A Rolling Stone, but not the Rolling Stones, made it to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Thursday.
Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk covered the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” at the Acura Stage in the slot before the Stones were originally scheduled to play. They were joined by Karl Denson, who is the real Rolling Stones’ touring saxophonist.
Denson’s presence and the tongue logo worn by Neville and Dumpstaphunk’s Nick Daniels were among the numerous Stones touchstones at Jazz Fest for what turned out to be a normal “Locals Thursday.”
But instead of Mick Jagger, it was another 70-something sex symbol who stole the show.
At 78, Tom Jones, I’m happy to report, is still very much Tom Jones.
Closing out the Gentilly Stage in front of a large, partisan crowd, Jones made slight concessions to age. His shirt was unbuttoned barely enough to glimpse the gold crucifix around his neck. He made no attempt to hide hair gone nearly white. He blamed the slight paunch around his middle on jambalaya.
But the night before his Jazz Fest gig, when most 78-year-olds might have been resting, Jones showed up unannounced at Chickie Wah Wah, the intimate music venue on Canal Street. He joined local pianist Jon Cleary for a brief set, belting out “One Night of Sin,” a standard co-written by New Orleans' Dave Bartholomew that was originally recorded by Smiley Lewis and later popularized by Jones’ old pal Elvis Presley.
His night out at Chickie Wah Wah didn’t wear him out. To the contrary, it seemed to have only warmed up his still formidable pipes. Because Jones sounded absolutely fabulous at the Gentilly Stage.
Backed by a crack band, he presided over an invigorated set that was much more than nostalgia. With the practiced hand of an old master still invested in his craft, he went to work.
He recalled late-night gospel singalongs with Elvis after they finished their respective shows in Las Vegas by way of introducing “Run On,” a gospel standard that rode on what sounded like the riff from ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”
He concluded Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” with a knowing smirk and the kicker, “Maybe I shoulda listened!”
In the midnight confessional “Did Trouble Me,” he sang, “When I raised my voice a little too loud, my Lord, he troubled me.” Against a droning background, he raised his voice on the “raised my voice” line. It was as supple, rich and masculine as Tom Jones’ voice should be. When the arrangement opened up with a banjo and kick drum, he rode atop it as confidently as a general on a stallion.
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His band challenged him with interesting arrangements and varied and vital musicianship, from the accordion and sousaphone solo of “Raise a Ruckus Tonight” to Scott McKeon’s surf guitar in “Delilah,” which Jones also sang the heck out of.
He paused for the occasional aside. At one point, he addressed a woman in the audience: “You threw your bra? Well you’re not going to get any support from me.”
Ba-dun-dah. This is, after all, a guy who spent many years in Vegas.
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But this is also a guy who closed his eyes, gripped the microphone stand and dug deeply into an ominous, dark-of-night “Soul of a Man.” It was Old Testament and Old Vegas all at once.
He navigated “Green Green Grass of Home” and his swinging 1965 hit “It’s Not Unusual” with panache. He was just saucy enough for “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”
He opened the encores with a wonderfully warm “What a Wonderful World.” His remake of Prince’s “Kiss” was funky and fun, with big bass lines and horn riffs. It was a hoot.
Earlier, he took on Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” in such a way that it could pass for his current theme song. “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is gray,” he sang. “I ache in the places where I used to play.”
He continued, “I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
He still has it.
Earlier on the other side of the Fair Grounds, the Georgia jam band Widespread Panic filled in at the Acura Stage for the Rolling Stones, as well as Fleetwood Mac, the Stones’ original replacement.
On March 31, the day after the Stones announced the postponement of their tour, Widespread Panic performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at a show in North Carolina — exactly one week before they discovered they’d been offered the Stones’ slot at Jazz Fest.
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But they opted not to play any Stones songs at Jazz Fest. Instead, they dialed up a succession of fan favorites starting with “Pigeons” and “Ain’t Life Grand,” the latter marked by the first of many chiseled Jimmy Herring guitar solos.
Instead of the Stones singing about New Orleans in “Brown Sugar,” Panic keyboardist Jojo Hermann sang about New Orleans in “Bayou Lena.”
And instead of covering the Stones, Panic covered Dr. John via “I Walk on Guilded Splinters," with an assist from Meters bassist George Porter Jr. Porter stuck around for “Familiar Reality,” before Widespread Panic returned to the business of being Widespread Panic. And that suited their fans just fine.
If there was a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for live albums, Little Feat’s acclaimed 1978 double-LP “Waiting for Columbus” would be a shoo-in.