A hipster from way back, with a wink and a thrust

Tom JonesBack when I first saw the little Welsh Napoleon of Love in person, 30 years ago at the Arena, the word was plural: hips. That show was as much about his skintight black slacks — including tasteless jokes about his backside — as it was about his sturdy pop hits. Even though he was backed by a crack 28-piece orchestra and Elvis Presley's legendary backup singers, the Blossoms, music took a back seat, as it were. Ladies threw lingerie onto the stage. He smelled some of the panties and kissed some of the bras, keeping the lascivious level high. The sex stuff got more audience reaction than the music.

Back then, I didn't get the joke. Now, I think it's a hoot — although the size of the undergarments seems to have grown larger. "I think I know this one," Jones quipped as he caught and sniffed a pair of pink panties the last time I saw him, in 2004 at McCaw Hall.

That performance showed that the lovable old goat continues to be what he has always been: hip.

That became clear when he sang "Tom Jones International," a celebration of his fabulous career, written by one of the many hip young musicians who adore him, Wyclef Jean. He did several other songs he wrote and/or recorded with the former Fugees legend, including the lively "Whatever It Takes."

Jones' collaboration with Jean was in keeping with his longtime practice of aligning himself with younger musicians, either by recording their songs (like Prince's "Kiss" in 1987 and EMF's "Unbelievable" in 1992, both hits for him), or recording with young bands, like Art of Noise, New Model Army, Stereophonics and the Cardigans.

He sang his familiar hits at the McCaw show — "What's New Pussycat?," "Delilah," "She's A Lady" "It's Not Unusual" (the song that made him a star in 1965) — and a variety of covers, including Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House," Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" and Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (which he sang on "The Full Monty" soundtrack).

His instantly recognizable, soaring voice was as powerful as ever. And there were plenty of pelvic thrusts, suggestive winks and thrown kisses. He seemed much younger than his years. Hopefully, he still does (Jones turns 68 next week).

"I won't stop 'til I retire," goes a lyric in one of his most bombastic songs, "Sex Bomb." And why should he quit? He's still hip. Just ask Wyclef Jean.

By Patrick MacDonald Seattle Times music critic Our word for today: hip. Our subject: Tom Jones.