Tom Jones – Theater of the Living Arts – Philadelphia, PA – May 17, 2013
The youthful and charismatic Prince of Wales of yore has matured into a slightly grizzled and hardened King. While the years have passed and life has challenged, he still retains at 70 years old the chiseled handsomeness and bellwether voice that so mesmerized your mother (or grandmother) that she threw her panties up on stage back in the staid 60s, when they just didn’t do that kind of thing. (I apologize if that’s a disturbing image, but you know it happened, dude.)
Jones has always been a bit of a musical chameleon. Over the years he has tried (and mostly succeeded at) pop, soul, country, dance music, alt. rock, new wave, hip-hop and easy listening. Jones’ latest album, the bluesy Spirit in the Room and its 2010 predecessor Praise and Blame are back to basics efforts in which he covers the likes of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson, Joe Henry, Johnny Lee Hooker and more. The stripped back albums – particularly Spirit – have been getting terrific critical reviews and comparisons to Johnny Cash’s American series.
Therefore, it made sense that such a low-key project would spawn a low-key tour. Even calling it a tour is a bit of a stretch. Jones’ US trek of 2013 consists of smallish club dates in three cities – Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York – over a period of a little over a week. Tickets were released – and sold out – mere hours before the shows.
The packed-to-the-rafters TLA was alerted to the fact that they were not in Live in Las Vegas territory from the very start, when Jones opened with a soft take on Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” featuring the apocryphal opening couplet, “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is gray/I ache in the places that I used to play.” This was a more wizened, mature Tom Jones, and he wore the gravitas well.
With that, Jones spun out an adventurous two hour set of bluesy songs, performed enthusiastically with pitch perfect vocals and a hot band backing him up. He teased the audience with the intro “This is a very nasty song,” and then launched into a rollicking and playful version of Tom Waits’ “Bad As Me” that sizzled on the stage.
Jones took something of a gamble in the fact that he almost completely ignored his classic songbook in favor of newer songs and covers. That’s right, no “It’s Not Unusual.” No “What’s New, Pussycat?” No “Love Me Tonight.” No “Delilah.” Not even later hits like Prince’s “Kiss” or “Sexbomb.”
The one song that Jones performed written by Mickey Newbury, who wrote many of his biggest hits, was actually a hit for someone else: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s psychedelic classic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” However, he said that he wanted to show how his old collaborator had really wanted the song performed, so it was a cool musical rescue mission.
Jones also paid tribute to the recently deceased George Jones by doing a stunning version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Then Jones talked about his good friend Elvis Presley and said he was going to do his favorite Elvis song, but in keeping with the off-the-radar vibe it turned out to be one of Presley’s lesser known hits, “One Night With You.”
When he finally played the first of his old hits (and it turned out, last) in the second to last spot of a generous five song encore, Jones picked a slightly more obscure one. A great song, granted, but if 100 Jones fans were asked what song they wanted to hear most from his playbook, I’d be shocked if any of them picked “Green, Green Grass of Home.” I kind of get the choice, though, beyond the fact that I fucking love the song, it is the old-fashioned story song lament of a death row inmate reminiscing about his youth the night before his execution. It fit the vibe of the rest of the playlist.
It would have been a gas to hear some more of his old classics, but I can rather understand why he kept them under wraps in this set. The more upbeat swinging beats of his classics would not rest easily with the more bluesy set Jones had in mind. And while some more of Jones’ classics, like say “Delilah,” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” or “I (Who Have Nothing)” could have been tweaked to fit the mood, the fact is they weren’t needed.
Not many artists have the type of talent that they can keep an audience rapt for two hours, performing mostly songs the audience did not know and ignoring the ones that they expected to hear. Tom Jones did it easily and with style. The show was not exactly what I was expecting coming in, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Well done, Sir Tom.
Jay S. Jacobs