Tom JonesUnion Chapel, London
by Cary Gee Saturday, September 25th, 2010
When Island Records heard that new signing Tom Jones was going to release an “album of hymns” one record company bean counter described the project as “a cruel joke”. This sorry individual should prepare himself for a mountain of beans. Jones’ first release for Island, Praise & Blame, which the septuagenarian Jones performed in full at the Union Chapel last week, is by far the singer’s finest release in years.
And while the songs, here stripped down to the basics, deal with temptation and ultimately redemption, this is most definitely not hymn singing. If it were, then churches across the land would be packed to the rafters.
Backed by a four-piece blues band, Jones growled and roared his way through a track list that began with Bob Dylan’s meditative “What Good Am I?” and included songs by Sister Rossetta Sharp and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson.
Saint or sinner, up close the power of Jones’ tenor is quite astonishing. There were moments during “Run On” when I half expected the gorgeous stained glass window above Jones’ head to shatter, such was the response from the congregation squeezed into the narrow wooden pews.
As Jones worked his way through the album, it became clear that Praise & Blame has been a lifetime in the making. Like Johnny Cash before him, and even his good pal Elvis Presley, who “loved gospel music over everything else he did”, Jones has finally managed, in the latter stages of his career, to make the album he always wanted to. His love for and appreciation of the songs he sings tonight is tangible – so much so that when one punter heckles: “Play some rock ’n’ roll”, Jones retorts: “What do you think that was?” By this stage, the chapel is certainly rocking.
As if to prove his point, Jones then sings John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell”. The lights above the stage turn hellfire red, but the temperature seems to drop by several degrees as Jones silences his critics. This is an elemental, bone-chilling plea for forgiveness and seems momentarily to stun the audience. On “Did Trouble Me”, complete with banjo which sounds like it is being plucked with bleeding fingers, Jones pleads with the Lord to “make me human, make me whole”.
Never one to dwell on things that might have been, Jones gives us a song he used to sing, backstage with Elvis, in Las Vegas. Billy Joe Shavers’ “If I Give My Soul” is a country-coloured reflection on the passing of the years. During those years, Jones has tried his hand at just about everything, reinventing himself in the 1990s after years in the Nevada Desert with his version of Prince’s “Kiss”, before aiming for – and missing badly – the club generation with “Sex Bomb”. Ironically, throughout this time hipper-than-thou singers of a younger generation have lined up to duet with Jones in a symbiotic (and parasitical) grab for credibility. Jones needn’t have bothered.
In the absence of knicker-throwing Delilahs, show-biz flapdoodle and homage-paying “indie” darlings, Jones proves that the devil and Jesus really do conspire to produce the best music. Waiting for the bus outside the chapel, I heard one lad tell his mate: “Seeing Tom was on my list of things to do before I die.” His mate agreed, adding: “I’m glad I waited.” Me too.
Praise & Blame is out now on Island Records