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REVIEW: Tom Jones at Englefield: What’s New, Pussycats?

Legendary singer appears with Into The Ark

Tom Jones at Englefield Picture: Dijana Capan/http://www.dvision-images.com/

Can music stars from the 1960s still cut it in the 21st century, especially if you’re facing expensive ticket prices to see them performing live?

Based on Tom Jones’s performance in the grounds of Englefield House tonight, the answer is “Yes… depending on what you’re expecting to hear”, writes Michael Beakhouse.

It’s a difficult situation for one of music’s elder statesman, a problem that contemporaries Rod Stewart, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones have struggled with – how do you satisfy an audience that wants to hear The Hits they know and love, while also staying fresh and contemporary as an artist?

Jones – in fine voice, with a phenomenal backing band – presents an interesting solution to this dilemma, by showcasing (in some cases) reworked versions of his classics alongside a heavy helping of newer material from his recent gospel/blues albums. Depending on your tastes, you’ll either like this or love it.

For me, it was a gutsy decision that breathed new life into a catalogue of well-known songs – there was a bossa-nova version of It’s Not Unusual, an accordion-accompanied What’s New Pussycat?, and a breathtaking Pink Floyd-esque opening to Sex Bomb – alongside more traditional takes on classics like Delilah.  

If you missed the show and are debating whether to invest in a later stop on his tour, it is worth asking yourself whether this is what you’re after – in some cases the audience didn’t really respond to the songs with enthusiasm until the unmistakable choruses kicked in, and the evening was geared more towards his contemporary numbers.

Tom Jones at Englefield Picture: Dijana Capan/http://www.dvision-images.com/

 

However – come with an open mind and you will be amply rewarded, as Jones came into his own on a collection of newer songs that capture the pain of age and loss.

Standing alone in the darkness, illuminated by a single column of white light, there was an almost biblical weight to his delivery of material like My Lord Will Trouble Me, Soul Of A Man and Tower of Song.

Having lost his wife in recent years, and with fellow acts from the 60s slowly disappearing, his pain was tangible and affecting as he sang, “My friends are gone and my hair is grey…I ache in the places where I used to play” and, “I feel so close to everything we lost”.

It’s debatable whether this is what the audience wants as the response these numbers received is muted when compared to Delilah, but the man’s abilities remain undeniable.

As does his sex appeal (and if you’re a fan, this is quite possibly a draw) – to the (largely female and Welsh) crowd, he remains the tight-trousered pin-up of the past (“Look at how chiselled his thighs are,” one audience member confided to me; “he just gets better with age, like a fine wine”). In the moments before his arrival, countless women hastily applied lipstick while legions of delighted men were sent scurrying to the ice cream vans with handfuls of pocket money, innocently unaware that their wives were simultaneously running to the VIP area as the knickers started to fly.

So if you’re wondering whether it’s worth catching him on his tour, I’d say yes – with the caveat that you might not get exactly what you want, but, as The Rolling Stones would say, you will get what you need. You’ll also get added value in the form of support act Into The Ark.

Fresh off their stint on The Voice where they were coached by Tom, Jones has commendably taken them on tour with him. They delivered sterling renditions of signature tunes Burning Love and Caroline, plus a reworked cover of Blondie’s Heart of Glass which turned the propulsive throb of the original into a slow-burning torch song. These guys are ones to watch.

Applause is also due to Cuffe and Tailor for organising the first in what I hope is a series of three-day festivals at Englefield House.

If you’re interested in attending future events, but are cautious due to the word “festival”’s associations with Reading and Glastonbury, fear not – this was more like a village fair.

Audiences were a family-friendly range of ages, with seven-year olds who know Jones through The Voice alongside superfans who fell in love with him in the 60s (“I’m here to catch her when she swoons!” one devoted son says of his mother).

There were carefully arranged rows of seats instead of mosh pits, no-one was jostled, and a bourgeoisie mood of calm prevailed – looking out at the audience, I saw glasses of white wine outnumbering beakers of lager, sun hats floating on an ocean of heads like castaways from Wimbledon, and when one audience member asked a passing security guard “Have you seen my husband? I left him waiting by the Mercedes Benz”, I half-expected her to wave a crumpet in the air.

But the summer air brought out everyone’s childlike love of fun, as people rolled around on the grass and danced with (polite) abandon. The only criticism of the venue was the limited amount of dancing space for those who clearly wanted to let rip, and slightly insufficient disabled facilities which made it tricky for some wheelchair users to see the stage.

Ultimately it’s an enjoyable end to three days in the (rarely accessible to the public) grounds of Englefield House, where the windows were opened wide to let the resident Tory MP Richard Benyon enjoy the music… and where, I like to think, Lady Benyon was preparing to catapult her knickers onto the stage with an Elizabethan trebuchet.

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