(Review – Ian Bell, Photos – Rodney Magazinovic)
Tom Jones is seventy-five-years-old. Seventy flipping five! After five decades of making music, touring the world (and dodging the undies) he can still sing most every other singer in the world under the table.
He has been touring Australia since the 1960’s and his fanbase here is both fanatical and loyal. He last visited Adelaide six years ago for a show at The Day On The Green in the Barossa and before that it had been a decade since he had been to South Australia. So it was somewhat of a surprise that last Tuesdays concert was probably to the smallest crowd he has ever played to here. In the country to appear at the massive Bluesfest in Byron Bay this weekend, Tom is doing several sideshows around the country.
I’m not sure if it was people’s wallets being tapped out after four weeks of the Fringe, Festival, Clipsal, Womadelaide, etc or the message getting lost in the tsunami of ads for Fringe shows but the usually full to the brim Entertainment Centre was in super reduced mode, with barely ten rows of seats on the floor and everybody else in the raised seating. At approximately 2,500 people it’s a third or a quarter what he would usually do. Which is a real shame because this was one of the best performances I have ever seen by the Lad from Pontypridd Wales (and I have seen him a lot!).
I should say right up front that some of the elements that made it exceptional for me, could have been the exact same things that disappointed some long term fans. Tom is one of those acts (like Cliff Richard or Barry Manilow) were the audience doesn’t always react well to change. The bulk of his fan base is a certain age and they just want him to bang out the hits that they know, so they can sing-a-long and chuck their knickers at the stage and wave their Welsh flags. But the swarthy body shirt undone to the navel, lewd comment making, hip thrusting Tom has long since been put behind him. As far back as the mid 90’s he was mostly covered up and while playful, he showed a lot more decorum than the rain of undies might suggest. That was twenty years ago. Now in his seventies, Jones is all about returning to his musical roots of Rhythm and Blues and his CD releases of the past ten years have all been gritty, soulful, ballsy R’n’B and gospel.
His band is fantastic, a young talented bunch of musicians playing the sort of New Orleans blues and soul arrangements that can be simultaneously tight as a drum and loose as a goose. The set list leans heavily on the more recent releases and the ‘classics’ get a reasonably big make over. Tom makes his arrival to thunderous applause, he looks great, his hair and goatee beard now completely white and that voice – hot damn! They start with four new songs (although technically old songs just new to his audience). Burning Hell, Run On, Didn’t It Rain and Don’t Knock are all from his 2010 critically acclaimed Praise & Blame album and set the tone for the evening. Swampy rhythm and blues grooves with smouldering slide guitars and a beautiful groove that suits Jones’ voice perfectly. The swampy arrangement continues with an astounding introduction of just guitar and his soulful voice delivering the first verse and chorus of a massively re-imagined Sex Bomb. A huge hit in 2000 with its thumping dance beat, tonight the main structure is still intact, but it is delivered with a New Orleans swing swagger with a great horn section and honky tonk piano which works brilliantly.
He has a little chat with us about his last three albums, explaining how he has always collected songs he’d like to perform and kept them in a little suitcase that had gone missing for some time, but when he rediscovered it he was inspired to release last year’s Long Lost Suitcase CD. Which leads to four more recent songs from that album. Lonnie Johnsons Tomorrow Night, Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do (Hank Williams), the country style Raise a Ruckus Tonight and banjo pluckin’ Honey, Honey. The last of that bunch is a cover of young new indie folk outfit The Milk Carton Kids and was on their 2013 release The Ash & Clay.
There has been some comparisons of Tom’s more recent releases, to the Johnny Cash albums produced by Rick Rubin towards the end of his life. There may well be something in that. Something of the teaching an old dog new tricks. He started out playing R&B, became a pop star, superstar, TV star, Las Vegas megastar, and had several re-inventions as an Indie darling and dance act in the 80’s and 90’s, even busting out some rapping on the Mr Jones album. Many of his contemporaries resign themselves to just going through the greatest hits collection the same way they have for decades. But clearly Mr Jones is looking to keep things interesting for himself and his audience. Unlike Bob Dylan, who routinely deconstructs his hits so they are completely unrecognisable, Tom keeps the classic songs mostly in tact, but changes up the feel to reinvigorate them partially for us and partly for himself. So by now we are about forty minutes in and he only done one ‘hit’ and that was from only 16 years ago. Time to bring out the big guns.
“I saw the light in the night as I passed by her window”. Cheering rumbles through the crowd as he uses the same intro trick as on Sex Bomb, with just a guitar and his singing coaxing people into one of his biggest songs. The band kicks in and it’s a spaghetti western Tex Mex arrangement and bloody great! A stripped back country take of his 1967 hit I’m Never Gonna Fall In Love Again is great showcase of his voice and possible the closest to the original version of anything played tonight.
Another clump of vintage R&B numbers and people seem to be warming up to the newer songs. Shake A Hand, is far from super well known but it has been covered by Paul McCartney, Little Richard, Pat Boone, LaVern Baker and Jackie Wilson among others. It really showcases Jones rich voice and gets a huge response from the crowd. The same is true for his astounding version of Gillian Welchs Elvis Presley Blues. A bare bones Tower of Song (by Leonard Cohen) is a personal highlight for me tonight.
The Green Green Grass of Home is a little more Nashville country tonight with great use of piano accordion and organ. It’s Not Unusual is a Parisian stroll, with a great horn arrangement, re-building a song everybody has heard eight million times and injecting fresh life into it. Mama Told Me Not to come was a big hit for Tom when he recorded it with Welch Indie rockers Stereophonics for the Reload album in 1999 and steps up a notch with the horn section adding new layers.
The other faithful arrangement tonight is his take on You Can Leave Your Hat On, his version of Joe Cocker’s hit from 9 and a Half Weeks. People go crazy at the end of it.
‘Oh Yeah?’ says Tom.
‘Oh Yeah!’ we reply.
The high energy bombast of If I Only Knew, remains one of my favourite songs of the 1990’s and really marked his resurgence as a top selling artist. Thanks largely to his son taking over his management and guiding him towards a more contemporary audience. That song is gigantic tonight, and it blows the roof off the joint!
The set closer is I Wish You Would is a Billy Boy Arnold song featured on the Suitcase album and it’s a frantic blues rock with wailing harmonicas, screaming guitars and raises the pulse of everybody. His voice is so perfectly suited to style of music.
The band returns for a pumped, up tempo version of his James Bond movie theme Thunderball from 1966. Rather than an over dramatic ballad, it’s given a driving beat and once again proves that these classic songs can be given a new lease of life successfully. With people up and dancing there is no chance to sit down as he launches right into Kiss, his cover of Prince’s chart topper which Tom (along with The Art of Noise) took to the top ten around the world in 1988. It’s magic. “Adelaide we love you!” Tom declares in the closing bars. “It’s too early to go home yet isn’t it?” before taking us home with the boogie woogie of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happen. It’s joyous and celebratory.
Seventy Five years old. Two hours on stage – BELTING out every song with a voice every microbe as strong, powerful and sexy as it was in the 60’s.
Tom Jones is still The Man.
Burning Hell (John Lee Hooker cover)
Didn’t It Rain
Don’t Knock (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples cover)
Sex Bomb (new orleans swing style)
Tomorrow Night (Lonnie Johnson cover)
Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do (Hank Williams cover)
Raise a Ruckus Tonight
Honey Honey (The Milk Carton Kids cover)
I’m Never Gonna Fall In Love Again
Shake a Hand (Faye Adams cover)
Soul of a Man (Blind Willie Johnson cover)
Elvis Presley Blues (Gillian Welch cover)
Tower of Song (Leonard Cohen cover)
Green Green Grass of Home
It’s Not Unusual
Mama Told Me Not To Come
You Can Leave Your Hat On
If I Only Knew
I Wish You Would (Billy Boy Arnold cover)
Kiss (Prince cover)
Strange Things Happen Every Day (Sister Rosetta Tharpe cover)