Jon Bon Jovi & Friends @ Starland Ballroom

SAYREVILLE, NJ—“Welcome to Sayreville,” said Jon Bon Jovi, to start the show. It was the beginning of a raucously fun night at the Starland Ballroom, where Jon and his friends kicked it out to raise money for the Parker Family Health Center. The Center offers free health care to Monmouth County residents who lack medical insurance, or the means to pay for it.

Jon talked about how he came to know of the Center, and of his roots in Sayreville. This was a true homecoming for him, as he explained that Bon Jovi used to practice in the building that became the Starland Ballroom. Even his wife had once been a coat check girl at the venue. This wasn’t Bon Jovi the rock star, but Jon the local kid who made good, and who comes back to help other locals who are in need.

The stellar band was led by Jersey shore favorite, and Bon Jovi touring guitarist, Bobby Bandiera. The group included a four-piece horn section, drums, percussion, bass, keyboards, guitars and an array of vocalists that kept the show varied and interesting. Indeed, the 90-minute show flew by and ended before the packed house was ready to leave.

The audience waited patiently outside in the cold and snow before the show, and endured a venue packed to the rafters, but got a show that was well worth the wait. Jon handled most of the vocals, but gave everyone a chance to shine, singing on their own or dueting with him.

Starting with a slow, bluesy version of the Beatles “Help!,” the show slowly built in intensity, with classic songs such as “CC Rider,” Pretty Woman,” “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “She’s Not There” all getting the Jersey shore treatment. This was like the ultimate bar band, with world-class talent taking on the classics you’d hear down on the corner.

Southside Johnny joined the fray on J. Giels “House Party,” with a rip-roaring harp solo that traded licks with Bandiera’s guitar. Leyonne Holmes traded vocal barbs with Jon on the Stones “Start Me Up,” and Maureen McCrink added haunting backups to “Whole Lot Of Lonely.”

As the festivities grew to a peak, Jon launched into “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” which began a string of Bon Jovi songs to end the set. Jon announced that it was time for the audience to sing, and sing they did, taking the whole first verse and chorus. The band then kicked into the first single from the last Bon Jovi album, “We Weren’t Born To Follow,” and then took it up a notch with “You Give Love A Bad Name.”

To end the set, Jon brought out local diva Lisa Bouchelle to sing the part Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland originated on the recording of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” and the crowd reacted by singing, dancing and raising their hands in the air to the chants of “It’s alright, it’s alright” that ends the song. Obviously there couldn’t have been a more appropriate ending, since Jon was most definitely back home. And the audience welcomed him back with open arms, yelling for an encore.

Jon didn’t disappoint, as he came back out and started the encore with an acoustic version of “Livin’ On A Prayer,” which was most appropriate given that the benefit raised approximately $500,000 to help people struggling to make a go of it, like Tommy and Gina in the song that helped Bon Jovi to reach the rarefied air of superstardom. And the acoustic version of the song added an appropriate poignancy to the proceedings.

The band then kicked in for “Treat Her Right,” with some blistering guitar from Bandiera, giving him a chance to show off his chops as well as his musical direction skills. To end the night, a rousing version of “634-5789” that included all the vocalists trading lines served as a great send off for the crowd.

The show was a success on every level, with a financial windfall for the Parker Family Health Center, and musically, with a selection of songs and cast of area music luminaries that sent everyone home satisfied and in great spirits as they headed out into the cold evening air. I would be surprised if Jon doesn’t soon come ‘home’ again in the future.