Last Friday night I saw one of my favorite vocalists for the first time: Tom Jones. I started listening to his music more than 10 years ago and have been a fan since. But I’ve never had the chance to see him live until now. The concert took place at the Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA) on South Street in Philadelphia – a small, intimate venue perfect for getting close to the stage.
I decided to arrive at the TLA an hour early because tickets were general admission and if you were on the floor, which I was, it was standing room only. I got to the front of the theater and only saw a handful of people, so I thought I’d be right up against the stage. Then, a security guard walked up to me and said, “Are you here for Tom Jones?” I nodded and he told me to follow him down the street. We walked for what felt like 10 minutes. Pretty soon I thought we were going to grab cheesesteaks at Jim’s. But just before we reached the corner, he directed me to an alley where there were two lines of people waiting to get into the show. I couldn’t believe it; these people must have gotten to the TLA at least two hours ahead of time. Talk about dedication.
After getting in my line, the two women in front of me turned around and one of them said:
“How old are you?”
“28,” I replied.
“Name me a song by Tom Jones.”
I thought about this for a minute and said, “Well, the most obvious answer is ‘It’s Not Unusual.'”
This women, Mabel we’ll call her, was extremely pleasant and a hardcore fan. She and her friend affectionately referred to me as “28,” instead of asking my name. Both of them had seen Tom Jones many times before. I told the women I heard about the show on his Facebook page and that I wondered how many people attending were expecting him to sing his hits. We all nodded because we read ahead of time that the concert was meant to be a showcase for Jones’ newest album, Spirit In The Room, and its predecessor, Praise & Blame – both R&B albums with stripped-down arrangements that are permeated with gospel and bluesy-rock influences.
While I love Tom Jones in all his schmaltzy glory, at 72, he’s earned the right to sing whatever he wants. And if he wants to sing deep, gritty music, I’m game. As we were called to enter the theater, I went in with this attitude. I also went in thinking there wouldn’t be a chance for me to get close the stage, especially since there were at least 100 people ahead of me. I was wrong.
I walked to the right of the stage and claimed my space, approximately three “rows” from the stage. Behind me, on the far end of the room, there was a balcony with seating for people who paid for VIP tickets. To me, paying more and sitting farther away didn’t make sense, so I was glad to stand, even though my legs were killing me later that night.
Before Jones came out, a woman and her 20-year-old daughters rudely tried to push their way to the front of the stage. But like most Philadelphia crowds at a public event, we weren’t having it. I told them, “You’re not getting in front of me.” And an older woman to my left pushed them out of the way with my assistance. A few moments later they incurred the wrath of a group of fans towards the center of the stage. It got so bad that a tall man waved over security to remove the three women. When security came, we all started chanting, “Throw them out! Throw them out!” After trying to explain to the security guard why it was OK for them to shove people out of the way who were there long before them, he led the trio away from the stage and the crowd erupted in cheers. It was an amazingly gratifying moment of communal solidarity.
With the fight behind us, the crowd started to chant, “We want Tom! We want Tom!” And at approximately 8:30 p.m. he arrived. When Jones stepped onto the stage, the people went crazy. It was a diverse audience of senior citizens, baby boomers and millennials. It seems that his music transcends generations and all of them were giving him a warm welcome. So warm, in fact, that I saw a pair of granny panties hit the stage, quickly followed by an enormous red bra and yellow scarf. I was tempted to twirl my underwear over my head and fling them at Jones, purely for a reaction, but I refrained from doing so.
The concert lasted almost two hours and it was packed with music. Jones sang eight of the 13 songs from his new album, as well as a handful of tracks from its aforementioned predecessor, including songs by John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan. The only hit of his that Jones performed was “Green Green Grass of Home.” The set was rounded out with three covers:
- “One Night With You” by Elvis – Jones’ personal favorite by the “King of Rock and Roll”
- “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones – this was sung as a tribute to the recently deceased country music legend
- “End of the Road” by Jerry Lee Lewis – Jones ended the show with this aptly-named tune
Tom Jones still has a tremendously powerful voice. While the material may have been heavier than his typical pop standards, Jones’ seemingly effortless ability to convey the raw emotion contained within each lyric was awe-inspiring and I’m glad I had the chance to see him live.