Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
Richard Bull reports
I've always loved Tom Jones. Something about those classic records - tales of love and death delivered with heart and soul - coupled with his bluff, bullish personality. Some of you might dismiss him as a shouter, but Elvis Presley and Solomon Burke were fans, and I'd take their word over yours.
That said, I've hated pretty much all the records he's made in the last forty years. Especially those that paired him with the latest trendy producer in an attempt to be current.
So it came as a huge shock when he released one of last year's best albums: Praise & Blame, a stunning collection of gospel songs recorded live in the studio, stripped back and raw. When the Celtic Connections show was announced I was madly excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Jones performing this great new music.
And he exceeded my highest expectations - in a concert where every moment was a highlight.
The opening song, Bob Dylan's 'What Good Am I?', proved that he can hold back and deliver quiet intensity. Then in the second song, Lord Help, Tom cut loose, repeating the line "Lord help the wartorn people" over and over. It was relentless, extreme, righteous music.
Throughout the set his band crossed back and forth suberbly between restraint and ferocity, while Tom hollered and growled. He demonstrated what an amazing, versatile instrument his voice is, constantly working hard, pushing in different directions. And it's improved with age, attaining a previously uncharted depth, godlike on Ain't No Grave.
He played the album from start to finish, its sequence of songs so perfectly balanced that I despair for the exec at Island Records who called the album "a sick joke". It's exactly what Tom Jones should be singing. Songs looking back at life, facing up to death. John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell, arranged in White Stripes style for voice, guitar and drums, achieved a power that Jack White can only dream of.
After such intense peaks, respite came in the form of his good humour. It was somehow wonderful just to hear the words "Celtic Connections" spoken by Tom Jones. "It's great to be at the festival because I'm a Celt," he said. "At least I think that's what they called me."
After the album's final song, Run On (which Tom learned in late-night Las Vegas singing sessions with Elvis), he announced "a couple of songs I recorded long ago". And that's exactly what he did. Green, Green Grass of Home and I'll Never Fall in Love Again, with all their pathos and drama, were joyful reminders of Tom's previous heyday. It's Not Unusual retained all its charm, but with added stillness and dignity.
And then he was gone.
Were some of the audience tolerating the new stuff in the expectation of old favourites which barely figured? Quite possibly, but not me. I loved the Tom Jones that we got.
He's not trying to be young any more, he's not offering cheap thrills or trivia. He's who he is: a 70-year-old soul singer with passion, charisma and talent undiminished by time. Stay old, Tom. Keep testifying.
(And I haven't mentioned knickers once. Happily, this being Celtic Connections, none were thrown.)