The legendary Tom Jones has dabbled in more musical genres over his 35-year career than his native Wales has valleys, and to a small crowd at a Mayfair venue last night, he previewed his forthcoming album Praise And Blame; a body of work which draws on roots, gospel and the blues.
Produced by Ethan Johns (Past CV credits include Ryan Adams, Laura Marling and Paolo Nutini) it's a collection of country interpretations, which pushes Jones into self-judgement, reflection and, above all, God territory. It may be of little coincidence that as the silver-haired lothario approaches the sobering age of 70, a lofty, converted church provides the perfect setting for him to atone for his Vegas sins on If I Give My Soul: "I have come in search of Jesus, hoping he will understand". Taking to the pulpit beneath a stained glass window of the holy trinity in a sand-coloured linen suit and appearing to have borrowed a leaf out of Robert Plant's Raising Sands book - all airs of showbiz, glitz and glamour forgotten - one asks: does Tom Jones's biblical verse really extend beyond the tale of Delilah? Could Pontypridd's boyo actually be a God-fearing man?
Opening with his take on Bob Dylan's What Good Am I, the searching lyrics expose Jones to a level unseen. As his trembling voice, gravelly and booming, asks "what good am I if I say foolish things?" it's immediately clear his instrument was made for such soul-bearing, sermon-giving, fire-and-brimstone-calling fare. It also puts a dampener on anybody expectant of a frolicking Sexbomb reprise. Yet, in a bid to "get serious" on Susan Werner's Did Trouble Me, Jones has a senior moment: "If I get some words wrong then, hey!" With the aid of his pussycat smile and stage-side prompter it would seem then that the Lord doesn't trouble him too much.
From songs of such intimate redemption to the gospel honky tonk fever of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Strange Things, the born entertainer shows no signs of slowing down as he's joined by Ethan Johns himself and a group of workmanlike players onstage; the E Street Band to Jones's Bruce Springsteen. For all the quiet conversations with the 'Man Upstairs' it's the devilish cheek of Don't Knock and John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell that sees Jones coming into his hell-raising element. His order (accompanied by some signature Jones moves) to "get down in the church house" is reminiscent of the Tom Jones we know and love with his never-ending ploy to keep up with the kids a little longer than he should.
As he turns up the heat in this church house, Jones signals the end: "We almost made it!" Pawing the sweat off his brow, he makes a deal with the Devil as he purrs, "When I die where will I go?" with Vincent Price Thriller-like doom. Whether God is on his side or not remains to be seen, but on this judgement day all non-omnipresent give him a resplendent thumbs up.