Not all of the significant voices of pop music from the 1960s are hunkered down in the Coachella Valley this week for Desert Trip, and two of them got together Thursday the Hollywood Bowl to demonstrate the veracity of the Who’s songwriter Pete Townshend’s observation that “It’s the singer, not the song, that makes the music move along.”
Van Morrison and Tom Jones, two of the most revered singers to emerge at the same time Desert Trip’s six headliners were starting out packed the Bowl for a chance to see them share a stage. Share they did, both during Jones’ opening set and again after Morrison and his band took over to finish the three hour-plus evening.
Morrison just turned 71, putting him slightly on the younger side of the average age of 72 for Desert Trip’s big guns: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters. Jones, now 76, is a bit on the other side of that mathematical equation, but both demonstrated that the passing of years doesn’t have to equate with diminishing of musical acumen.
Over the last five years, Welsh singer Jones has put out three of the finest albums of his long career — “Praise and Blame,” “Spirit in the Room” and last year’s “Long Lost Suitcase” — in which he mines the blues, R&B, gospel and folk influences that have always been lurking beneath the polished pop music he made for much of that career.
Morrison too on his just-released album, “Keep Me Singing,” builds on similar blues, jazz and soul elements that have long infused his music, that has put him on a par through his life with rock’s greatest songwriters and made him the envy of many of them for interpretive skills as a vocalist that put him in the company of Ray Charles and other great soul singers.
That gave them a great reason, not just an excuse, to join forces for this one intersection of their respective current U.S. tours.
They also have in common their shared histories as outsiders at the outset of the British Invasion — Morrison hailing from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Jones from Pontypridd, Wales, placing them geographically and culturally on the outskirts of the England-centric-invasion forces such as the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Animals and so many others.
“We’ve both been knighted, so we have that in common as well,” Jones also recently pointed out to The Times, a shared bond that could have given this show a title of Two Sirs, With Love.
Jones drew from his recent works in songs that express one man’s search for the things that truly matter at this stage of the game, a perfect example being his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.”
That choice couldn’t more befit Jones, with his snowy hair, mustache and goatee: “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play/ And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on/ I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song.”
Morrison too has earned himself a room, if not an entire floor, in that tower with a body of work that he skewed more than usual toward the best-known parts of it: “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Wild Night,” “Jackie Wilson Said,” and “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.”
Irresistibly catchy pop melodies have always been one of his prime strengths, but he’s also turned to music to seek and maintain a spiritual connection, which he also achieved with extended, restlessly ruminative and transcendentally meditative readings of “Ballerina,” from his great jazz-soul-folk album “Astral Weeks,” and “In the Garden,” from his 1986 album “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.”
For their time together, they drew on the common language of the blues, with a medley of “Trouble in Mind” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” that let Jones exploit that coal-mine deep lung power he still possesses, Morrison snaking his way above, below and around melodic lines with joyful abandon.
They also teamed for “Sometimes We Cry,” one of Morrison’s compositions, a song that allowed them to engage in a thrilling and chilling gospel-like call-and-response workout.
For his part, Jones also hopscotched through various highlights of his deep well of hits, with a nicely spare rearrangement of his breakthrough success, “It’s Not Unusual,” and inclusion of his 1988 version with Britpop band Art of Noise of Prince’s “Kiss,” which he dedicated to its creator.
With so much focus on age this week in the wake of the desert festival that has generated numerous “Oldchella” quips, Morrison and Jones made an airtight case for the value of experience that comes only with time.
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