass window backdrop even if Jon was struggling vocally. He no longer introduces the song by welcoming us to ‘Johnny’s church of rock’n’roll’ but it still felt like it.
‘Captain Crash and The Beauty Queen From Mars’ saw the crowd swaying from side to side with various band members taking a synchronised trip onto the walkway, and by the time of ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’, David’s barroom-style piano giving the song its loose, rolling groove with a fine solo from him near its end, and of course ‘Bad Medicine’, even without the old segue into ‘Shout’, there was a remarkable Friday night atmosphere with friends and strangers alike singing at and almost hugging each other.
Given that Bon Jovi encores used to be lengthy affairs, my friend and I were speculating what had yet to be played and I correctly called ‘Always’. I wouldn’t say it was ever a favourite song, but with the Stadium a sea of phone lights as summer darkness belatedly fell and an exquisite extended solo from Phil, it was another song that they breathed new light into.
Ironically it was with a sense of disappointment that I then heard David’s keyboard intro to ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ as it meant that the admittedly 2 hour 20 minute set only had one more song to go. Nevertheless the atmosphere was as raucous as you would expect from such a song that is universally loved far beyond the rock world, with Jon throwing his hands in the air and encouraging a mass singalong to the ‘woa-oah-ha’ outro that closes the live version of the song.
So the conundrum is – how should a live show be evaluated? Is it purely on objective musical grounds, in which case while a revamped line-up has minimised the effect of Richie’s departure and added a few new twists, Jon Bon Jovi’s fading vocal powers - as thousands of phone video warriors doubtless captured – would have made this an uneasy watch.
Or is the ultimate measure how those present experienced it on the night? Even if people were jumping around and singing along to memories of how these great anthems sounded originally rather than their actual delivery, this show was characterised by a very special communal atmosphere in which I became completely caught up. I would readily put any reservations to one side and return again – hopefully not having to wait another six years.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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In this two hour special David Randall plays a selection of the GRTR! reviewer choices for ‘Best of 2019′ and announces the results of the popular poll. First broadcast Sunday 22 December 2019.
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