Anthems with short and direct repeated lines have been the core of Bon Jovi’s success for more than two decades. Celebrating 25 years together on the current “Lost Highway” tour, the band delivers an entertaining two hours that fully displays how they have maneuvered from ground zero of pop-metal to synthetic arena rock to modern country but always stuck to their guns.
Wednesday, during the encore, Jon Bon Jovi and troupe opted once again for an anthem, but in this case, they chose one that would truly surprise, even shock the 18,000 fist-pumping fans: Bon Jovi played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And as with the other 23 songs in the set, they played it well.
“Hallelujah,” a slow and brooding ballad popularized by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and, via “American Idol,” Jason Castro, is oddly enough a perfect fit for Bon Jovi. Lines in the verses skitter and recoil, the chorus is limited to the four syllables of the title and the singer is pretty much given free reign to inflate the song to his or her heart’s content. Like many of Bon Jovi’s works, it’s not only about redemption and catharsis but the big, deep breath that follows life’s key moments.
It almost goes without saying that it was the evening’s quietest moment. He had others that were close — performing the ballads “(You Want to) Make a Memory” and “Bed of Roses” on a mid-arena platform in the far left aisle — but some things never change at Bon Jovi concerts: They want to generate sweat.
The band did precisely that early on by opening the show with five hard-charging behemoths — “Lost Highway,” “Born to Be My Baby,” “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Raise Your Hand” — and closing with the rowdy quintet of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” “I Won’t Back Down” segueing into “Have a Nice Day,” “Faith” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
On record, time and place create distinctions between the songs. On the concert stage, it’s a musical Mount Rushmore, each icon as big as the next; country music, a dance tune (“Faith”) and gospel-tinged numbers are crafted at a level that equal the harder rock songs.
Jon Bon Jovi has been leveling out music the same way for 2½ decades, taking a three-degrees-of-separation approach that has served him well. Everything about Bon Jovi is formula-based — the band began with a mix of Def Leppard and Bruce Springsteen –and they continue to extend it out by aspiring to sound like a group that sounds like another group.
It’s the reason they are able to wade in country’s waters and still sound like the band that recorded “Wanted Dead or Alive”; why they resemble a party band even when they add a Springsteen-ish complexity to their lyrics; and why churchlike qualities don’t sound foolish or out of place on “Raise Your Hands” or their cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” What it can’t hide is the gimmicky hokum of “We Got it Goin’ On,” their collaboration with country stars Big & Rich. Getting too close to source material, e.g., doing a snippet of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” demonstrates little more than their talent as a bar band.
Middle of the set, though, was dominated by mid-tempo numbers that felt flabby after the hard-charging openers. “Blaze of Glory,” featuring opener Chris Daughtry, was the one performance that stood out from the pack, yet it also made clear that “Bad Medicine” and “It’s My Life” are not holding up as well as the anthems Bon Jovi uses to frame their party.