Someone screwed up at the Prudential BluesFest. You'd think a twofer gig featuring Van Morrison and Tom Jones, musicians with hundreds of millions records sold between them over the last 50 years, would be an easy sell. Apparently not; whether it be a failure of marketing, pricing or simply that there wasn't as much audience overlap between the two as anticipated.
Whatever the reason, there was a gargantuan queue snaking its way around the o2 hungry for freely distributed comp tickets. I'd snaffled one up myself, figuring that while I'd never go out of my way to attend a Tom Jones or Van Morrison gig, it sure beats sitting at home doing nothing.
So that's how I found myself squeezed into the vertigo inducing fourth tier of the o2 Arena watching men with a combined age of 145 plough their way through two idiosyncratic setlists. The nosebleed seat I was given was as far away from the action as you're able to get: 'Row U, Seat 835'. From my lofty vantage point the stage was maybe a kilometre away - even the jumbotron video screens were difficult to make out.
This hangar-like performance space is generally best suited to theatrical pop spectacles with huge props, big costumes and thumping great basslines. Sadly, this meant that Van Morrison (who I saw and enjoyed at Glastonbury in 2005) was less than thrilling. Within the vast space his band sounded reedy and muted, with Van himself cutting an indistinct figure in the centre of it all. As he meandered his way through a setlist of samey sounding R&B muzak, attention began to wane.
I suspect I'd be more positive if I'd seen this exact gig in a more intimate setting. There you'd be able to see the band truly at work and piece together the jigsaw of each musical interaction, and properly watch how Morrison's style as band leader dictates pace and mood. All that was lost in the cavernous emptiness between performer and audience, resulting in a disappointingly impersonal and bland experience.
It was at about the halfway point that an early tube home started to seem attractive. By now, Tom Jones had even joined Morrison on stage for a couple of not-particularly-inspiring duets - if this was to be the peak of the night then....
But, curious to what Jones' act is like after more than fifty years in the business, I stuck around. I'm glad I did. Tom Jones has apparently reached the 'Johnny Cash' stage in his career: his age, rumbling voice and onstage making him an unlikely harbinger of old-school-Christian apocalyptic Judgement Day drama.
Opening with Burning Hell, followed swiftly by God's Gonna Cut You Down and 'Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone, the setlist swiftly transforms the hitherto harmless crooner into an ominous omen of doom. He's helped by a band firmly locked into down-at-heel doom rock, the chugging, hypnotic guitar riffs sounding like they're chiming in the four horsemen and a lighting design that covers the stage in sickly low-lit neon - a faux draped curtain backdrop making things look all Twin Peaks red-roomsy.
And this is Tom Jones! Lovely, huggable, reality TV crooner, national institute Sir Tom "Granny's bit of rough" Jones! He seems to take pleasure in playing against type, taking advantage of the opportunity to headline a highbrow Blues festival and largely skip over the expected hits. Granted, he reverts to his usual gregarious personality between songs, but his faintly aged but still powerfully sonorous voice fuels an intense set that even manages to partially redeem Sex Bomb.
The highlight is a cover of Leonard Cohen's Tower of Song. Watching Jones perform you feel like you're participating in a chain of musical history. Leaving aside Jones' iconic songs, he's associated with the best and brightest - from Presley to Portishead. Tower of Song cements him in this company, feeling like it's been written for him to solemnly boom out lyrics like:
"I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song"
It's a neat bit of self-mythologising, painting Jones as passenger to his prodigious vocal talents - managing to both humanise and deify him all at once. It's such a shivers up the spine moment that following it with It's Not Unusual comes across as a little cheap. I'm not going to deny that I didn't have fun watching him work through his signature tune, but switching gears into this crowdpleaser immediately dissipated all the atmosphere he'd painstakingly built throughout the set. Oh well, the audience seemed happy.
This marks the end of his solo set, after which he's rejoined by Van Morrison for a couple more iffy duets. By this point they look like they're having fun, but it proves to be a rather anti-climactic end to the evening, with the audience steadily leaking out into the drizzly London night.
Van Morrison I can take or leave, but I don't think he's best suited to a venue of this size. Conversely, Tom Jones more than fills it, delivering a portentous musical performance that's refreshingly (and surprisingly) low on cheese. Top stuff, Tom.