Bringing the curtain down on ten days of British Summer Time shows in Hyde Park, Tom Jones stepped on to the Great Oak Stage and set it alight. Already bathed in evening sunlight, the backdrop was transformed into a flaming inferno as he began with a rocked-up version of John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell. “When I die, where will I go?” Jones sang, his big, throaty voice accompanied to begin with by only two guitarists and a drummer. It sounded more White Stripes than What’s New Pussycat?. He returned to this gospel-blues theme later in the set with a propulsive version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil, a song that Jones recorded in 2012 with Jack White. People tend to forget that “the Voice” was Jones’s nickname long before a TV show of that title was devised. But for all his much vaunted ability, the singer from Pontypridd has taken some questionable artistic turns during a career that for many years found him sidelined as a Las Vegas cabaret turn. An unintended consequence of his tenure as a TV talent show judge seems to be that, at the age of 74, he has become more rigorous in selecting songs that match his own strengths and disposition as a singer. He has certainly upgraded his band, now a lean versatile unit with a part-time horn section of the sort that you might find backing Van Morrison. A couple of “new” songs from a forthcoming album —Tomorrow Night (recorded by Bob Dylan) and Raise a Ruckus Tonight (a slave-era hootenanny) — both had deep country and gospel roots. And even the old stalwarts of his repertoire were retooled in stylish new ways. Delilah was given a flamenco guitar and mariachi trumpet makeover, and It’s Not Unusual was performed with a prominent piano accordion part and a Latin-flavoured rhythm. These versions received a mixed reception from some diehard fans, who seem to regard deviation from the recorded arrangements to be a transgression of the Trades Description Act. But this was an infinitely more tasteful and sophisticated performance than the shows Jones used to put on in his more populist incarnations. His version of Tower of Song perfectly captured the warm humour and gentle pathos of Leonard Cohen’s lyric, and he even managed to inject a genuine sense of yearning into a pleasingly understated arrangement of Green, Green Grass of Home. The oaks, and indeed the whole park, shook and shimmied as he powered into the home straight with the disco-dancefloor strut of If I Only Knew,Thunderball and Kiss.
David Sinclair July 15 2014