I doubt I’ll ever visit as impressive a venue for an outdoor concert than London’s Old Royal Naval College (ORNC). With the River Thames and the bright lights of Canary Wharf as a background, it’s the ultimate juxtaposition of London then, and London now. History buffs, it’s certainly worth a Google, but in short, ORNC dates back to 1698, and is now the architectural centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich, a World Heritage Site.
The buildings were originally constructed as Greenwich Hospital, and designed by Christopher Wren (yes, the bloke who designed St. Paul’s), on order of Mary II, who had been inspired by the sight of wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue. When the hospital closed its doors some 200 years later, the buildings were turned into a training establishment for the Royal Navy. The Navy finally left the College in 1998 when the site passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Before Sir Tom takes to the stage, there is time for a quite fantastic support slot from The Shires. They’re from my neck of the woods, Hertfordshire, so I guess I have a little added interest. This boy-girl duo have performed at Isle of Wight and Glastonbury this year, and have carved out a reputation in Nashville as one of Britain’s only quality country artists; and for good reason: they’re brilliant. The Shires fuse super-tight harmonies, and a fun, happy-go-lucky attitude on the stage, which I find particularly endearing, especially when they belt out the song, Made in England. As an Englishman, how can I not love the line, ‘rainy days, and milk in my tea; it’s good enough for me’?
But it’s not all tongue in cheek – they do an absolutely killer version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, and it’s easy to see why they cite that band as such an influence. The final song, before making way for Sir Tom, is the upbeat singalong, Tonight, and they leave the stage satisfied (as they should be), and smiling, waving to the crowd, urging them to ‘enjoy the rest of the show’. But of course, this crowd doesn’t need any encouragement.
Sir Tom Jones is unquestionably one of the international artists of the last 50 years. It’s insane to think he’s been strutting his stuff for that long, as he barely looks 50, but he has, and he is a master of his craft. I can quantify this from the first steps he makes from stage right, dressed impeccably in a dark suit: the roar from the crowd is unbelievable; and I should add, they’re about 80% female, and aged between 16 and 80-something!
Vocally, Sir Tom is immediately on the money, as he and his band chug their way through the opening number, Heaven and Hell. I can tell there’s no warming up here, it’s polished from
the get go. There’s no reverb on that voice, either – simply no need for it - there’s just this beautiful rich, soulful dynamic in every syllable he utters.
I recognise that keyboard riff... Mama Told Me Not To Come is next up, and of course it’s pitch perfect. As the noise increases, so does the size of the band... There’s now a horn section, including a guy with a fantastically huge tuba (I think it’s a tuba) sitting on his shoulders. And it sounds superb.
From here, Sir Tom falls into a less predictable, more bluesy, rock and roll set, with more riffing guitars and piano lines. ‘Rain, oh my Lord!’, he cries, mid-song. Thankfully it doesn’t rain, though it is getting a little chilly, and the skies are worryingly grey. As this song comes to a close, Sir Tom, in typical fashion, leans his body weight to his right side, clenches his fist, pivots, and motions forwards in unison with the last beat of the drum. Ever the showman.
“Who would guess that anything would be like this on a Monday night?” He asks the crowd, with a smile. They respond loudly, and also in unison. “It was never like this at The Wheatsheaf in Wales, but here we are, you see. “Nelson was here, wasn’t he? And now look at this... We’re here! [crowd laugh and cheer]. We have a new album coming out, and a book... I’m gonna be very kind to everybody, honest... [laughs]."
After confessing he’s ‘more English than Welsh, but don’t tell anyone’, he has the crowd eating out of his hand. Sir Tom has that ability to bring a crowd up and down as he pleases – and that’s not easy to do.
A laboured, Lonnie Johnson song next, where Sir Tom asks, ‘Tomorrow night, will you remember what you said tonight?’ The drummer switches to brushes, and the band perform it immaculately. As Sir Tom sings these sweet lyrics, he seems to be heading down memory lane himself, and the band complement that feel: beautifully played slide guitar, a sad sounding accordion, and some nice horn playing. This guy is believable, as well as affable.
Before you know it, he’s belting out a country-sounding acoustic number, and his tone remains as powerful or as laid back as he chooses it to be:
“Why don’t you love me like you used to do? My hair’s still curly, and my eyes are still blue.” Oh, I think they still do, Tom.
The next 20 minutes provides an eclectic mix, including a beautiful waltz, and some really fun songs, especially Black Eyed Susie, in which Sir Tom sings, with a smile (always a smile):
“I love my wife, and love my baby, I love my biscuits sopped in gravy.” Great stuff.
Then comes Delilah. The crowd scream, and his voice if anything is getting better. He follows this with The Green Green Grass of Home which, I have to say, is a real spine-tingling moment, and the raucous crowd get snuggly, even a little teary. Sir Tom must be one of the only living performers who can have a crowd screaming unspeakable X-rated innuendos at him one minute, and sobbing into their tea cups next. That is talent.
We’re almost done, but not before Sex Bomb, It’s Not Unusual, and You Can Leave Your Hat On. The tears have magically dissipated, and everyone wants a piece of him now.
“You give me reason to live,” Sir Tom whispers, slowly pacing the stage. “You give me reason to live.” He riffs on that lyric with the band in bluesy fashion for some time, teasing us, but perhaps also sending a message that in fact, it is only down to his fans that he remains so fresh and fit in body and mind, and it’s them that he owes everything to. He eventually breaks into the full song, and smashes it out of the park (right over the Thames if it were a real park).
As Sir Tom departs with a wave, and of course that smile, I wander back to my car spellbound, in awe, wondering how, in the musical world we live in today, there could ever possibly be another Tom Jones.