Life-Changing Live Shows, Part 1: Tom Jones, Soul Singer

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Life-Changing Live Shows, Part 1: Tom Jones, Soul Singer

Tom Jones, shot in iPhone low-fi. (photo: Tony Kay)

Conventional wisdom states that you shouldn’t write a review about a concert more than a week after you’ve seen it. I respectfully submit a formal proposal to screw that noise.

A few weekends ago, I saw two childhood heroes of mine—musicians whose work is practically part of my DNA—play live. Something that significant is worth chronicling, even if it’s a little slow in coming.

June 1 brought with it a pilgrimage to the Paramount Theater to genuflect at the altar of Welsh singer Tom Jones. The guy’s had the kind of lengthy and storied career that could occupy a few thousand words by itself. But for the uninitiated, Jones is a legit entertainment legend who began his career in the mid-1960s, combining sexualized rock-and-roll energy with showbiz glitz. His calling card was—and remains—his voice, a windstorm of an instrument with power, soulfulness, and theatricality to spare. As a staple on my parents’ radio, a cherished presence in my record collection, and at least one karaoke go-to for yours truly, he’s been a fixture in my existence for literally as long as I can remember.

Jones is the last of a dying breed–practically the last man standing to represent a bygone era of old-school 20th-century showmanship. But there have always been two Tom Joneses, really;  the furry chested, swaggering lounge lizard, and the rock and soul singer who escaped a life of working-class labor in the coal mines of Wales on the strength of his room-filling voice.

The latter Tom Jones was the one who strode onto the stage that Friday. It marked the sixth time I’d seen the man live. It was also, unequivocally, the best I’d ever seen him.

Gone were the cooing female backing vocalists and the blast of campy bombast that often accompanied the man’s sets. Jones’ uniformly sharp backing band played lean and mean throughout, and Jones fronted them with the unforced confidence of a man who knows exactly what he’s doing, and how to do it right.

The set opened with one drummer and one guitarist, bashing out some bludgeoning garage-rock blues, with Jones joining them onstage to match the licks, slug for slug. Imagine the best old-school soul singer you never heard fronting the Black Keys, and you’ve got the idea.

The remainder of Jones’s performance swung between heartfelt covers of old rock and blues songs (the man’s last couple of records have definitely reflected a back-to-basics approach) and familiar Tom Jones classics, radically reinterpreted.

(photo: Tony Kay)

To these ears, those reimaginings of the old hits were a profound reflection of Tom Jones’s creative restlessness, and of his eagerness to alternately own and transcend his legacy. The Euro-disco overseas hit “Sexbomb” was rejiggered into a swank, extremely cool swing number. “It’s Not Unusual” gained a bounding zydeco arrangement, and the classic scorned-lover epic. “Delilah” was configured into a percussive Tex-Mex track. Best of all was the reinterpretation of that evergreen Jones classic, “What’s New Pussycat.” The stripped-down, lilting acoustic guitar, accordion, and tuba arrangement felt so breezy, so charming and unforced, it sounded like Jones wandering into a trio of buskers along the River Seine, then spontaneously singing along.

Jones is a pro whose voice has never disappointed, and he still sports a set of pipes that can rattle rafters. But he tempers that vocal firepower with a nuance and confidence that can only come from experience. The old Tom Jones would never have been able to croon out an unaffected cover of Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” with the easygoing soulfulness that the latter-day Jones lent to that old chestnut.

Jones saved his hit cover of Prince’s “Kiss” for near the end, and like the other familiar Tom Jones staples that night, it was radically reworked. Jones growled it out with damn-right sureness, and the arrangement was sinewy perfection, with not much more than a funk guitar and in-the-pocket drums and bass backing him during the verses. And somewhere amidst the booty-shaking groove, you could hear the inspiring, exhilarating sound of a 77-year-old showbiz veteran reinventing himself by being himself.

Tony Kay

Tony Kay

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