“I just thought of something,” muses Tom Jones, halfway through a deft and moving set. “The last time I did a show, I was in my 70s. Now I’m in my 80s. How about that?” The roar of applause nearly takes the roof off.
He is, indeed, 81 now, but time has neither dimmed Jones’s lustre nor tamed his ferocious vocal cords. Having long ago secured national treasure status, this august showbiz icon now gazes out at a devoted crowd from a craggy visage that would not look out of place hewn from a mountainside.
Crammed together, with hardly a Covid mask in sight, that crowd is up for a singalong party, but Jones has other ideas tonight. Instead of trawling through his vast catalogue of hits, he plays his recent album, the chart-topping Surrounded By Time, in full.
It’s a risky strategy, but one that works due to the inherent quality of that sombre, often serene album of covers. His fourth produced by musical soulmate Ethan Johns, it sees Jones range through styles and genres while putting his inimitable vocal stamp on each song.
That stamp is best summarised by the technical phrase “giving it a bit of welly”. Even into his ninth decade, the power and precision of Jones’s stentorian baritone remain staggering; his timbre is close to miraculous on the opening I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall, a soul lament originally sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Before cabaret and Vegas beckoned in the late 60s, Jones was an insatiable, leather-lunged R&B belter. He retains that capacity, even if his bellowed take on Cat Stevens’s twitchy Pop Star interprets the song rather as a steamroller interprets a freshly laid stretch of asphalt.
Jones’s charm lies as much in his skill as an effortless raconteur as in his vocal chops. Taking to a high stool before the spoken-word Talking Reality Television Blues, he recalls wartime ration books, the Queen’s coronation, and being bedridden for two years with TB as a child: “So, you see, I was in lockdown even back then!”
His slick band provide a nuanced sound bed for his supremely robust voice. Michael Kiwanuka’s I Won’t Lie is rendered as moody electronica. Less successfully, the hushed awe of the Waterboys’ This Is the Sea is buried beneath an over-effusive, bombastic blare.
It’s a rare misstep on a night of consummate musical prowess. Jones eases his way through Bob Dylan’s tender One More Cup of Coffee, his take way more heartfelt and affecting than Dylan could manage today. His rumbling vocal on trad blues number Samson and Delilah appears to emanate from deep underground and surge up through his feet.
Yet the night’s highlight is the staggering I’m Growing Old. A spectral ballad, rich with intimations of mortality, it was first given to Jones by its writer, jazz musician Bobby Cole, after a 1972 Vegas cabaret show. “I told Bobby: I’m not old enough to sing this yet, but maybe I’ll get there one day!” recounts Jones. A pause, a sigh, a twinkle. “And now, well, here we are!” His subsequent pitch-perfect rendition of this exquisite lament triggers a richly merited standing ovation.
Jones ambles off after the album-closing Lazarus Man, and there are scattered boos from a crowd hoping for an encore roustabout through It’s Not Unusual, Delilah or What’s New Pussycat? They don’t last long. Here was a memorable performance from a prodigious artist currently demonstrating no interest whatsoever in the concept of the dying of the light.
• At Custom House Square, Belfast, on 10 August. Then touring.