The Grade I listed Royal Hospital Chelsea has now been the home of the Chelsea Pensioners for 330 years. The hospital receives funding from a grant-in-aid from the government; it needs to make up annual shortfalls. As a result, for the second year running, the Royal Hospital has opened up for a special series of concerts called Live at Chelsea in the courtyard. Tom Jones, supported by The Shires, performed on the 2022 opening night at this open-air concert.
Having broken the record of being the oldest artist to have a number one album of new original material when Tom Jones released Surrounded by Time last year, Tom was justly proud of this achievement and enthusiastic to showcase this material in the courtyard. Jones opened with a tense and haunting song, a cover of jazz composer and arranger Bobby Cole's "I'm Growing Old". As soon as Tom started singing the first line, "I'm growing dimmer in the eyes", it was evident Jones' voice was still intact, and he certainly hadn't, and wasn't, to quote the second line of the song, "growing fainter in my talk".
Jones's newer and poignant material took centre stage at the Chelsea hospital as he covered two Bob Dylan songs. The first being an up-tempo, open-road version of "Not Dark Yet". Tom's rendition of this song alone, thanks to his musical director Gary Wallace, transformed Jones from previously being a pop icon and sex symbol into a wise folk troubadour. The other, "One More Cup of Coffee", was equally emotive with a poignant double-bass intro followed by acoustic guitars, haunting sounds and organs.
Tom's transformation into a wise folk troubadour continued to be confirmed as he covered Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song" and Terry Callier's "Lazarus Man". "Lazarus Man", with its Nick Cave and The Doors style arrangements, was truly mesmerising and hypnotic. From covering classic male songwriters who ponder on life, ageing and death, Tom also adroitly reinterpreted Welsh female singer-songwriter Katell Keineg's "One Hell of a Life".
The pinnacle of new material covering classic songs is the refocusing of Todd Snider's "Talking Reality Television Blues", which was a lyrical revisit of Bod Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues". The dystopic haunting sounds, partially influenced by Radiohead's Amnesiac material with accompanying video visuals, told of the marvels and fallouts arising from television. The chills reached their zenith as Tom sang, "See? I can say anything I want to now. Well, you know, within reason".
Tom did not forget to play the hits, but neither did he allow himself to be beholden, which he could have easily done and still left the crowd elated. "It's Not Unusual" was the third track in the order of play which was reinterpreted with bongos and the accordion. "Green Green Grass of Home" had an additional country twang, whilst "Delilah" impressed with accordion, spaghetti western and Spanish guitar arrangements. "Sex Bomb" brought the ladies out to the front of the stage with oversized knickers as Tom gave a jazz and swing rendition of this classic. From "Sex Bomb" came "Leave Your Hat On", featured in the movie The Full Monty. Jones also covered Cat Steven's "Pop Star", where Tom allowed himself to be more light-hearted with this cover by using synth and pop beats.
From being the master of reinterpretation, Jones also realised when it was appropriate to sing songs in their original purity. When performing Prince's "Kiss", Tom dropped the Art of Noise arrangements in favour of Prince's original infectious funk guitar riffs.
This was a performance that honoured who Sir Tom Jones still is, and how he has continued to evolve as an artist, master vocalist and troubadour, as opposed to a tribute to an elders statesman's former prime.
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