“The last time I did a gig I was in my seventies! Now I’m in my eighties!” Sir Tom Jones declared with a tone of amazement at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in West London. “What happened to the last couple years, eh?”
The barnstorming Welsh belter was back in his element for his first post-pandemic concert, and clearly delighted to be so. He stood firmly centre stage dressed in black, legs akimbo, fists raised, and sang his songs in a raw, soulful voice that rose up from deep inside his barrel chest and was released into the rafters like a force of nature.
With a deft five-piece backing band stirring up a dense and contemporary blend of rootsy blues and soul with rocky guitar edges and bold electronic keyboard flourishes, the 81-year-old star delivered an absolute masterclass in song interpretation, making every number sound like it was telling the story of his long life. “That was the river, baby, oh yeah!” he roared on a tough reworking of The Waterboys’ epic This Is The Sea, raging against the dying of the light with his band crashing like a storm behind him. And he sat on a stool and crooned the jazz ballad I’m Growing Old to solo piano accompaniment, eyes tight shut, picking through a tender lyric of surrender as if quietly bewildered by its revelations: “I’m growing dimmer in my eyes / I’m growing fainter in my talk.”
With backlights shining through his scruff of white curls, and his wide, handsome face sporting a white goatee, Jones looked ancient yet robust, somehow physically embodying a troubadour spirit that has been handed down through the ages. He would snap out of his musical reveries at the end of each song to beam the biggest, warmest smile you could hope to see. “Ah I’m just sucking all this in,” he said. “I’m just enjoying it. Cos normally I’m just around my flat singing on my own. But I enjoy myself anyway! As long as we’re breathing, eh?”
As a special one-off event, Jones performed his latest and hugely acclaimed album Surrounded by Time in its entirety. He seemed mighty pleased with it, reminding the audience several times that “it was number one! Thanks to you!”
There is something very inspiring about Jones’s sheer pleasure in singing, an almost childish glee in letting his vocals rip. It is this love of his profession that finds him doing among his best ever work in his eighth decade, singing songs that resonate with his age, and with the age we live in. There are a lot of veteran musicians trading in nostalgia, but let’s face it, you don’t expect this kind of raw power at an Engelbert Humperdinck show.
To be fair, the audience would have probably appreciated a few golden oldies being thrown into the set, but by the pummelling psychedelic conclusion of Lazarus Man, Jones looked like he had given all he’d got. There was a standing ovation from the sold-out, 2,000-capacity venue (where proof of double vaccination, positive PCR test or negative rapid lateral flow test were required for entry). When demands for an encore went unheeded, the audience shuffled outside, where a hardy group of fans bellowed a ramshackle version of Jones’s trademark sixties hit Delilah on the pavement, joyously untroubled by any woke concerns about belated controversy over its violent subject matter.
No doubt, he will be back leading the singalong when he hits the road again. “I hope we’ll be doing this together for many years to come,” were the great man’s final words as he departed the stage.