Since when has Tom Jones been a blues singer? Longer than you might think. He first starred at the BluesFest in London back in 2012, when he put on a rather tentative show at the Hammersmith Apollo. And before that, in 2010, he released Praise & Blame, the first of a trilogy of albums produced by Ethan Johns in which Jones has reinvented himself as the mainstream pop world’s guardian of gospel, blues and American roots music.
He closes the Prudential BluesFest London 2015 with a performance of warmth and authority, yet it doesn’t truly catch fire until he’s joined by Van Morrison for a chaotic but oddly magical stretch of duets including the Chuck Willis song What Am I Living For and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day.
On Burning Hell, Jones’ remarkable voice resonates with biblical intensity
“Van and I first met in London in 1965 in a club called the Starlight,” recalls Jones, his body language oozing charm, poise and confidence. “What are we doing?” snaps Morrison, stiff, awkward and inscrutable behind his hat and shades. “Shall we?” Jones enquires politely, as he fiddles with some sheet music on a stand. “Lead Belly!” Morrison barks. And off they go on Goodnight, Irene, their voices navigating a route around the waltz-time melody like two old sailors finding their way back to barracks after a heavy night in a quayside bar. Priceless.
Before that, Jones gives a sturdy account of himself with a repertoire of deep blues and obscure country covers, which in some cases he has almost made his own. He opens with John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell, accompanied by just slide guitar and drums. ‘When I die, where will I go?’ he bellows, his remarkable voice resonating with biblical intensity as he asks a question which, at 75, he has had plenty of time to contemplate.
The man they called The Voice long before anyone devised a TV show of that name sticks close to the blues brief in a set that includes Eddie Floyd’s R&B rumble ’Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone and a throbbing electronica version of Gillian Welch’s _Elvis Presley _Blues, both lifted from Jones’s latest album, Long Lost Suitcase. One or two old hits, including Sex Bomb and It’s Not Unusual, are suitably retooled, but calls from the crowd for Delilah are firmly ignored, and even his most famous 12-bar, Kiss, is overlooked.