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Bon Jovi aims to remain relevant without relying on nostalgia

"Jon wants to remain relevant, or certainly remain in the public eye and not be a tribute band to themselves," says the record executive who signed the band.

Keyboardist David Bryan, left, guitarist Phil X and

Keyboardist David Bryan, left, guitarist Phil X and frontman Jon Bon Jovi of Bon Jovi perform during a stop of the band's 2018 "This House is Not for Sale Tour" in Las Vegas in March. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Ethan Miller

The group conquered the glam masses in the '80s, but Bon Jovi has since evolved and ascended to the status of rock royalty. The band's latest release,"This House Is Not for Sale," is its sixth No.1 album, and the guys were inducted last month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 35 years after being signed to Mercury/PolyGram Records. But when the group headlines two shows at Madison Square Garden on May 9 and 10, do not expect a nostalgia ride. Bon Jovi has scored plenty more hits since the '80s, and nearly half of their current sets are post-'90s songs.

“Jon wants to remain relevant, or certainly remain in the public eye and not be a tribute band to themselves,” says Derek Shulman, the former A&R vice president at Mercury who signed the band and helped develop them during the '80s. Shulman says the group can play so many newer tunes because their fans “are patiently waiting for 'Livin’ On a Prayer' and 'It’s My Life.' And he has a such a huge litany of hit songs.”

“I’ve always felt that one of the really impressive things about what Jon has been able to do is advance his audience,” says Sirius XM host Eddie Trunk. “Whether you like what they do or not now is irrelevant. You have to respect and appreciate the fact that the guy has been able to constantly reinvent himself and the band and keep it relevant,” whether through lineup changes or mixing new music in equal measures into their concerts.

Trunk notes Bon Jovi's millennial radio conversion from rock to adult contemporary and the purposeful image shift from '80s glam to a more mature look, plus the influence of fellow Jersey native Bruce Springsteen in creating a larger ensemble onstage. “He’s built his own E Street Band,” says Trunk. “He uses contemporary producers and different songwriters. He uses producers that aren't known for making hard rock records. He’s put one of those guys, John Shanks, in the band, so it’s a completely different philosophy.”

Shulman attended the band's Rock Hall induction last month and a celebratory party organized by Jon's wife Dorothea that brought together the key players who helped the group achieve their massive success, including former manager Doc McGhee, songwriter Desmond Child and former members Richie Sambora and Alec John Such. Child's husband Curtis Shaw and their twin sons Roman and Nyro (Jon's godsons) also attended the events.

“The party had these two long tables, it was like 'Downton Abbey,” says Child, who recently received the ASCAP Founders Award. “It was the most beautiful, perfectly executed event ever. The show was the next day, and everything went flawlessly. I don't think they've played so exuberantly ever. They were so excited.” Child particularly praised the Bon Jovi camp for their gracious treatment of Sambora and Sambora's partner Orianthi, and he was moved seeing Bon Jovi and Sambora perform onstage again.

Child first made his name writing and learning about arena rock songs with Kiss, then brought that know-how to Bon Jovi and Sambora, with whom he collaborated for over 15 years. “From day one, it was instant chemistry,” says Child. “The combination of the skills of the three of us is killer.”

Shulman enjoyed being around Jon and the band for their celebration, and he says that despite living in a world of billionaires, Jon, not to mention his bandmates, showed humility. “They didn't forget who they were, what their roots were, and who had helped them over the years,” says Shulman. “That's very unusual in this business.”

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Nickelback toured Europe with Bon Jovi in 2006, and Nickelback bassist Mike Kroeger says the Canadian group gained insight during that time. “One thing that we really learned from them was how to treat other bands, like support artists,” Kroeger says. “They were so nice to us and treated us so well, way more than they needed to. They let us do whatever we wanted and made sure we were looked after.”

Respect came back Bon Jovi's way with the Rock Hall induction. Shulman saw Sambora at the event and thinks the famed guitarist will rejoin the band. “I smell something,” says Shulman. “And they should [reunite],” despite numerous issues that led to a five-year separation. “I have a feeling it's going to happen.” But not just yet. Sambora and Orianthi have their RSO album due out this week, and Bon Jovi has a tour to finish.

“Jon Bon Jovi is a national treasure,” says Child. “He's the hardest-working guy, he's a visionary, and he has mastered how to deliver a live show that people want to see over and over again. He doesn't consider Bon Jovi a legacy band because it is an ongoing creative experience.” 

 Bryan Reesman is the author of "Bon Jovi: The Story" (2016)

PAYING IT FORWARD

After the group was signed but before it had released its self-titled debut album, Bon Jovi got the chance to open for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 24, 1983, followed by four shows opening for Eddie Money. Over the course of the last year, the New Jersey icons have been paying it forward by holding a contest to allow local bands to open their shows.

New Jersey rock quartet The Revel opened with a 20-minute set at Newark's Prudential Center on April 7, one of the last two shows that Bon Jovi headlined before their Rock Hall induction. This was the biggest show of The Revel's young career.

“The place was 70 to 80 percent filled when we went on,” recalls guitarist Dillon D'Antuono, 21. “There was no sense of being overwhelmed at all. The [Revel] songs fit the arena style. The crowd loved us, we loved the crowd. The energy from the crowd was unbelievable and it just felt we were right at home.”

New York City-based band Oak & Ash, the 2016 winners of Newsday's Battle of the Bands, opened one of Bon Jovi's two Garden gigs in April last year. “It was certainly the best 20 minutes of my life thus far,” says Oak & Ash frontman Rich Tuorto, 28. “It felt like five.” He was told that the Garden had allegedly never gotten so full for an opening act before. “Being in the beginning of our career and having already played there is a real blessing.”

When Jon Bon Jovi did a solo acoustic show for charity at Tarrytown Music Hall in Westchester this past March, the promoter reached out to Oak & Ash because he knew they had opened for them and liked their music. The acoustic gig was a fun challenge for the young group and further justified all their hard work.“You look at someone like Bon Jovi — you want that guy to look at you and shake your hand and wish you good luck on your journey,” says Tuorto. “Hopefully you end up in the same position or similar position than he is 20 years down the line.”

“It's definitely a good thing to help out other bands,” says D'Antuono of the ongoing contest. “It can be life-changing for somebody.”

The group opening the May 9 gig is Williams Honor, a modern country duo from Asbury Park, New Jersey. — BRYAN REESMAN

BON JOVI

WHEN|WHERE May 9,10 at 7:30 p.m., Madison Square Garden, Manhattan

TICKETS $45.75-$474.70

INFO ticketmaster.com

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