It says something about Jon Bon Jovi that he was able to play a concert consisting of brand new songs – 15 in a row — at NY’s Barrymore Theatre Thursday night, and have audiences hopping up and down as if he was doing his greatest hits show.
Songs like “Knockout,” “God Bless this Mess” and “Roller Coaster” from his new album, “This House is Not For Sale” (dropping Nov. 4 from Island/UMG), have a sort of instant familiarity. As if we had been hearing them on the radio for 30 years.
Not because these songs, some co-written with John Shanks, Billy Falcon and others, are derivative (though “Roller Coaster” may in fact remind you faintly of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”)
If they feel familiar, it’s probably because they’re so archetypal — timeless models of what a Big Rock Song should be. They’re tough. They’re defiant. They’re loud and proud.
“I’m giving you the finger and sticking out my chin” (“Knockout”). “I wouldn’t live my life any other way” (“Born Again Tomorrow”). “Hold your head high, like Harry give ’em hell” (“Reunion”). Those are just some of the ways that Bon Jovi lets us know that his head is bloodied, but unbowed.
The new songs sounded right at home with a couple of older favorites that the band threw in for a nightcap: “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” and “Bad Medicine.”
Thursday’s event, live-streamed on Tidal, was the last of several “live listening parties” in which Bon Jovi has played and talked audiences through the new album (his 14th). It was also a career milestone for the Middlesex County, N.J., rocker: having conquered the airwaves and the movies, Thursday’s show marked Bon Jovi’s Broadway debut. “So here we are on Broadway – we finally made it to the big time!” he quipped.
Bon Jovi knew enough about New York fashion to dress in black for his big Broadway moment. So did his boys: longtime band members David Bryan on keyboards and Tico Torres on drums, newer members Hugh McDonald on bass and Phil X on lead guitar, augmented by Shanks on guitar and Everett Bradley on percussion.
They played to impress. Bon Jovi pranced, pirouetted and did windmills. Phil X – taking on the mantle of the departed Richie Sambora – ripped and shredded. “Turn it on, turn it up!” Bon Jovi commanded at the start of the night. They did.
In a way, it’s surprising this new album appears to be such a crowd-pleaser. The subject matter isn’t exactly universal. Judging from some of Bon Jovi’s between-song commentary, it seems to be largely about the rocker’s own career as he approaches middle age (he’s a young 54).
It’s not news that Bon Jovi has had a rough couple of years. His longtime lead guitarist, Sambora, left after a very public, prolonged spat. There have been failed attempts, or at least rumored attempts, to buy major sports franchises: The Buffalo Bills in 2014, The Tennessee Titans this year. And he’s had problems, since resolved, with his label Mercury. More recently — this week — he was again unaccountably denied a nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Much of the new album has the feeling of insider baseball — with an emphasis on scores to be settled. The finger that Bon Jovi talks about in “Knockout” would appear to be raised at some very specific people.
“We were fire and gasoline, I ain’t living with the ghost.” Who, recently departed, could that be about? “Look what they’ve done to this house of love.” Who is the “Devil in the Temple” that the song refers to? (the record label? Just a guess). As for “coming home” to the place “where memories live and the dream don’t fail” (“This House is Not For Sale”), we’ll just note in passing that this album marks Bon Jovi’s return to The Power Station — now Avatar Studio — the New York recording facility co-founded by Jon’s cousin, producer Tony Bongiovi, where Bon Jovi got its start.
If all this sounds very self-involved, let’s point out that there is a pop music tradition of rockers writing self-referential epics about the trials of being a big rock star. Fans have no problem identifying with “The Wall” and “Tommy,” even though few of us have ever had the sad, alienating experience of being an idol beloved by millions.
Do the problems of a rocker and his label amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? Maybe not. But diehard Bon Jovi fans will be happy to know that their hero is a fighter who will never, ever sell out.