There are two reasons why it’s fitting that Bon Jovi is the first act resurrecting MTV’s Unplugged. First, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s acoustic “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” medley at the 1989 Video Music Awards helped inspire the original concert series. (Relive the VMA performance here, while it lasts.) Second, at a time when the band is looking to cross genres — their country album Lost Highway drops June 19 — so too is the show: Three different versions of their Unplugged will air on MTV (a half-hour, premiering June 22), VH1 (a full hour, June 23) and CMT (90 minutes, June 24).
Because you can’t really “spoiler” music in print — and because I’d never seen Bon Jovi live, which was just wrong — I hauled my butt (and the butt of my plus-1, Sheila) to Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios Tuesday night to join a couple hundred others for the show.
Below the jump is a list of all the things I learned at the taping. That Sambora would need to enter rehab, as People reports he did today, wasn’t one of them. The only signs I saw of possible impairment were a few screwups on the guitar during “Wanted.” And I just assumed he was as exhausted at the end of the three-and-a-half-hour event as I was.
• Regardless of how Nashville their new sound actually is, Bon Jovi’s current single “(You Want to) Make a Memory,” won’t be the only song from Lost Highway to hit the country charts. Both “Whole Lot of Leavin’ Goin’ On” and the album’s title track are good road anthems. Jon said “Lost Highway” is his favorite track he and Richie have ever written. It’s about being able to finally look at your past with clarity and know exactly where you’re headed. He said that, in the last year, he’s been able to see friends through difficult times. (Sheila and I then shared the memory of how sad we were when Richie and Heather Locklear separated. In light of today’s disclosure, perhaps Jon was referring to something else.)
• Even 45-year-old rock stars get the jitters… Jon and Richie wanted to get a few songs under their belts with the band before they tackled what will actually open the show: A slow, ominous version of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” As the two of them stood backlit on a dark stage, accompanied by an angry-sounding eight-piece string section, I thought this arrangement is definitely better than “Prayer ‘94,” but that I, personally, am never happy unless this song is rocked balls-to-the-wall. That realization was particularly unfortunate considering “Prayer” was one of several tunes on the 20-song set list they would elect to do more than one take of. We actually heard the closer “Wanted” three times — once with the full band and twice with just Jon and Richie (who apologized to the audience for blowing out his voice in rehearsal). Richie kept enunciating the “t” in wanted, which actually disturbed us more.
• I need to buy a LeAnn Rimes album. Rimes (pictured with Jon) flew in to do the steamy Lost Highwayduet “ ‘Til We’re Not Strangers Anymore” and sounded amazing. I’d loveto ask her to describe, in great detail, what it feels like to singabout making love while Jon Bon Jovi stands a foot away, staring andsmiling at you. Perhaps she’d say what someone sitting in front of medid: “I just had a stroke.” Too bad Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles didn’tpop up when it was time for “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hearing her harmonies in my head though.
• All-American Rejects frontman Tyson Ritter respects his elders. Ritter and bandmate Nick Wheeler joined Bon Jovi for a stripped version of “It’s My Life.”Assuming I heard Ritter correctly when he took the stage (“I’m s—-in’razorblades”), it’s safe to say he also was dealing with nerves. Afterthe song ended, he dropped to his knees and gave Jon the universal signfor “I’m not worthy.” He must be a fan: he stuck around for the rest ofthe show, and I saw him tapping his foot to the rousing performance ofthe Arena Football League anthem, “We Got It Going On”. Busted!
• Jon Bon Jovi is one of those people who thinks the late Jeff Buckley wrote “Hallelujah”.Or, at least he said he was when he first saw Buckley perform it inAsbury Park in the early ’90s. (Jon turned to a friend and went,”That’s the hit,” not knowing it had already been one for Leonard Cohen.)It’s a song he wishes he’d written, and you could tell it from thepassion in his performance. No one does the power jazz hand — punchingthe heavens with an open palm for emphasis — like Jon Bon Jovi. (And noone does “Hallelujah” like Buckley.)
• You haven’t seen Jon Bon Jovi animated, until you’ve seen him do a swing version of “You Give Love a Bad Name.” The man worked more than his hands during the band’s first No. 1 hit — set to a “Stray Cat Strut”beat. His Elvis twists received a warm reception, though I genuinelybelieve his emotive, bicep-flexing grip on the mike stand during “Born to be My Baby” made thathis sexiest number. I’ll be curious to see which network(s) airs “BadName,” as well as the so-called “Beatles-esque” version of another No.1, “I’ll Be There For You.”