Life Imitates Art at Forum Concert
Pop music review: Bon Jovi's sincere stance is all surface; Reeves and Dogstar show musical ambition.
by Robert Hilburn
It was wanna-be night Friday at the Forum.
We had an opening act that featured an actor--Keanu Reeves--who wants to be accepted as a rock musician.
Then we had a headline band led by a rock star--Jon Bon Jovi--who wants to be an actor. Even I got caught up in the spirit. For much of the long, dull evening, I wanted to be anywhere else.
Though it boggles the mind, Bon Jovi--the band--is one of the half dozen most popular groups in the world. Its U.S. sales have cooled in recent years, but it continues to be a superstar attraction internationally.
The group's appeal is based largely on the way it packages the broad gestures of rock 'n' roll--from the songs of struggle to the exuberant performance stance. If you don't pay close attention, Bon Jovi looks and sounds like the real thing. And Friday's crowd was certainly enthusiastic, singing along and waving its arms in the air in salute throughout the two-hour affair.
In reality, however, the group's music is all surface. There is none of the character, originality or passion of the most inspiring rock. From "Blaze of Glory" to the new "Something for the Pain," the songs are skillfully designed on a catchy, commercial level. Mostly, though, they merely mirror the virtues and values of rock the way a wax museum dummy only approximates the flesh-and-blood figures.
In its attempt to make more meaningful and mature statements in its new "These Days" album, Bon Jovi probably expresses as much confusion and pain as Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor, the acclaimed Prince of '90s Darkness. The difference is, you don't really feel the anguish or desperation in Bon Jovi's music, regardless of the pathos in the vocals or the wail of Richie Sambora's guitar.
What makes the band seem even more artificial live is the way Jon Bon Jovi adopts the mannerisms of '70s and '80s American rock heroes--all the way down to Bruce Springsteen's bandanna and John Mellencamp's white-boy dance steps.
Oddly enough, Reeves' band, Dogstar, was more interesting to watch--at least for anyone not caught up in Bon Jovi's spell.
Make no mistake: Dogstar is no more than a competent band at this point, and the only reason it has reached the massive Forum stage even before it has a record contract is because of the Reeves celebrity connection.
Yet it is competent, and that places it far ahead of most other bands in the long, mostly laughable tradition of movie-star rock ventures. Remember Bruce Willis?
Unlike past vanity projects, Dogstar has some musical ambition. It isn't just another oldies or soul or '60s rock revue. The band wants to put both feet in the '90s, drawing from punk and pop influences.
Reeves seemed as faceless Friday as most bass players, wearing a stocking cap, T-shirt and jeans and even his backstage pass on a chain around his neck.
Rarely looking at the audience, he played bass in a non-flashy, but steady way that provided an acceptable rhythm anchor for singer Bret Domrose's guitar playing and Robert Mailhouse's drumming. The challenge for Dogstar, like all beginning bands, is in the areas of songwriting and vision.
Friday's bill, however, showed that it is more interesting watching a band struggling to find its voice than one that has settled for a borrowed one.