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Thunderballs: Tom Jones at the Palace.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

How to Swing It

By Shawn Stone

Tom Jones

Palace Theatre, Feb. 26

 

He may have finally let himself go gray, but Tom Jones isn’t about to let himself get stodgy, too. Though he’s now more foxy grandpa than sex machine, the 68-year-old macho icon with the big baritone voice pleased a nearly sold-out Palace crowd with the mix of sexual innuendo and good humor that’s kept him popular for more than 40 years.

Jones brought a big 11-piece band, complete with horn section and two female backup singers (fine singers, but also drop-dead gorgeous, as one would kinda expect with Jones). He’s touring with a new album, 24 Hours, and played a lot of material from it. For most vintage performers, this would be a show-killer for longtime fans, but the songs—many cowritten by Jones—and arrangements pleasingly echo the sound of mid-’60s pop, when Jones first hit it big. The best of them (“Seasons,” “Never,” “If Ever He Should Leave You”) were both retro and fresh.

Jones skipped from genre to genre, crooning a Frank Sinatra standard here, a sexy Howlin’ Wolf blues there. He sang his biggest hits—country weeper “Green Green Grass of Home,” Burt Bacharach’s ingenious pop waltz “What’s New, Pussycat,” and the British Invasion classic “It’s Not Unusual”—with the enthusiasm of a kid just starting out.

Through it all, old songs and new, Jones alternately pleaded, commanded, and flirted, a combination the audience didn’t want to resist. Women who weren’t even a twinkle in their daddies’ eyes when Jones first made the scene sang along and danced to “Help Yourself” and “She’s a Lady.”

A good example of what the sly Welshman is about could be found in his version of “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” that satirical, oddball ode to stripping. When Randy Newman (who wrote it) sings it, it’s about a smug, lecherous creep bullying some poor girl. When Joe Cocker sings it, it’s about—well, like most of Cocker’s performances, it’s about what a great voice Joe Cocker has. Tom Jones? He makes it about a good, clean, healthy sexual escapade between fun-loving adults. It’s a cheerful bit of subversion, and a better approach to Newman than many, often oblivious, artists take.

There was but one unhappy note: Theater security seemed intent on preventing the ladies from throwing their “knickers” on stage. One woman, thwarted by a burly fellow, dangled her underwear inches from the guard’s face in seeming protest, before being pulled away and led back up the aisle by her (female) companion. Still, a few determined vixens managed to launch delicate unmentionables at Jones; with perfect timing, the first pair of the evening landed near him right after he sang the murder lyric (“I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more”) from “Delilah.”

Tom Jones still slays ’em.

Feeling Alright

Christian McBride Band

Filene Hall, Skidmore College, March 2

Jazz, as academics will tell you, is a music of paradox. It’s either dance music for the head or cerebral music meant to move the body. Complex arrangements are fueled by improvisation, and virtuosos are only as good as their sidemen. A vernacular artistic statement first issued by a marginalized people, jazz found itself deeper in paradox as history somehow rendered it epicurean fare. Upon entering the hushed sanctuary of a collegiate concert hall to observe the culminating artist-in- residence performance of an acclaimed jazz quartet, one might be startled to find the band dressed in sneakers and jeans fiddling with their gear. If you’ve followed bassist Christian McBride’s career, however, his disregard for formalities shouldn’t be surprising.

After climbing the ranks of the straight-ahead world, his proclivities toward deeply grooving music granted him crossover appeal to a sector of the jam-band scene in the midst of a soul-jazz re- vival. This dual listenership doesn’t seem to pose any problem for McBride, though, who told the audience that he wouldn’t bother asking them how they were (as is customary practice). Re gardless of who he’s playing for and how they’re feeling, the only things his band try to do are settle in and feel good.

It wasn’t too far into the opener “Clerow’s Flipped” that those uncanny grins started crawling across each musician’s face, as each took his turn toying with the deeply syncopated pocket. As saxophonist Ron Blake and keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer began to digress from the pulse in their solos, so did McBride and the young drummer Justin Brown, whom McBride only recently had plucked from music school. At times the rhythm section suggested entirely different time signatures before landing back in step, a move that made Keezer’s Zawinul-esque synth explorations all the more sci-fi. As certain tunes like “Lejos de Usted” plied the outer gravitational rim of the pulse, the band could have often crossed into outwardly disorienting abstraction, but they never lost sight of the rhythmic fulcrum and so stayed true to that accessible groove-sense commoner to funk and R&B.

While some of the other more orthodox jazz groups on the periphery of the jam-band circuit have recently incorporated elements of electronica and post-rock, McBride’s music hovers in that realm between fusion and neo-soul, mutually occupied by the likes of Roy Hargrove. In “The Ballad of the Little Girl,” which featured McBride’s electric bass chops, the skittering boogaloo even suggested hip-hop from the early ’90s, the last time hip-hop really swung. The tune ended with a pulverizing drum coda that challenged the room’s manicured acoustics with head-bobbing bombast.

Indeed, the way the band played and carried themselves (which are, anyway, inextricable) would have lent itself well to the club environment. When McBride launched into a series of corny jokes between tunes, it was enough to make you miss those times (even if you never lived them) when smoke-filled rooms with low ceilings were the only places to catch a show of this caliber.

The latter half of the show featured Jaco Pastorius’ electric-bass test-piece “Havona,” as well as “Lullaby for a Ladybug” to temper the former’s daredevilry. Committing, as McBride had previously promised, to get totally stupid and dirty (in all the best ways), the band rode a classic Joe Zawinul composition into full-blown Zeppelin territory to close the show. Being that they were at school and all, it seemed like the band meant to leave their students with one last teachable paradox: that jazz can also melt your face.

—Josh Potter


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