I saw some things I never thought I would see when Tom Jones performed at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Sept. 28. Among them: Jones reinventing “What’s New Pussycat?” as an unplugged number with an acoustic guitarist, an accordionist and a sousaphone player; Jones singing one of my favorite Leonard Cohen compositions, “Tower of Song”; and Jones belting out spirituals that I associate with Mahalia Jackson (“Didn’t It Rain”) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Strange Things Happening Every Day”).
To be honest, 20 or 30 years ago I never would have thought that I would attend a Tom Jones concert, voluntarily, in the first place. But things change. And Jones — now 76, and still possessing one of the pop-rock world’s most deeply resonant baritone voices — has definitely changed.
I first began to think of him in a new light in 2003, when I watched him hold his own in a jam with Jeff Beck in the PBS blues documentary “Soul of a Man.” Hey, this guy — who I always assumed was some kind of kitschy artifact from the ’60s — can really sing!
Since then, I have been aware that Jones’ critical respect has been growing steadily. But I had never checked him out in concert until the Wellmont show. And I’m very glad I did.
Backed by a nine-piece band, he didn’t ignore his landmark ’60s hits: He did sing “It’s Not Unusual,” “Delilah,” “Thunderball” and “Green, Green Grass of Home” in addition to “What’s New Pussycat?,” and received his biggest cheers of the night for them. But he stuck mostly to raw blues and gospel and earthy rock ‘n’ roll as well as gems from songwriters such as Cohen, Randy Newman and Gillian Welch. Most of the setlist was drawn from his last three studio albums, including last year’s Long Lost Suitcase.
He choked up when introducing Lonnie Johnson’s stately ballad “Tomorrow Night,” which, he said, was a favorite of his wife Linda, who died in April (they had been married for 59 years). And he introduced “Run On” by talking about hanging out with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas in the ’70s, and singing gospel songs all night. “This one right here is one of his favorites,” he said.
Later in the night, he sang a dark, atmospheric version of Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” and said he thought the song, which describes Presley as a country boy who “shook it like a hurricane” but died “all alone in a long decline,” summed up Presley’s life.
There were some lighter moments, too, of course, including the playful “Sex Bomb,” a downright salacious “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and a cover of the late Prince’s funky “Kiss.” But through it all, he exuded class and dignity, and that’s not easy to do when women are occasionally throwing their panties onstage (in keeping with the time-honored Tom Jones concert tradition).
Here is the concert’s setlist:
“Hit or Miss”
“Mama Told Me Not to Come”
“Didn’t It Rain”
“Raise a Ruckus”
“Take My Love (I Want to Give It All to You)”
“St. James Infirmary Blues”
“Soul of a Man”
“Elvis Presley Blues”
“Tower of Song”
“Green, Green Grass of Home”
“What’s New Pussycat?”
“It’s Not Unusual”
“You Can Leave Your Hat On”
“If I Only Knew”
“I Wish You Would”
“Strange Things Happening Every Day”
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