“I I just thought of something, ”reflects Tom Jones, in the middle of a skillful and moving set. “The last time I did a show, I was 70 years old. Now I am 80 years old. What about that? ”The roar of applause nearly ripped the ceiling off.
In fact, he’s 81 now, but time hasn’t dimmed Jones’s brilliance or tamed his fierce vocal cords. Having long secured national treasure status, this august showbiz icon now gazes at a devoted crowd from a rugged face that wouldn’t look out of place carved into a mountainside.
Huddled together, with barely a Covid mask in sight, that crowd is ready for a party to sing along, but Jones has other ideas tonight. Instead of flipping through his vast catalog of hits, he plays his most recent album, the chart-topping album South Surrounded by Time, in its entirety.
It’s a risky strategy, but one that works because of the inherent quality of that gloomy, often serene cover album. His fourth produced by his soulmate Ethan Johns, sees Jones cycle through styles and genres as he puts his inimitable vocal stamp on each song.
That stamp is best summed up by the technical phrase “giving you a little wellness.” Even in its ninth decade, the power and precision of Jones’s raucous baritone remains astonishing; its timbre is almost miraculous at the opening I won’t fall apart with you if you fall, a soul lament originally sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Before cabaret and Las Vegas caught the eye in the late 1960s, Jones was an insatiable R&B fan. He retains that ability, even if his screaming version of Cat Stevens’ nervous Pop Star plays the song more like a steamroller playing a freshly laid stretch of asphalt.
Jones’ charm lies both in his skill as an effortless storyteller and in his vocal skills. Bring to a high stool before the spoken word Talking Reality Television BluesHe remembers ration books from the war, the coronation of the queen, and being bedridden for two years with tuberculosis as a child: “So, you see, I was locked up even then!”
His slick band provides a nuanced sound bed for his supremely robust voice. Michael Kiwanuka’s I Won’t Lie is presented as a bad-tempered electronica. With less success, the silent astonishment of This Is the Sea of the Waterboys is buried under an overly effusive and bombastic roar.
It’s a rare misstep on a night of consummate musical prowess. Jones makes his way through Bob Dylan’s cute One More Cup of Coffee, his much more heartfelt and poignant take than Dylan could handle today. His booming voice in the traditional blues number Samson and Delilah seems to emanate from deep underground and rise through his feet.
However, the highlight of the night is the astonishing I’m getting older. A ghostly ballad, rich with traces of mortality, was first delivered to Jones by its writer, jazz musician Bobby Cole, after a cabaret show in Las Vegas in 1972. “I told Bobby: I still don’t have the old enough to sing this, but maybe I’ll make it one day! ” Jones says. A pause, a sigh, a glow. “And now, well, here we are!” His subsequent flawless rendition of this exquisite lament triggers a well-deserved standing ovation.
Jones walks away after Lazarus Man closes the album, and there are scattered boos from a crowd waiting for a new pawn via It’s Not Unusual, Delilah or What’s New Pussycat? They don’t last long. Here was a memorable performance by a prodigious artist who currently shows no interest in the concept of the death of light.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism