By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jun 26, 2009 at 1:41 AM

As I mentioned in yesterday's preview, Bon Jovi should really be credited for much more than its ability to make dudes rock out with its anthems, women swoon with its odes to endless love and power ballad compilations rich with its nostalgic offerings.

That's part of what makes this band sell out stadiums, but it's not the whole picture. The band has done something much bigger, something much more rare within the searing spotlight of rock 'n' roll stardom. Jon Bon Jovi has somehow transcended time and space, managing to keep a solid grip on his relevancy for more than two very musically diverse decades and come out the better for it.

Who else among the headbangers of the hairspray era can say the same?

This is perhaps Bon Jovi's greatest accomplishment. But if you ask the band, its members might have a different milestone in mind.

Fresh off last week's induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame -- joining the ranks of fellow New Jersey blue collar rocker Bruce Springsteen -- Bon Jovi arrived in high spirits to kick off summer in the most Milwaukee way possible: a sticky, sweaty, sold-out Marcus Amphitheater show on Summerfest's opening night.

The Big Gig main stage is an ideal venue for Bon Jovi, a band that has been known to check all pretension and political opinion at the door, bringing with it only hopeful songs with good attitude and strong spirit. There is a time and a place for artful arrangements and meaningful metaphors, but this was a night for the crowd to indulge in simple, familiar pleasures and sing along with every line.

It's just the kind of music that makes people feel good, and somehow unite in the struggle without pointing fingers, placing blame or celebrating the downtrodden. It's as if Jon Bon Jovi smiles -- and he did, for the full two-hour set -- and the world smiles back. What other option have you when the band opens with its gleeful version of The Dave Clark Five's "Glad All Over?"

Even if Jon and Co. follow it up with the slightly angsty 1987 hit "You Give Love a Bad Name," you can't help but see them as America's sweethearts -- even if they are pushing 50. Jon is as playful as a 23-year-old on stage, his shirt partly open, his feathered hair bobbing with every leap but settling perfectly with each dramatic pose. The ladies, who clearly made up the bulk of the 23,000-person audience, squealed and hung on his every word.

"We're only playing four shows this year, and this is No. 3," said Jon. "As soon as the opportunity to play Summerfest came, I said, 'Hell yeah!'"

So, of course, when he played "I love this town" off 2007's "Lost Highway," we all took it personally. He certainly is a charmer.

The band played a few other "newer" hits -- "It's My Life," "Have a Nice Day," "Who Says You Can't Go Home" -- but seemed most excited to take everyone back in time to the early '80s with spot-on renditions of its former self. It started with "Runaway," followed by "Raise Your Hands," "Bad Medicine" and several others than reached their peak before the onset of grunge.

Strangely enough, it doesn't feel like a novelty act when Bon Jovi digs deep. The crowd -- some definitely not yet born before "New Jersey" surfaced and others who could be their moms -- was equally accepting of both the dated material and the new, squeaky clean direction the guys have gone in the new millennium.

It's as though they can do no wrong -- although, personally, I'd have preferred for Jon to sing the solo version of "I'll Be There For You" rather than Richie Sambora, but the idyllic timing of the Big Bang corresponding with his breakdown (botched lyrics and all) was nothing if not epic.

Saving "Livin' on a Prayer" for the encore was little surprise, but Jon did have a few new tricks up his sleeve. He announced that he and the band had finished a new album the previous night. What that means, exactly, we're not sure, but it's a safe bet that we can expect new material from Bon Jovi in the not-so-distant future -- a pleasant parting gift from a wisely-booked opening night.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”