In 1969, amidst the chaos and confusion of race riots, the Vietnam war and what appeared to be not just a country but a world falling apart at the seams, the Rolling Stones wrote and recorded a searing, severe and apocalyptic song that defined the times entitled "Gimme Shelter". The four-minutes and twenty-eight seconds of this masterpiece embody the entire 1960's than almost any other piece of art from the entire decade. Even though I wasn't alive in the 1960's, I can hear the pandemonium in this track; the incendiary brimstone and fire remains just as revelatory today in its ability to transform and adapt itself to the times. As revelatory as the track was in 1968, it's continued to evolve and forty-years later, the song is larger than life as fans continue to find refuge and shelter in the art of it.
Twenty-three years after the Stones recorded "Gimme Shelter", the title track of Bon Jovi's fifth studio record, Keep the Faith proved to be a reaction of sorts to "Gimme Shelter". Despite desolate times and a draining economy the band found a spark in the dark and turned everything they knew on its head from a musical perspective. Despite the ambitious worldly nature of the track, it didn't light up the charts and was the first single since 1985 that Bon Jovi had released to not make the top ten. However, something mystical and miraculous has happened to this song over the last fifteen years, it's reinvented itself, redefined a band and has proven to be an anthem for the ages. Two-hours into Bon Jovi's sold-out Sunday night concert at the United Center in Chicago, I'm watching Richie Sambora, less than ten feet away from me, wield his guitar with mastery I've never seen from the six string shredder before in my life. Sambora's fingers graced the frets and delicate exactness, but the look on his face said it all; his narrow eyes were so entrenched in thought that he was able to sway the crowd to another level of euphoria through the pure dominance of his performance. It was a turning point in not just the evening but in the young tour as well. The most powerful aspect of live music as an art form is its ability to evolve and transform; something a film and a painting can't do. The crashing and exuberant performance of "Keep the Faith" painted a picture that wasn't just pulverizing but was concurrently cinematic in its scope as well; just like the use of "Gimme Shelter" in a Martin Scorsese film.
The official US leg of the Lost Highway tour began last week in Omaha, NE and began a three-night residency in Chicago this past Saturday. The shows leading up to the Sunday one were good, yet a tad too dialed and domestic for my taste. They were perfectly executed shows, but lacking the extra drive to take it over the top. However, it was an entirely different story on Sunday. Every once in a while all of the elements that make a perfect show fall into place and Sunday night in Chicago, Bon Jovi delivered one for the ages.
Right from the rip-roaring opening trio of "Lost Highway", "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Raise Your Hands" the band, especially Jon, willed the crowd to life to a euphoric state that never waned. The vigor of the band was on full display on "Runaway" and even though this song is over a quarter-century old this was the best performance I've seen of the song to date. The band plunged into the song in a way they haven't done in decades. Most notable were Tico Torres' uninhibited yet meticulous fastidious backbeat and Sambora's sprawling solo. The band appeared reborn and performed "Runaway" as if it was their most recent single and not a banal hit.
The evening showcased eight songs not performed the night before and while I don't feel some of the choices are among their best ("Bounce", "Till We Ain't Strangers"), the drive and determination during each of the performances proved to be refreshing and revitalizing. "Misunderstood" was resurrected for only the second time since 2003 demonstrating how varied and wide their catalog truly is and Jon even invited a fan to hold the lyrics for him since it was a last minute addition to the set list. The comforting "In These Arms" was inviting, impenetrable and winking. "Captain Crash & the Beauty Queen from Mars" was a psychedelic acid trip down memory lane with the fan club section waving their arms in sync like a pro football cheer leading squad while the revelatory and soulful "I'll Be There For You" literally brought the house down. Saturday night found Sambora taking lead vocal duties on the affecting ballad with a stirring guitar solo but on Sunday night, Sambora joined Jon on a side platform in the crowd where they performed the song acoustically as a duet. Sports arenas usually provide indolent experiences because of the vastness of the room, but these two singular artists found a way to bring breathtaking intimacy to the sold-out crowd through their performance. "Someday I'll Be Saturday Night" triumphed because the delivery was forthright, sincere and found Jon Bon Jovi cuing the crowd into ecstasy into a celebratory finale.
"Stranger In This Town" found Richie Sambora front and center in a dreamy, bluesy and a tour de force moment. When he sung the lyric, "Hey mister can you tell me, what this world's about, it might just help me out" it rung truer to me than at any other time in my life. Great artists often ask questions they don't have answers to. It's in these questions that we derive hope from…and more importantly, faith. I would rather have an enigmatic track that leaves me with more questions than answers and "Stranger In This Town" is a contemplative elegy for all-time. Here is an artist who has climbed some bleak walls in the last few years, clashed with demons and let me tell you, the end result is the most fluid, free form and feverish playing of Sambora's career. In short, Richie Sambora is at the apex of his career. A month ago, I caught Buddy Guy in his Chicago nightclub and after witnessing that miracle, I wondered why I bother with large shows. Richie Sambora reminded me why I love arena rock with the heartrending delivery of his solo tune. His playing is emotive like the best blues legends, only on a larger and grander scale.
Even the nightly warhorses were riveting; "Whole Lotta Leavin" rung true with an earnestness that is genuine and after the band surged in fully after the first verse, it was like a knockout blow from a heavyweight. During "Born To Be My Baby" (on Saturday night), Jon Bon Jovi strove over to the side platforms and actually kissed a woman and her husband/boyfriend giddily stood by taking a picture. In what world would this be OK with him? Only at a Bon Jovi concert. Jon was more mobile than I've seen him on stage in over a decade and appeared to be footloose and fancy free. Right from the first note to the last one, the band was storming to their own groove.
"(You Want To) Make A Memory" continues to attest their relevancy with a hush-like performance where the audience can be heard murmuring the lyrics but when multiplied by 20,000; it's not just good, it's divine. The pure adolescent jubilation of "Who Says You Can't Go Home" secured the emotions of the 20,000 in attendance which was followed by the tangled rawness of "Have A Nice Day". The simple flipping of these two songs worked wonders for the set list as the pacing improved leading up to aforementioned "Keep The Faith" and the supercharged "Livin' On A Prayer".
The collective talents of the seven musicians on this stage bestowed the Chicago crowd with an explosive exuberance none of them will forget any time soon. The inner mechanics of their musicianship is still in tact and is as enlivening as it's ever been. The cinematic inferno they injected into the crowd during the explosive "Keep the Faith" proved to be a countercultural movement inside the walls of the arena. The bad has had bigger and more ambitious hits but none have resonated and continued to develop the way "Keep the Faith" has progressed. Like "Gimme Shelter" from four decades back, "Keep the Faith" has proven to be a socially vicarious turbocharged plea for trying times. It speaks of the coming storm, wrestling with life's obstacles and yet finding solace and hope. For 150-minutes on Sunday night in the Windy City, Bon Jovi gave me and 20,000 others shelter from the storm and a renewed sense of faith substantiating that their art is more than a nostalgia trip but an expansive and weighty body of work.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
CD Info and Links
Bon Jovi: Shelter From The Storm