Sir Tom Jones with support from Imelda May & Megan McKenna
Haydock Racecourse / Jockey Club
Arriving at Haydock on a warm sunny afternoon I was initially struck by the audience; very mixed in terms of age as I’d expected with probably more women than men. Mostly they looked like a typical concert crowd; casually dressed in shorts, Tee Shirts, jeans and dresses but there were significant numbers of women appearing particularly “overdressed.” Was this was in deference to a Knight of the Realm or a residue from Ladies Day at the races?
First music of the evening came from Megan McKenna who meant nothing to me but was clearly familiar to many of those present. A product of TV’s X factor she competently delivered a selection of shiny, superficial pop, mixing covers with her own compositions – sometimes aided by vocal backing tracks. Several songs had the crowd singing along and frequent references to “The X Factor” and “Simon Cowell” brought loud cheers. She was undoubtedly a success and standing front of stage after her set brought a rush of requests for selfies from eager admirers.
Imelda May doesn’t have a TV profile in England but she does have talent in abundance. She’s a great live performer; capable of delivering anything from deep blues, through jazz tinged ballads to OAR rock and rockabilly rock n’ roll and she proved it on Saturday night.
Showcasing material from her two most recent albums plus selected earlier gems, the full range of her vocal range was clear to see. Tracks like,” Made to Love” and old favourite “Big Bad Handsome Man” also highlighted her ability to pen personal songs while, “Human” and “Breathe” evidenced a real social conscience in her writing. She worked hard to get engage the crowd but with little success. Early hit “Mayhem,” delivered toward the end of her set brought a spark of life but generally, the audience was disinterested. Compared to what had gone before it was clear that for this crowd, talent was no match for Saturday night TV exposure and celebrity status.
I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge (or typical) Tom Jones fan and this was my first time seeing him live. I’d been drawn by two factors. Firstly, the sad death of Charlie Watts earlier this week makes one realise that icons from the 60’s won’t be around for ever. Secondly, I’d been impressed a couple of tracks I’d heard from his current album (very different from the hits of his heyday) and was intrigued to hear more.
Some performers like to let a performance build gradually while others choose to hit you with a bang to grab your attention. Sir Tom definitely went for the latter. Opening with, “What’s new Pussycat” complete with growling tiger actions; “It’s Not Unusual,” “Sex Bomb,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home” followed in quick succession. The crowd was quickly hooked, becoming a mass of waving arms, singing the choruses that are so familiar while a sea of mobile phones videoed the moments when their owners saw Tom Jones.
But then things changed. It soon became apparent that our octogenarian host was not there to simply bathe in past glory, he had a new album to promote. Early on he gave us fairly lightweight covers of sixties songs, “Windmills of my Mind” and Cat Steven’s, “Pop Star” but it was the deeper, darker cuts delivered as the set progressed that really impressed. A great version of Dylan’s, “One More Cup of Coffee” was the first to set the tone, quickly followed by the unfamiliar “Talking Reality Television Blues” by Todd Snider. Charting the impact of developing technology on popular tastes in music it was lyrically and historically spot on; ranging through changes wrought by radio, TV, MTV, and the internet through to the growing influence of celebrity and social media. Did the audience realise that he was in part directing criticism toward them? Probably not – it’s unlikely that most were listening. The new material got even better with a “towering” version of Leonard Cohen’s, “Tower of Song” and a Terry Collier song that was new to me; “Lazarus Man.”
Unfortunately, the crowd weren’t interested in any of this, they’d come to hear the hits so the current material was met with a level of disinterest similar to that received by Imelda May. It’s a terribly sad indictment of those present that a couple of mentions of TV talent show, “The Voice” by Sir Tom received more applause than most of his new material. But he hasn’t succeeded in show business for over 60 years without knowing how to work a crowd. A pattern soon became apparent. After every couple of new recordings he threw in a classic crowd pleaser. “Delilah” brought the loudest singalong of the night while main set closer, Prince cover, “Kiss” saw a spontaneous outbreak of dancing.
His encore began with the mournful and deeply evocative, “I’m Growing Old” followed by a return to his roots with blues stomper, “No Hole in my Head” and an early rock n’ roll stylised “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”
At times there had been signs of frailty in his gait and movement reflecting his age but his voice is very much still intact and hugely impressive. He’d delivered a performance that entertained those who’d come to hear the legacy of his hits and sent them home happy. He’d also shown himself to be a man not content to merely reflect in the glory of his past but looking ahead and prepared to show us a much more personal side to his taste in music. He deserves above all to be applauded for that.
Words by Trev Eales
Photos by Melanie Smith – www.mudkissphotography.co.uk