Tom Jones is a miner’s son from Glamorgan in South Wales. His mother Freda, who died 10 years ago, was born in Wales, and so were her mother and father before her. Yiddishe, in short, Sir Tom is not.
But you wouldn’t have known it in Tel Aviv on Monday, when the 73-year-old indomitable, and unclassifiable, singer sent the lyrics to a song that’s a good few years older than he is booming through the cavernous Nokia Arena. He told the audience that his father Thomas taught him “My Yiddishe Momme” when he was a kid. And he sang it with so much conviction that no one could doubt Freda Jones cared little “for fashion’s styles” and instead found her “jewels and pleasures… in her baby’s smiles.”
Conviction and demonstrable pleasure. “That is a beautiful song,” he mused in that lilting Welsh accent, when the last notes had faded away.
There had been the odd raised eyebrow, maybe even a little snigger, in the office when I mentioned where I was going Monday night. Me, with my exhaustive Dandy Warhols collection, off to hear a man at whom swooning middle-aged ladies used to throw their underwear?
But quite apart from my general “they come, we go” approach to artists who play in Israel, I knew Jones would be a blast, and he didn’t disappoint. He brought a bright, loud, 10-piece band along with him — including two guitarists, two female backing singers and a stellar horn section. He played a set that featured blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country, pop, funk, gospel, even (heaven help us) some minor rapping. He didn’t keep us waiting for hours, he didn’t end too soon, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention the non-state entity next door, and he most certainly didn’t lip-synch.
Rather, he smiled throughout the hour-and-a-half long set, told us it had been “great” the last time he played here 15 years ago and “it’s still great now,” gave us some Shaloms and a L’chaim, and offered a lovable little bow at the end of each number like the old-fashioned gentleman entertainer that he is.
But if “there’s a mighty judgment coming” for him anytime soon, as he predicted in the co-opted Leonard Cohen number “Tower of Song,” Jones isn’t wearily awaiting it. He may have stopped dying his hair — it was “a different color” last time he was here, he said, self-deprecatingly admitting past vanities — but he looked fighting fit. He was waltzing during “What’s New Pussycat?” and wiggling the hips too. He offered a setlist that sampled vibrantly from six or seven decades. And he brought his belting baritone, that voice, intact. When Cohen delivers another great line in “Tower of Song,” about having been “born with the gift of a golden voice,” he’s being ironic. When Tom Jones sings it, he’s making a glorious declaration of gratitude.
I’ll acknowledge that Mrs. Reviewer and I, even in our advancing years, were among the younger members of the audience. I’ll admit that only a very few of the thousands who gathered for this second of Jones’s two Tel Aviv concerts got off their butts at any point in the proceedings to dance. And I’ll honestly report that the songs that went down best were the real oldies — “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “It’s Not Unusual” and “Delilah” — rather than the relative newies like “Sex Bomb” and “Kiss.”
But he gave even those ancient hits plenty of zest and drama. Who knew that “Delilah” was a tale of jealous murder? I’d certainly never listened to the lyrics before. (Though most of the folks around me plainly had, since they were singing along.) And who could begrudge him playing “It’s Not Unusual,” the song that Jones told us “started it” all for him in 1964? “When I was 10,” he lied.
At the end, after two encores, and having gathered that excellent band together at stage front for a group bow, Jones told the audience, “We’ve had a ball up here tonight, and we hope you did too.” He added, gently and sweetly, “So until next time, good night and God bless you.”
Yiddishe or not, his mother would have been kvelling.