He has some very big pipes. It is a very small chapel. There are many reasons to be excited about septuagenarian superstar Sir Tom Jones's performance at an intimate north London church, but chief among them is the prospect of the Welsh soul man blowing this semi-sacred space wide open.
It never quite happens. But he comes tantalisingly close a few times, enough to count this one-off gig a success. The first tremors come two songs in. "Lord Help" is a secular hymn taken from Mississippi country blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill. As Jones's band set up a swinging blues and the lighting rig dyes the stained glass a sinful red, Jones invokes the Lord's help for "the poor and the needy".
Then comes the key change. Jones throws his head back a little, opens his hands and his throat. "And we all rise together!" he sings, a veteran roué turned preacher man. The cobwebs quiver. Any audience in the American south would have jumped to their feet, but the rather more British Union Chapel crowd remain stuck to their pews until the end.
Jones began this latest UK jaunt by popping into the Pontypridd YMCA the week before last, having played there in his youth. He then performed at the Help For Heroes servicemen's concert last Sunday (with "my mate Robbie Williams"). But he is here tonight to play Praise & Blame, his 38th studio album, in its entirety. We get all 11 tracks, one of them – "Didn't It Rain" – twice. If you squint your ears, "If I Give My Soul" is a story-song like "Green Green Grass Of Home". But otherwise, this is a "Delilah"-free zone, suggesting that Jones sees his new record as standing apart from his more famous body of work.
As its title suggests, Praise & Blame draws heavily on reverential roots music – so much so that the vice-president of Jones's record company, Island, is said to have complained volubly in an internal email, one that was subsequently leaked. "We did not invest a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver 12 tracks from the common book of prayer [sic]," ran part of David Sharpe's broadside.
Jones seemed sincerely incensed at the time. Genuine or not, the fact that Sharpe's email was leaked once the publicity campaign for Praise & Blame was well under way suggests some sharp-shooting in Island's marketing department. Was the row even necessary? The facts are plain: Johnny Cash underwent a career revival when he embarked on a series of covers albums, taking in roots music and more contemporary songs. Robert Plant won five Grammy awards for his album of country duets, Raising Sand; he has followed it up with another in similar vein. With songs drawn from blues and country, Jones is following a tried and tested road into continued relevance. And it's working. His previous live outing at this summer's Latitude festival was heavily oversubscribed; released in July, Praise & Blame has already been certified gold.
For a man so frequently baptised in moist knickers, Jones plays the part of church-raised devotee very well indeed tonight. "Did Trouble Me" begins as gospel tune, eventually settling into gently rollicking country music. Live, the song expands from the album version, with a banjo and female backing vocals floating to the fore.
What really resonates, however, is how contrite Jones – the glitziest of Vegas lounge lizards, the least apologetic of womanisers – appears. "When I raised my voice a little too loud," he croons, "my Lord did trouble me." Throughout his long career, Jones has always been ready with a nudge and a wink (or an unsubtle kick in the shins, like "Sex Bomb"). But this tiny shard of self-knowledge hangs elegantly in the air tonight.
Sin is never very far away. Jones's excellent, bawled version of John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell" ponders the existence of heaven and hell with the aid of guitar and drums, like the White Stripes might have done it. Chatty and at ease, Jones guffaws his way through the set, sounding like he's about to tell a bawdy joke at any moment. "In order to take the praise, we also need to take the blame," he expounds on his album title. "You know: Tommy's got a lovely voice… but he's a bit of a naughty boy!" We learn that the little pill that Robbie Williams pops into his mouth before singing is called a Vocalzone, a lozenge used by opera singers; Jones then necks one gleefully.
It wouldn't be an audience with Tom Jones without an anecdote about Elvis, and so tonight's gig proves. But Jones delivers "Run On" – a tune he used to do with Presley after hours in Vegas – with such gusto that the rafters really seem to rattle. God-fearing might have been a sound business decision for Jones. And yet it's a testament to his prowess as an entertainer that he can pull it off with such aplomb.
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