Is Tom Jones the poster boy for clean living? His just-released autobiography, Over the Top and Back, would suggest otherwise. But the state of his voice right now, at 75, is surely a testament to something, whether that’s his healthier regimen now or some sort of preservation in amber back in his drinking days. To experience that robust an instrument in a small room — as a couple hundred invitees did at a KCRW taping Wednesday night, witnessing one of the year’s best command performances — is to get the kind of thrill you’d be hard-pressed to repeat short of Shirley Bassey showing up in your bedroom for a serenade.
Besides his book, Jones is promoting a simultaneously released album, Long Lost Suitcase, the third in a trilogy (so far) of back-to-his-roots projects. He’s a few years into the post-brass, cred-building phase of his career, so it was not a given that he’d supplement his newer and more cerebral or bluesier material with hits from his ‘60s heyday, especially at a public radio taping where everyone was just as happy hearing obscure Willie Nelson covers as “Delilah.” Lucky for the unpresuming KCRW crowd, he was also in the mood to put the thunder (and balls) back in “Thunderball.” Just looking at the calendar, you might have felt a little bit of suspense, wondering if he could still hit — and reasonably sustain — those high notes John Barry wrote for him back in 1965. Jones can, and will, even if you know he’d rather take us on a Welshman’s tour of Americana than travel back to swinging London.
A look at Jones’ setlist would seem to promise some whiplash, with the oldies maybe not being exact fits alongside the very olden gospel-blues of “Soul of a Man.” But the performer has put together a band that’s done a terrific job of rearranging the handful of frothy ‘60s classics to make them sound like they belong next to some fairly stark, come-to-Jesus material. Okay, it’s almost impossible to make “It’s Not Unusual” to sound like anything but a trifle, once you take away the horns. But all the more impressive that Jones can make what was once the climax of his show sound like an enjoyable B-side now amid the weightier stuff.
How weighty? Jones performed Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” as the follow-up to a mid-set interview with KCRW’s Anne Litt, in which he repeated his book’s anecdote about sharing bathroom facilities with Elvis and watching a trusted assistant pull up the King’s tight leather trousers. He admitted that jocularity wasn’t necessarily the best entrée into such a seriously intended tribute song. But as anyone who’s heard the Welch song before knows, there’s a lightness to it, too — how can there not be with lyrics that describe how Presley “shook it like a Harlem queen” — and Jones is just the singer to find the mixture of humor, tragedy, and glory in the tune. Hearing an actual contemporary and pal of Elvis belt out Welch’s previously modest song for all it’s worth, accompanied only by a tremolo guitar? On the new album, “Elvis Presley Blues” is a nice moment; in live performance, it was deeply moving and spectacular.
He matched that with a reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” As a thousand hapless TV renditions of “Hallelujah” will attest, almost no one who interprets Cohen gets that at least a quarter of his lyrics are meant to be funny, or at the very least wry. Jones certainly does, as his innate wit and the knowing smirk during a couple of the early lines would attest. But there was one line Cohen meant as a gag that you could forgive Jones for taking completely seriously: “I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Earlier, in conversation with Litt, Jones had talked about being singled out in chapel at 5 or 6 for trying to sing like Mahalia Jackson, and you realized: Yes, just as in the lyrics, Jones didn’t have much choice about his gifts or muses… regardless of whether the number of angels forcing him into this vocation was exactly Cohen’s 27. As he closed his eyes and smiled about the blessing or curse that forced his hand in life, filling the tiny room with its robustness and nuance, you couldn’t help but swoon.
There were earthier moments in the set, of course, and some of Jones’ contemporary blues updates could inspire underwear-tossing just as surely as the oldies. But it’s a very pleasant late-inning surprise that he can be so stirring on starker songs dealing with mortality and muses. It all goes to show: You can take the boy out of Vegas…. and you can take the Vegas out of the boy, too.
Jones’ performance and interview were taped for broadcast and streaming on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show Dec. 22.
Take My Love (I Want to Give It)
Raise a Ruckus
Opportunity to Cry
If I Give My Soul
Elvis Presley Blues
‘Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone
Soul of a Man
Green Green Grass of Home
I Wish You Would
It’s Not Unusual
Tower of Song
Didn’t It Rain