Coming full circle

By Desmond Sampson

Jon Bon Jovi is smiling broadly as he strides on stage and is greeted by a deafening roar of applause. As his bandmates, guitarist Richie Sambora, drummer Tico Torres and keyboardist David Bryan jog on to join him, he teasingly raises his finger to his lips and calls for hush, before asking the assembled throng a question about, well, shelf life.

"Would you buy yesterday's bread from a baker?

"We wouldn't, either," he answers. "That's why these set-lists are all made fresh and delivered to you personally, every night," he adds, smiling, as he and his cronies unleash a pulsating blast of Blood on Blood, the start of a 2 hour performance packed with countless hits and also a few surprises. It's not necessarily the set-list you'd expect.

The setting is the stage of of London's much-maligned Millennium Dome. Bon Jovi was the first band to perform at the newly refurbished, hastily re-branded, O2 Arena, marking the start of its current position as London's foremost music stadium. It's partly why, three years later, Bon Jovi returned for a 12-date, sold-out residency at O2 with nearly 20,000 fans a night - 200,000 in total - rammed to the Dome's rafters to witness the British leg of the band's The Circle world tour.

Perhaps that's why "That's the great thing about setting up a residency like this, for both us and the repeat fans," explains the front man, minutes after their final London show.

"It was a chance to try out some different songs and play stuff we don't normally do.

"If you have one or two nights, then you just get the same bunch of songs: you don't have 12 completely different sets, and nine or 10 awesome nights," he grins. "Our goal was to play 70 different songs across those 12 nights, which was a lot of work because there's much more preparation [involved] when you do that. But it's also what made it fun."

You could sense that fun as he traded jokes with the band, chatted to fans and willed the crowd to "get up and show us what you've got," as they rattled through You Give Love A Bad Name, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead and We Got it Going On. En masse, everyone obediently obliged, from the all-in-black Harley T-shirt lads to the bleached-blonde Bon Jovi babes. At times, it felt more like a gathering of a benevolent cult than a rock show.

As he strutted around the stage with the swagger of Jagger on Born To Be My Baby and the pent-up, patriotic passion of Springsteen during a fervent Work for the Working Man, Bon Jovi proved that, despite being pint-sized, his performance packs a punch. That was clear as he pumped his fist in the air and asked: "Is there a doctor in the house? Is there? I think I need a doctor..." before delivering an infectious dose of Bad Medicine segued with Little Richard's You Make Me Wanna Shout - which the crowd dutifully did.

The shouting continued as Bob Geldof waltzed onstage to join Bon Jovi in a jubilant assault on the Boomtown Rats' biggest hit, I Don't Like Mondays, one of many surprises on the night.

"We've done that song a few times and even recorded it for our live album," Bon Jovi enthuses. "It's great having someone like Bob, who we've known a long time, or Kid Rock, who opened the shows, jump up and perform. It keeps things fresh for us and the fans."

He also kept things fresh by impulsively hopping off-stage and into the crowd, walking through the masses like some rock 'n' roll messiah, during It's My Life, before clambering back on stage for Love's the Only Rule, and a stirring version of Bed of Roses.

Sambora wasn't about to miss out on the fun or the adulation, launching himself centre-stage for a bone-jarring, bombastic solo of Lay Your Hands On Me when Bon Jovi disappeared for a quick costume change. After his moment of glory, he triumphantly raised his mic-stand aloft, just as the singer returned to accompany him, a cappella, on Diamond Rain. With Torres and Bryan then joining them upfront, they ad-libbed an impromptu acoustic set of Squeezebox, These Days and Someday I'll Be Saturday Night.

Judging from their banter, body language and bonhomie, it's clear that Bon Jovi are enjoying themselves again, after a period of turmoil. In fact, they're notably more relaxed and upbeat than they've been for years.

"I think we're stronger now than we've been in a long time _ maybe forever - so we are enjoying things more. It's great, because there were times, in the past, when we weren't happy and struggled on, even though we were physically or emotionally wrecked," concedes Bon Jovi. "But I think the one good thing we've learned from doing that _ from pushing ourselves - is that when you think you've had enough and feel like you shouldn't be on the road, you really shouldn't be on the road.

"That's why we're looking forward to coming out to New Zealand now," he adds, excitedly. "This time we're ready and able, as opposed to the first time we came in 1987 when we were completely exhausted and it felt like we'd been pulled across the rack, getting on that plane to Australia and New Zealand.

"When I look back on it, we shouldn't have done that tour because we were beat, so we didn't do ourselves or the fans justice," he admits. "But it wasn't anyone's fault - we were all caught up in the moment and kept hearing: 'there's another great opportunity; a chance to add another date to the tour; to play New Zealand', when really what we should have been told was `take some time off, go to bed ... '

"In comparison, our last gig in New Zealand, in 2008 [where they played Christchurch only], during the Lost Highway tour was totally different. It was a pleasure to be on the road - a treat to play there," he enthuses. "That wasn't just because it was our most successful tour. It's also because we took breaks and recharged our batteries, so we actually enjoyed touring. That was the difference between our 1987 and 2008 visits; we knew when to stop, when to say `no'.

"You know, I'm not a tour whore. I'm not a man who needs the roar of the crowd," Bon Jovi adds. "Although I enjoy performing in front of a crowd, that's not what motivates me. What does it for me is when you write something, record it and then realise its special, like we did with When We Were Beautiful.

"I'm really proud of that track. I think it's a real growth song for us. I love playing it live and making a point of trying to get that message across to the audience, so they understand what it's about and what this record stands for. "It's all a part of the big picture, of trying to grow as a writer and a performer."

You can sense Bon Jovi's desire to expand their horizons from the more philosophical focus and sombre tone of their current album, The Circle. But even though it's a collection that tackles difficult subjects like the recession and emasculation, it remains optimistic and uplifting.

"At the end of the day, the idea of writing a record that gives us _ and other people - so much pleasure is the greatest gift of all," Bon Jovi surmises. "It's much more fulfilling than any of the awards or accolades we've ever got, because those things are just fact and figures.

"When you look through your notebook and think you've got something, then you go into the studio and you know you've got something, like we did with this record on Work For The Working Man or When We Were Beautiful, that's what makes you want to go out and share it," he explains, passionately. "Really, that's the only reason to keep doing this, to keep touring."

Who: Bon Jovi, former hair-metallers turned perennial purveyors of stadium rock.
Where and when: Westpac Stadium in Wellington on December 4; Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium on December 5.
Tickets: On sale today via Ticketek.
Trivia: The band played Auckland in 1987 at Western Springs and in 1995 at the Mt Smart Supertop.

- NZ Herald

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