He’s not moving his hips quite so much any more. His dark hair has long since gone to silver. But time has done little to take the pipes of Tom Jones, who at a remarkable 76 is doing far more than just reciting the hits that made him a star in the ’60s, but reinterpreting contemporary songwriters, great ones from the past and the pillars of the blues and R&B that got him started in the Welsh clubs more than a half century ago.
He’s so beloved by loyal fans, they’ll follow his creative side trips into more obscure music that he loves, or go along with his different approaches to the songs they came to hear.
For three albums now, Jones has been working with Ethan Johns, the English producer who has worked with Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne and Kings of Leon (his father is the famous Stones producer Glyns Johns). Together, they’ve created an echoey, booming version of roots music that nevertheless makes way for Jones’ own large voice.
There’s nothing subtle about his approach. Like a 747, his engines start big and then he soars from there. At a packed house at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., Sunday night, he started with John Lee Hooker (“Burning Hell”), moved to Odetta (“Hit or Miss”) and the first of a couple of Randy Newman songs that have served him well, “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” (“You Can Leave Your Hat On” came later).
It was only after a Little Willie John tune, “Take My Love (I Want to Give It All to You”) that he deigned the crowd with a 60s hit, “Delilah,” which they joined into singing like a drunken wedding.
Using a versatile three piece horn section, he had them setting the scene for a scorching “St. James Infirmary Blues” followed by a piercing reading of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man,” the screen behind him full of animations of lightning, rain and crosses.
It would seem that Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” might have been a chance for him to go subtle, but there’s no cruise control on those wide open vocals, so he belted out what he called his tribute to his old Vegas friend Elvis, and made it something quite different than her original.
Jones has been singing Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” long enough to truly make it sound like it was written for him, if not the chatting with Hank Williams part, at the very least the line, “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” For Cohen, perhaps, it’s self-effacing humor; for Jones, it’s something few would deny.
He included the most expected of his hits, but did so in a way that teased them out, often with instrumentation that didn’t immediately give them away.
Once he was in things like “Green, Green Grass of Home,” you were reminded once again of what a solid story song it was. The forgotten country song from Porter
Wagoner that Jones made into a worldwide No. 1 hit in 1967 was more than just a scene of nostalgia, but the dream of a man about to be executed.
If Jones has changed with time, not all of his fans have. Underwear was tossed onstage during “What’s New Pussycat?” that had to be swept up before the encore.
His “It’s Not Unusual” began with unusual instrumentation, as if by busking tuba and accordion before moving into its more familiar fuller brass accents.
He made his point, though, by adding his now 20-year-old rave up “If I Only Knew” at the end, alongside his version of Big Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” from his latest album to keep energy high and fans on their feet.
Then the encore served as a kind of survey of every era of Jones’ remarkable career — the sass and sweep of a James Bond theme, “Thunderball,” from the 60s, his career comeback cover of “Kiss” from the late 80s, presented as his salute to Prince; and from this decade, his gospel rave up of the 1945 Sister Rosetta Tharpe gospel hit “Strange Things Happen Every Day” that nobody can deny still applies in 2016.
Here’s an interview I did with Jones for the Washington Post.
The setlist for Tom Jones Sunday was:
- “Burning Hell”
- “Run On”
- “Hit or Miss”
- “Mama Told Me Not to Come”
- “Didn’t It Rain”
- “Tomorrow Night”
- “Raise a Ruckus”
- “Take My Love (I Want to Give It All to You)”
- “St. James Infirmary Blues”
- “Soul of a Man”
- “Elvis Presley Blues”
- “Tower of Song”
- “Green, Green Grass of Home”
- “What’s New Pussycat?”
- “It’s Not Unusual”
- “You Can Leave Your Hat On”
- “If I Only Knew”
- “I Wish You Would”
- “Strange Things Happening Every Day”