I’ve been a Bon Jovi fan since I was about fourteen, and last year was the first summer since 2006 when I didn’t get to see them at least once because they were taking a well-earned break after years of touring constantly. (Worst summer ever!) Obviously there have been a couple of really stand-out-amazing gigs in that time, mainly their performance at Hard Rock Calling in 2011 and the opening of the O2 in 2007 which, without exaggerating in the slightest, were quite possibly the two best nights of my entire 23 years of life. (I know, that makes me sound pretty tragic, but you won’t get it unless you were there). I’ve always had an amazing time at Bon Jovi gigs though, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again a thousand times, they’re the best gigs to go to for an incredible atmosphere. So naturally I was super excited to hear they’d be touring again to promote the new album What About Now, and immediately grabbed myself a ticket for my ninth Bon Jovi show in Cardiff. I’d waited two years for this tour, and boy was I excited!
And then the whole kerfuffle with Richie happened. I say kerfuffle because we still don’t really know what’s going on. He pulled out three hours before a gig on the American leg of the tour, citing personal reasons, and we were told he wouldn’t be playing the rest of that leg, and later that he wouldn’t be playing the European leg either. I was gutted. No one would say what the personal reasons were either. He’d pulled out of a tour previously to go into rehab in 2010/11, but he was back in time for the UK shows and I think it’s safe to say that there was no one present at those gigs who got more love than Richie. Everyone was wishing him the best for his recovery, and everyone was ecstatic when he made it over to the UK. This time round, he said it wasn’t health related but wouldn’t say what it was. He did say that he loves the band and the fans, and Jon said that the band had nothing but love for Richie and he’d always be a part of the band. And then the bickering started. After months of being asked exactly what the reasons for leaving the tour were, and with both Jon and Richie refusing to say, they both seem to have got a bit frustrated and started a public row, much to my dismay. Jon’s comments that it was fairly straightforward to get Phil X to step in for Richie because he’d done it before were generally taken to mean that he thought Richie was ‘easily replaceable’. Obviously I don’t know if that’s what he really meant by the comment, I’m not convinced that it was (at least I really hope not!), I took it to mean that the situation was quickly dealt with because of the contingency plan they had in place for when Richie was in rehab before. I certainly hope he wasn’t implying that Richie’s replaceable within the band, because that would be complete bollocks, and all the fans know that. I think Jon was also said to have implied that Richie was back on drugs again, which Richie responded to by saying Jon was ‘talking trash’ and that he wanted to return to the band but Jon was making it difficult. Basically, they just went round in circles having a bit of a slagging match without ever actually giving the reason why Richie left. Rumours are that he’s back in rehab/on drugs/not happy to let Jon be the ‘main man’ after filling the spotlight for his own solo tour recently, that Jon’s not showing him enough respect, that it’s a fight over money, or just a massive clash of egos. Either way this is all complete speculation (although I really hope it’s not about money, that would just be crass), because no one’s revealing anything definitively, which makes me hope that it’s a petty issue which can be easily resolved soon.
There’s also been a lot of controversy about whether or not the tour should have continued without Richie. I will agree that it’s not really Bon Jovi without Richie there. As harsh as it sounds, they could get away with replacing Tico or David for a short period of time if needs be (and I have seen a gig without David when he was collecting his Tony award for Memphis Lives in Me) because they are quite literally in the background, they’re tucked away with their drums and keyboards and, although they’re obviously integral to the band too, they don’t make their presence felt quite as much as Jon and Richie in the live gigs because they physically can’t. And it’s the physical presence of Richie and his stage persona that everyone’s been missing just as much as his guitar playing. But at the same time I can completely understand why the others decided to carry on with the tour. They’d already sold hundreds of thousands of tickets, so calling everything off would be a complete logistical nightmare. Plus they didn’t want to let the fans down. I know some fans (and Richie himself) are saying that they are letting the fans down because it’s a sub-par performance without Richie when people have paid to see the full band, but realistically they could never please everyone in circumstances like this, they just have to make the best of a bad situation. I also think the dates weren’t cancelled because there was a hope that everything would have been resolved by now and Richie would be back on board. Right up until the moment they took the stage, I was desperately hoping that Jon would walk out saying “SURPRISE!” with Richie alongside him. Sadly it didn’t happen, but Richie has mentioned that he would really like to play the British Summertime Festival in Hyde Park in July, so I’ve bought a ticket for that as well, in the hope that he’ll show.
Considering all of the above, I was feeling a bit apprehensive about how the gig would pan out. Like I said, I’m a huge fan and I was really worried I’d be disappointed. But I have to say, the crowd were absolutely amazing. Maybe they wanted to make the best of a bad situation, maybe they were just SO excited (like I was) to see the band tour after a two year break from the UK, but whatever the reason, the atmosphere was just incredible throughout, despite the fact that it was absolutely pissing with rain and everyone on the pitch got drenched to the skin during the support acts (Kids in Glass Houses and another band I didn’t catch the name of, possibly a competition winner?) And when I say it was wet, it really was wet. I spotted this person in the crowd who was a prime candidate to win a wet t-shirt competition and the rain kept coming throughout the support bands. It mostly cleared up during Bon Jovi, but there was the occasional flurry of umbrellas going up when the heavens opened once more.
But from the minute the band walked onstage everyone was on their feet boogying the whole time, from where I was in the stands I could see everyone joining in and tens of thousands of arms in the air, it was just brilliant. I think it was actually the best atmosphere of any gig I’ve ever been to, and hearing thirty/forty thousand people belting out hits at the top of their lungs just blew me away, it almost made me feel quite emotional. I was just so relieved that it wasn’t a complete disaster, which doesn’t mean to say that I didn’t miss Richie and it was the same as usual, because it wasn’t the same, but it was better than I’d hoped and the crowd really seemed to enjoy it.
They came on to That’s What the Water Made Me, which is perhaps a bit brave kicking off with a brand new track that not everyone will have heard yet, but it worked well and it’s a bit of variation from always opening with Blood on Blood, which they did every night for the last tour if I remember rightly. I suspected they’d open with a new track, but I thought they might have gone for Because We Can as it was the first single and the name of the tour, plus it’s the one that I thought would get the crowd going. Water worked well though, it’s upbeat and catchy and the crowd started off energetically and carried it on throughout the gig.
They followed with You Give Love a Bad Name which I expected, it’s usually played second. Being the huge anthem that it is, obviously there was great crowd participation, lots of clapping and singing and really getting into the mood. There was such a great crowd atmosphere, and this track really set the standard for the rest of the night, it’s one of Bon Jovi’s biggest singles and it’s so easy to see why when you see it performed live, it always goes down a storm.
Next up was Born to be My Baby, a track from the New Jersey album which was responsible for hit after hit and usually features pretty heavily in the live sets (although Lay Your Hands on Me was missing this time around, but then sacrifices have to be made as the back catalogue gets bigger). Again, this is another up beat dancey track and has enough ‘na na nas’ for everyone to join in with whether they’re familiar with the song or not, and join in they did.
Then it was time for Raise Your Hands. As everyone who regularly goes to gigs knows, certain songs have certain procedures that must be followed, and when Jon sings ‘raise your hands’ you damn well raise your hands. It can be harder to see the effect from the pitch, but from where I was in the stands it was endlessly entertaining to see everyone’s hands doing the same thing throughout the stadium. I do like to see everyone joining in, it gives me a real sense of satisfaction, especially when it’s on such a large scale.
This was followed by Lost Highway, a fitting choice considering the car staging (based on the Lost Highway album cover I’d assume), before a rousing rendition of enormous fan-favourite It’s My Life. I wonder whether Cardiff has ever seen so much fist pumping before, I’m inclined to think not. Then came two tracks from the new album, Because We Can and What About Now. I was a bit unsure whether it’s a good idea to play two new songs in a row, but they seemed to get a good reception, and Because We Can at least sounds quite anthemic, it’s got a really strong beat and I’m not surprised that it worked well in a stadium.
Now, there is a common belief that the majority of Bon Jovi fans are women, due to obvious eye-candy reasons. I would dispute that, there certainly seemed to be a fairly mixed demographic last night (although I did feel comparatively young), but there’s no denying that the women are certainly the more vocal. But my goodness, when Jon said “My brothers and sisters, especially my sisters… I wanna hear you SCREAM!” in the middle of We Got it Goin’ On, you’d have thought the stadium was filled to the point of overflowing with women. It was loud. And I know it was loud, because I was screaming louder than I’ve ever screamed before, and I couldn’t even hear myself. That’s one thing no one could deny about Jon, he really knows how to get the women going!
At this point a pair of maracas appeared in Jon’s hand, which is always a sign that Keep the Faith is coming. Again, there are certain protocols to follow here, most notably that you punch the air on ‘faith’ and the crowd sings the ‘everybody needs somebody to love’ section while Jon takes the other vocal part. I have never known them to not play this song live, it’s a huge hit and I don’t think anyone could fail to enjoy this song. Obviously I love all Bon Jovi albums, but I really have a soft spot for the nineties ones and I think Keep the Faith was one of the first Bon Jovi albums I had (after Slippery When Wet, obviously, and I’d inherited my sister’s copy of Crush). This wasn’t just any old rendition of Keep the Faith though, this was Keep the Faith with a bit of jukebox thrown in. Normally when they throw in a bit of a cover song it’s stuck in the middle of Bad Medicine, and I’ve seen the likes of Pretty Woman, Shout, Roadhouse Blues and Old Time Rock n’ Roll thrown in. On one rather bizarre occasion they even threw a spot of Duffy’s Mercy in, which was a very unexpected choice but actually worked rather well with the beat. But this time Keep the Faith was the mash-up recipient, and they went for another rather unusual choice, Let Me Entertain You by Robbie Williams. It did work well actually, it’s not the sort of thing I’d expect to see at a Bon Jovi gig, but it is a stadium song really and we were all leaping about all over the place anyway, so it seemed to fit well.
Things quickly calmed down when this was followed by (You Want to) Make a Memory, which is a very quiet and understated ballad. It’s a really lovely song, but I’m always a little unsure about it live because it’s hard for such an understated song to fill such a big venue, especially when the crowd’s been getting so rowdy for Keep the Faith. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy hearing it but I always feel it’s not appreciated as much as it should be, and I’m not sure it was a wise choice to do without Richie’s distinctive backing vocals and harmonies. This was followed by another ballad, I’ll Be There for You. Again, I was a bit unsure about the placing of two ballads next to each other, but this is a big ballad with lots of room for crowd participation, and is another fan favourite. It really, really did make me miss Richie though. Normally, Jon takes a few minutes to go backstage and de-sweat/ have a fag/ get changed/ do whatever it is he does backstage, and while he does this Richie would take the vocals on a song, sometimes Lay Your Hands on Me but usually (and most popularly) I’ll Be There for You. (This time we had an extended guitar/keyboard fill while Jon went backstage, I think after Keep the Faith but I can’t be certain. It was okay, but nowhere near as enjoyable as seeing Richie take the spotlight). For anyone who regularly attends Bon Jovi gigs, I’ll Be There for You performed live is always associated with Richie, and so there’s no way I could hear this and not miss his presence. The crowd still joined in enthusiastically, and our ‘whooo-oooo-oahs’ were milked for all they were worth, but there’s nothing I love the sound of more than the gig choir so it still brought me joy (although bittersweet without Richie).
As always, there was loads of arm waving for Captain Crash and the Beauty Queen From Mars (what I like to refer to as ‘the bingo-wing gig workout’), and a fairly lively version of We Weren’t Born to Follow, but the crowd were pulling out all the stops by the time we got to I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (which is definitely going to be my funeral song, FYI). This song really was a blast complete with a little snippet of It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll in the middle, and to top it all it was followed by a stomping performance of Bad Medicine, which is always SO GOOD live and had a wee snippet of Shout in the middle to liven things up a bit. Putting those two songs together was a great idea, it was a really rousing, high-energy run and a great way to finish the main part of the show. Bad Medicine always gets such a huge reaction, I got such a kick to look around the stadium and see so many people dancing and waving their arms and pumping their fists. That’s what going to gigs is all about, there’s no point in going if you’re not going to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly, and that’s what everyone was doing (in my block at least, yay for party block 203!)
Anyway, the band left the stage and naturally all the whistling, screaming, stamping, clapping for an encore began, and then there was this weird footage played on the screen above the car set-up, I don’t really get what it was all about but I thought it might represent a journey back in time and that they’d come back on and play Runaway (their first ever single back in 1984), but instead they came back to play I’m With You, which was a bit of a weird choice for several reasons. Firstly, they really didn’t need to play another song from the new album when there are so many huge hits (like Runaway) left to choose from; secondly, even if they’re trying to promote the new album that was still a strange album track to choose over Amen or What’s Left of Me; and thirdly, it seemed a bit odd to come back and play a slow, almost-ballad when the crowd are so hyped up after such a super-energetic performance of Bad Medicine. Still, they’re trying to vary the set list more this time round, which may have been the reasoning. Superman Tonight came next, I didn’t feel another ballad was really necessary (or at least it wasn’t necessary to pick this ballad over what could have been a spectacular audience-singalong version of Always), but apparently there were a few Superman signs in the audience which were seen as requests. I’m happy to let it go in that case, although I’d have preferred to have heard Always I appreciate the fact that they’re listening to their audience and taking their views into account.
And then began an amazing run of sheer awesomeness. Now if there’s one thing I absolutely rave about, it’s the gig choir. There’s nothing I love more in life than being in a venue and hearing thousands and thousands of people singing along, making this giant wall of sound and knowing that I’m a part of it, and imagining people being able to hear it outside the stadium. I just absolutely love it, there is literally nothing in life that brings me more joy than being part of an amazing, enormous gig choir. And Cardiff’s gig choir really excelled themselves. Hearing the crowd singing Wanted Dead or Alive was awesome (the crowd always takes the first verse and chorus), although it was a bit weird not seeing Richie busting out his guitargasm face, I think this is one of the songs where his presence was really hugely missed. But it was still amazing hearing everyone sing and seeing sparkles of light from everyone’s phones and cameras ‘making stars in the sky’.
Have a Nice Day was next, and then came a real treat, Jon playing half of Never Say Goodbye which I’ve never heard live before, and then to top it all, he played half of Blaze of Glory. This really gave me chills, I think it might actually have been the biggest crowd participation of the night, and it was pretty unexpected which made it even better. I know I’m rambling but I can’t really describe it very well, you had to be there experiencing it to be able to understand really, but it was absolutely my highlight of the entire night. I’ve spent so long on youtube today just watching videos of it and hearing the crowd and getting chills all over again, it was incredible. And then of course the huge finale was Livin’ on a Prayer, beginning with the acoustic version to warm everyone up and then kicking into the full-blown punch-in-the-face version. Now, obviously this was going to be huge. Everyone knew it was going to be huge, and everyone knew it’d be the big finale, but the volume of the crowd! There are no words.
Because I can’t really explain what I’m talking about, I’ve pinched a montage video that someone’s helpfully made, and you can hear what I’m talking about for Wanted, Blaze and of course Prayer from around 8 minutes in. (Seriously, listen to Blaze of Glory and tell me you don’t get chills, and then imagine being there and being a part of it and I’m just going to go and lie down in a dark room now).
I was a bit peeved to find out later that there were two encores at the Birmingham and Manchester gigs, whereas there was only one at Cardiff. I don’t know whether it was due to the weather, the fact that they didn’t think they could top the response to Livin’ on a Prayer, or because they were just exhausted, but the show finished just after 10 when it was advertised as finishing 10.30-11. I don’t think it’s fair that people who went to other gigs got a longer setlist for the same amount of money, but at the same time I really don’t think the band could have given any more than they did, and it really did end on a high. It’s a shame that we missed out on songs like Runaway, Always, Lay Your Hands on Me or Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night, but there will always have to be sacrifices when there’s thirty years worth of back catalogue to fit into a limited time frame (although we’d have been able to fit them in if we’d had another encore!). I think this was the first time I’ve seen Bon Jovi when they haven’t played Runaway, it’s normally a live staple, and a massively popular one at that, but they’re trying to vary the setlists every night so I suppose it’s just luck of the draw.
When it comes to staging, the car bonnet with the lights display was pretty impressive but I’m not convinced we had the special super-expensive hexagon screens that everyone was going on about in America, and if we did, they were not at all what I expected. I’m pretty sure we had a different screen set up and I’m not entirely sure why, maybe the stadium wasn’t big enough? I know the venues in America are crazy big and I’ve seen clips from the shows with Jon strutting on special walkways made out of the screens (I think), so I’m willing to bet that their set up wasn’t the same as ours. It was still impressive though, and I really did like the look of the car looming out. Plus of course the lights displays are always a bit less effective in open air stadiums because of the natural light lasting later into the night in summer (or as close to summer as Wales can manage), but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make as I LOVE huge stadium gigs, the bigger the better!
I genuinely did have a really great time because I’ve waited two years for a Bon Jovi gig (and because it’d take an awful, awful lot for me to not get some level of enjoyment out of a Bon Jovi gig), but I do also think that the people I went with and the people we were surrounded by in the stands played a huge part in making it such a great time, and despite that this obviously ranked bottom out of all the Bon Jovi gigs I’ve been to purely because of the lack of Richie. The band were not at their best without him but the crowd made up for it, and it saddens me in a way because imagine how much more amazing it would have been if Richie was there! I went with a couple of friends (one of which had never seen Bon Jovi live before and was absolutely thrilled), and we bought our tickets with the intention of having a party, and dammit we were going to have a party regardless, and we did. I expect that’s exactly the same mindset that the rest of the crowd had considering that they (at least those in my stand) were so enthusiastic, all things considered. I wanted to make the best of it and I came away with bruised hands and a very hoarse voice, which is always a good sign. But there’s no escaping the fact that it just wasn’t the same without Richie, and it was clear at times that it was a struggle without him. The dynamic was wrong, and it really did feel like there was a big Richie-shaped hole throughout. They do really need Richie, and you could tell the whole band (yes, even Jon) was really aware of that fact. They were doing the best they could and I do admire them for that, but at times it did look like Jon was under a lot of pressure. Richie’s not just there to provide the guitar, he provides vocals, he provides cover for Jon when he needs it, he adds a whole other level of energy, he helps work the crowd and, just as important, he is quite literally there to stand by Jon’s side. It just wasn’t the same seeing Wanted Dead or Alive without seeing Jon and Richie playing their guitars side by side, raising them into the air for the finishing note, perhaps donning a couple of cowboy hats. Jon looked pretty small and lonely stood on that stage on his own. I know a couple of people thought Jon was trying to turn the gig into a one man show, but if you think about it logically, that’s exactly how it would come across because there isn’t anyone else to be up front the stage with him. Tico’s stuck behind his drums, David’s stuck behind his keyboards, Phil X isn’t about to throw himself into the limelight when he’s fully aware that everyone would rather Richie was there himself, and the other musicians generally try to melt themselves into the background as unofficial band members. Without Richie, there’s no one else to fill the stage but Jon, and that’s quite a big ask for one man. It might have looked like it was a one-man show, but I don’t think that was intentional. If anything, I think Jon was really aware that he was out there on his own, and actually seemed to come across as a bit more reserved because of it. I think Jon definitely knows that he can’t do this by himself, but until everything’s resolved, it looks like he’s just going to have to try.
To be honest, it’s getting to the point now where I just want to bang Jon and Richie’s heads together. I don’t really know what’s going on and whether it can be easily resolved or not, but from a fan point of view it’s all getting pretty frustrating. This year is Bon Jovi’s thirtieth anniversary; they’ve been together so long that it seems like such a huge shame for things to be going pear shaped now. After all this time, I don’t see what can be such a big problem now to throw everything into doubt. I think it’s got to the point where no one wants to be the first to back down and it’s probably all based on stubborn principles, but it really is a smack in the face to fans who have supported them for thirty years (only about ten in my case, but I’m young and they’ve been very enthusiastic ten years). Either way, whether they continue to play without Richie or don’t play at all, the fans are getting a raw deal and that’s exactly what Jon and Richie don’t want to happen. It’s time to kiss and make up for gods sake, I can cope with seeing a sub-par Bon Jovi once, but I really don’t want it to happen again. I’m keeping everything crossed for Hyde Park, it’d be the perfect return gig for Richie and I think it’s pretty clear that everyone (including Jon, if last night was anything to go by) is desperate for that to happen.
Setlist: That’s What the Water Made Me, You Give Love a Bad Name, Born to Be My Baby, Raise Your Hands, Lost Highway, It’s My Life, Because We Can, What About Now, We Got it Goin’ On, Keep the Faith (+ Let Me Entertain You), (You Want to) Make a Memory, I’ll Be There For You, Captain Crash and the Beauty Queen from Mars, We Weren’t Born to Follow, Who Says You Can’t Go Home, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (+ It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll), Bad Medicine (+ Shout).
Encore: I’m With You, Superman Tonight, Wanted Dead or Alive, Have a Nice Day, Never Say Goodbye, Blaze of Glory, Livin’ on a Prayer.
See previous Gig Review featuring Whitesnake, Journey and Thunder or read Why I Won’t Be Reviewing the New Bon Jovi Album What About Now.