"I smell trouble in the air, baby," announced Jon Bon Jovi just two songs into his namesake band's 130-minute performance at Milwaukee's Summerfest on Thursday. "Trouble with a capitol T."
But playing a to a packed Marcus Amphitheater (capacity: 23,000) on the opening night of Summerfest — an 11-day festival that features 700-plus bands performing on 11 stages — Bon Jovi and Co. caused about as much trouble as Rod and Todd Flanders combined. It's hard for the New Jersey quartet to shake their good-guy sincerity, and why should they? Bon Jovi, for one, sounded like a hopeless romantic, singing: "You were born to be my baby"; "I won't lie to you"; "God, it's good to see you smile."
This common touch goes a long way to explaining the band's enduring appeal. Of course, having been around for 26 years, the group has made certain concessions to time. Bon Jovi, still fighting trim at 47, can no longer hit the same high notes he did in the group's heyday and blocked in time for a needed breather midway through the lengthy set, allowing Sambora to take the raspy lead on "I'll Be There For You."
Bon Jovi walked the stage at a casual pace, occasionally swiveling his derriere to-and-fro (eliciting countless shrieks) or sparring with unseen enemies, throwing a series of left hand jabs. The one time he ventured into the crowd he seemed to regret it instantly. "Ladies, I ain't scratch and sniff," he cracked, ambling back onstage. "I'm getting too old for this shit."
But while the concert did feature a couple of notable clunkers ("I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" sounded oddly like a disjointed garage band slogging its way through a half-formed cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret"), the group remained sharp. Drummer Tico Torres, sporting a pair of black gloves, worked his kit like a bantamweight fighter on a propulsive "Keep the Faith." Sambora grimaced his way through countless solos — his facial contortions making it seem as though the electricity were passing through his guitar strings and directly into his body. The quartet were also joined by rhythm guitarist Bobby Bandiera and bassist Hugh McDonald (almost a dead-ringer for David Letterman in this light).
For his part, Bon Jovi evoked memories of '83 on the synth-heavy "Runaway," channeled Toy Story's Woody on "Raise Your Hands" ("Reach for the sky!") and led an a cappella sing-along of "Livin' On a Prayer" that briefly gave the venue the feel of a hairspray-saturated, open-air cathedral. "We're just getting started," he shouted triumphantly as Summerfest's fireworks hit their climax, igniting the sky in a shower of sparks. Then three songs later it was over. Even nice rock stars are prone to exaggeration.
"Glad All Over" (Dave Clark Five cover)
"You Give Love a Bad Name"
"Born to Be My Baby"
"Last Man Standing"
"Raise Your Hands"
"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"
"(You Want To) Make a Memory"
"Whole Lot of Leavin' "
"Someday I'll Be Saturday Night"
"We Got It Going On"
"It's My Life"
"I'll Be There For You"
"Have a Nice Day"
"Keep the Faith"
"Who Says You Can't Go Home"
"Bad Medicine"/"Shout" (Isley Brothers cover)
"Wanted Dead or Alive"
"I Love This Town"
"Livin' On a Prayer"
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