Jon Bon Jovi was at a crossroads. Yes, it was the 30th anniversary of the New Jersey native and his band's first album, Bon Jovi. But the multiplatinum group's guitarist/co-writer Richie Sambora had just departed. And Bon Jovi was feuding with its longtime major label, Mercury.
Jon Bon Jovi was becoming well-known for his work with the homeless, hungry, and HIV-AIDS afflicted in Philadelphia and New Jersey, but his stadium-filling hair-metal rep was happily receding. Backstage at the Kimmel Center after he received the 2014 Marian Anderson Award for his humanitarian activities, Bon Jovi was quiet, more ruminative than celebratory.
"I was born into the Kennedy era of Camelot, where everybody could achieve their dreams," he said then. "As I got older, I traveled, saw different points of view. When I was young, I was self-centered. Now, if I was still that guy ... it would have been a life unfulfilled, I'd be embarrassed. So I've become socially conscious and feel the need to contribute, to do more than sing."
Before walking away, he added, "This is who I am. Philly's half of me, Jersey's another half. Who says you can't go home?"
Now, the singer/songwriter seems to have answered his own question with longtime bandmates drummer Tico Torres and keyboardist David Bryan on their first album in three years, This House is Not for Sale.
Bon Jovi previewed the album, out Oct. 21, during an intimate show for 1,500 fans Saturday at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., the town where he lives. He'll do similar shows later this month in London, Toronto and, Oct. 19, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York.
Bon Jovi made coming home and finding oneself amid life's psychic detritus the new album's central conceit. He's mended fences with his label, making Bon Jovi the longest tenured artist in Mercury's history. Sambora has been replaced by guitarist Phil X. Others on the album and at the gig included bassist Hugh McDonald and percussionist Everett Bradley. Bon Jovi's longtime producer John Shanks also played guitar Saturday.
"Happy Saturday. Welcome to the debut of This House Is Not for Sale," yelled the graying singer as the show opened. "There's been a lot going on in my life. I hope yours has not been as tumultuous."
The album and the night's conversation focused on the realities of Jon Bon Jovi being a 54-year-old man in the middle of living his dreams, disasters, rights and wrongs. "It's a record about integrity, rebirth, life, love, loss and all the sweat in-between. We have a lot to say and not a thing to prove."
Yes, he did have a lot to say, both as a speaker and as lyricist. When he wasn't telling fans what not to expect ("It you think I'm going to keep rewriting "You Give Love a Bad Name" - sorry folks, that book's gone") he offered up winning, contagious rockers that sounded fresher than ever from a band used to the grand musical flourish. He did give eager fans a little classic stuff in the encore — "Who Says You Can't Go Home" and a tart "Bad Medicine." But the new album dominated this show.
While "Born Again Tomorrow" asked its audience to ponder going beyond "coulda-shoulda-woulda," the new album's ragged title song (and the evening's intro) opened with "these four walls have got a story to tell" and proceeded to rage about how home is "where memories live and dreams don't fail."
Along with offering up a Bruce Springsteen-ish melody, and a powerfully vulnerable admission ("I'm over my head") on "Living With the Ghost," and a "chip on your shoulder" paean to getting over yourself ("Knockout"), Jon Bon Jovi did an unusual thing. While singing the softer, countryish "Scars on This Guitar," he spoke of the wonder he found watching pompadoured, mustachioed punk rocker Willy DeVille play in Asbury Park in the mid-'70s, and sang a line from the late Deville's "Storybook Love."