Tom Jones in robust voice and rockin' form at Tower gig

Tom Jones, 76, sang for nearly two hours on Tuesday.
Tom Jones, 76, sang for nearly two hours on Tuesday. (Getty Images, File)
Posted: September 22, 2016

Early in his show at the Tower Theater Tuesday night, Tom Jones reminisced about the 1970s in Las Vegas, and how he and Elvis Presley would hang out together after their respective shows and "sing gospel songs all night long."

Both of them ruled the Strip at the time, but if there was a difference in their careers it was this: Elvis had a reservoir of artistic credibility from his '50s work before losing his way with schlock in the '60s. Jones made his name with mostly cheesy pop hits in the '60s and became synonymous with Vegas showmanship and the shallowness that implies.

Jones' road to being taken seriously (at least by rock snobs) was a long one, although anyone paying attention knew the big-voiced Welshman always had the goods. Just look at clips from his 1960s TV show, where he goes toe-to-toe with Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Stevie Wonder. Or fast-forward to 2003 and watch him jam with Van Morrison and Jeff Beck.

At the Tower, Jones was in total command without being showy. At 76, he's a white-haired eminence whose voice is as clear and robust as his artistry. He's digging deeper than ever, masterfully interpreting songs that are obviously close to his heart, and keeping the focus strictly on the music.

Jones' last three albums have been superlative, stripped-down takes on blues, gospel, folk, and country, and it was that material and similar fare that formed the emotional bulwark of the nearly two-hour show. He came onstage unannounced and tore through John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell" with just a guitarist and drummer. Eventually joined by his full nine-piece band, he kept the focus on gospel and blues, from the rave-up "Didn't It Rain" and the searing "The Soul of a Man," to more secular-minded fare such as Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" and "You Can Leave Your Hat On."

Gospel also closed the night as, after delivering Prince's "Kiss," a cover that helped revive his career, he and the band went out on the high of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things."

The old hits were judiciously sprinkled throughout. The stately country-soul of "The Green Green Grass of Home" fits in seamlessly with his current work. As for numbers such as "Delilah" and "It's Not Unusual," Jones played them straight, careful not to treat them as kitsch or with ironic detachment. And "What's New Pussycat?" was given a pretty cool new arrangement - just acoustic guitar, accordion, and sousaphone - that reduced its ridiculousness and helped it fit in with the rootsy nature of the rest of the set list.

While singing Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song," Jones got a rise from the audience when he reached the line, "I was born with the gift of a golden voice." He has not only served that gift well, but added luster to it.

Ncristiano@phillynews.com

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