New Gems
From Old Friends
Tom Jones, Boz Scaggs and
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

by Andrew Elias

TOM JONES EXPLODED onto the music scene in 1965 with hits like ‘It’s Not Unusual,’ ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ ‘Delilah,’ and the theme from the James Bond film Thunderball. He became an icon of the 60s, but had not had a hit since 1971’s ‘She’s a Lady.’ For decades he toured constantly, but recorded little. He became a benchmark for the Vegas-style crooner of his generation, more physical and flashy than Sinatra . Women threw panties at him on stage.

In 1988, Jones released his cover of Prince’s ‘Kiss’ with the studio band The Art of Noise, his first hit in 17 years. In 1999, 11 years later, he released Reload, a collection of songs by the likes of David Byrne, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, David Bowie, and Lenny Kravitz performed with bands like The Pretenders, The Cardigans, Simply Red, Portishead, and the Barenaked Ladies. Reload was a strong pop record and a small success. But his duet with Van Morrison, a sparse and intimate version of ‘Sometime We Cry,’ stood apart and foreshadowed Jones’ rediscovery of his musical and emotional roots.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the release of the highly-acclaimed Praise & Blame, an album of spiritual songs, including gospel classics by Pops Staples and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I?,’ and John Lee Hookers’ ‘Burning Hell,’ as well as originals co-written with producer Ethan Jones. The instrumentation is spare and the arrangements raw. Praise & Blame is a stark and exciting record.

Tom Jones’ new release, at age 73, is Spirit in the Room. It continues his personal soul-searching and musical exploration of the blues, with acoustic covers of songs by Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Odetta, and Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ is a standout, as is a bluesy version of the Fifth Dimension’s ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ and his scorching take on Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Soul of a Man.’

Jones' voice is still golden, but now scuffed a bit with age it adds a vulnerability that reinforces his lyrical struggles with mortality and faith and love. He could easily have rested on his laurels and continued a career of celebrity, but he has chosen to explore his music, adventuring in new directions that have returned him to his roots.

Spirit In The Room is a record many Tom Jones fans will be surprised, yet delighted, to hear. It might be his best album ever. The one-time pop star has aged gracefully into a wise old bluesman. And he sounds like he couldn’t be happier.

Boz Scaggs emerged from the San Francisco music scene of the 60s, first as a member of the original Steve Miller Band (Scaggs met Miller as a teenager in prep school in Dallas, Texas) and then on his own, with his debut album, in 1969, produced by non other than Rolling Stone magazine’s Jan Wenner. Over the next decade Scaggs released seven acclaimed albums, with Silk Degrees, in 1976, a huge success, boasting hits, ‘Lowdown,’ ‘Lido Shuffle,’ ‘What Can I Say,’ ‘What Do You Want the Girl to Do?,’ and ‘Georgia.’

Scaggs spent the 80s in semi-retirement, limiting his performances to an annual black-tie New Year’s Eve party at his club in Frisco, until joining friend Donald Fagen’s band, the Rock & Soul Revue in the early 90s. In recent years, Scaggs has toured as a member of the Dukes of September, with friends Michael McDonald (former Doobie Brother) and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan).

Memphis is Scaggs new release, his first in five years. Recorded in the same studio that Willie Mitchell produced so many of Al Green’s greatest records, the album is a reminder of what attracted fans to Scaggs’ music in the first place – the easy-going rhythms, silky voice and excellent songs. His cover of Green’s ‘So Good to Be Here,’ in a great example. Boz shows proper reverence for the song even as he subtly makes it his own.

His covers of Willy DeVille’s ‘Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl’ and ‘Cadillac Moon’ (written by Moon Martin, but a highlight of DeVille’s live shows) showcase his talents at sweetly crooning soulful ballads as well as his ability to boogie. Add to these, respectful covers of classics like ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,’ ‘Love on a Two Way Street’, an jazzy version of Steely Dan’s ‘Pearl of the Quarter,’ and his own ‘Gone Baby Gone,’ (a song that could easily be mistaken for an old Al Green original), and you have a successful return for a guy who has been making great music for more than 40 years.

Although they have been collaborating for decades, Old Yellow Moon, an album of duets by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, incredibly, is their first release together. Crowell has been supplying Harris with songs since since her debut album, Elite Hotel, in 1975, and was a member of her Hot Band for a short time before going solo. Over the years, Harris has recorded Crowell gems like ‘Til I Gain Control Again,’ ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This,’ ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,’ ‘I Don’t Have to Crawl,’ ‘Ashes by Now,’ and ‘Bluebird Wine’, which they revisit, with some new lyrics, on Old Yellow Moon.

The album showcases Harris & Crowell’s gorgeous harmonies, set against a sparse, acoustic soundscape. A cover of Roger Miller’s classic ‘Invitation to the Blues’ is a highlight, as is ‘Bluebird Wine,’ but the pair’s version of Crowell’s ‘Open Season on My Heart’ (a hit for Tim McGraw) as well as ‘’Hanging Up My Heart’ and ‘Black Caffeine’ (by Hot Band member, Hank Devito) are also wonderful examples of two old friends seemingly effortlessly making touching music together. •

May-June 2013

Spirit In The Room might be
Tom Jones’ best album.
Boz Scaggs; new album,
Memphis, was recorded in
the same studio as many of
Al Green’s classic records.
Incredibly, Old Yellow Moon, is
the first album Harris & Crowell
have released together.