The setting was a far cry from Tom Jones’s 1970s Las Vegas glory years, belting out “What’s New Pussycat?” in tight trousers and unbuttoned shirt as female admirers bombarded him with underwear.
Jones is 70 now, well past his panty-magnet prime. The showbiz survivor shows no signs of vacating the stage, however. His fine new album Praise & Blame casts him as a gospel-blues singer, a man wearied of fleshly toil and corruption, a seeker after divine truth. It’s his highest charting record in a decade.
Praise & Blame’s model is Johnny Cash, reinvented in the latter stages of his life as the wise old man of Americana, staring death in the face with only a guitar and the Bible for comfort. But can Tom “The Voice” Jones pull off the biblical gravitas act on stage? Can the singer of “Sex Bomb” do God in an actual church?
At the Union Chapel – dry ice, candles, uncomfortable pews – a drum tolled (ask not for whom) and a guitarist strummed sonorously. Jones, in a sober grey suit, began singing Praise & Blame’s opening song “What Good Am I?”, a Bob Dylan cover. The original is a meditative number about charity; in Jones’s strong voice, it became pure melodrama. He couldn’t help sprinkling Las Vegas stardust over it.
The set consisted solely of Praise & Blame’s songs. Jones sang with force and presence, giving the gospel number “Don’t Knock” genuine uplift and delivering the blues cover “Lord Help” with the swagger of his old Vegas sparring partner Elvis Presley. Even at 70 he grips a song by the neck, like a burly landlord expelling rowdies from the Welsh pit village pubs where he learnt his trade 50 years ago.
This virile, theatrical style didn’t work so well on the graver material, such as Billy Joe Shaver’s tale of sin and redemption “If I Give My Soul”, which Johnny Cash also covered. When Cash sang, “I had a woman once, she was kind and gentle,” the words rang true. Jones sang in the flourishing manner of a Casanova wiping away crocodile tears. He came across as an old-school performer inhabiting a new and unfamiliar role, with entertaining but not always very plausible results.