Crooner turns on wayback machine

Tom JonesSometimes a concert isn't just a show. It's a time machine, transporting you back to when life was less complicated, adulthood and its concerns were a distant spot on the horizon, and you could feel so happy it seemed like the sensation would never end. For about 90 minutes Thursday night, Tom Jones took the crowd at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall expertly by the hand. He flirted. He teased. And he reminded them how it felt the first time they saw the Welsh sex bomb swivel his hips and lustily belt out "It's Not Unusual."

There were a few men in the audience, but it was mainly a sea of women -- some young, most older, with their own reasons for turning out to see the veteran showman, who turns 68 on June 7.

Gayla Johnson, 61, has been a fan since the late '60s. "This is my fifth concert of his," the Vancouver resident said. "But I haven't been to one of his shows for 30 years."

As Johnson was talking, another woman leaned forward to say that her late mother liked Jones so much she carried a picture of the singer in her wallet: "She was a quiet, devout woman, mother of eight -- but she loved Tom Jones."

A silver-haired woman, overhearing the conversation, volunteered that she wasn't planning on tossing her underwear toward the stage. "I don't want to hurt him," she said, laughing. "He's older, and I'm bigger."

Then the lights went down, rumbling noises came up, and it was time to give a warm welcome to the one and only Sir! Tom! Jones!

Lights came up, and Jones appeared, tanned, brown hair completely free of gray, Van Dyke-style beard neatly trimmed, sporting a tomato-red blazer over black shirt and black pants. At the shirt's open collar, he wore a silvery, sparkly bit of bling. Wasting no time, Sir Tom burst into song, asking the crowd to "Raise Your Hand."

Women waved arms in the air. Some rushed to the front of the stage to dance. Jones smiled and sang in a voice as strong as his heyday, while behind him, his tight band played and three back-up singers chimed in.

As he proved weekly on his 1969-71 variety show, "This Is Tom Jones," he may not be the most subtle singer in the world, but Jones can perform any kind of music with utter conviction. He started a party with "Help Yourself"; drew squeals with the melodramatic "Delilah"; and painted a yearning picture of the old home town and cherry-lipped Mary in the "Green, Green Grass of Home."

Jones clearly knows his audience, people who are likely less patient with standard time-wasting concert folderol than a younger crowd would be. The show started on time, there was no tedious opening act, no intermission -- just Jones singing everything from the George Jones classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to blues to standards to his playful cover of Prince's "Kiss" as an encore.

With a minimum of Vegas-style glitz and just enough banter -- when Jones slipped into his low tones, feline growl and description of himself as "two-hundred pounds of heavenly joy" -- he sent tingles down the backs of the faithful. He raised pulses with a swaggering version of "You Can Leave Your Hat On," purring, "You can take off your dress," as the crowd at the foot of the stage threw red, black and white underwear aloft.

After one encore, Jones -- black shirt glistening with sweat -- took his leave. Rows of women stood, applauding. For a moment, the realities of marriage, divorce, deaths of parents, raising of children and everyday stress fell away. In the dimness, just before the lights came on, their faces looked as full of youthful life as when they were girls, sitting in front of the TV, watching their favorite star, dreaming of the future to come.

KRISTI TURNQUIST The Oregonian Staff - Arlene Schnitzer Review