Speaking of Pop Music Icons ...
Stevie Wonder bursts out of isolation; Tom Jones turns up heat
NEW YORK — The real test of an artist's mettle in popular music is durability. Two pop veterans more than live up to that test.
Stevie Wonder and Tom Jones both started their hitmaking careers in the 1960s. Each is going strong more than 30 years later: Wonder with a new album due out, and Jones's first album in six years, ``The Lead and How to Swing It,'' in record stores.
At Radio City Music Hall.
Wonder's career is one of the most important and frustrating in modern pop. He had his first success as Little Stevie Wonder, having begun his recording career at age 11. There was no shortage of hits in his early career, including ``My Cherie Amour,'' ``For Once in My Life,'' ``Signed, Sealed and Delivered,'' and many others.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that he hit his full creative stride, producing a series of albums that were consistently brilliant, including the classics ``Talking Book,'' ``Innervisions,'' and the seminal ``Songs in the Key of Life.'' Then, the creative peak waned
Wonder released several albums in the `80s, and had several more hits, including the sappy but hugely popular ``I Just Called to Say I Love You.'' But the edge, and the musical genius, just seemed to be missing.
The singer has been fairly reclusive, having released just one album so far this decade, the soundtrack to ``Jungle Fever,'' and he hasn't done a concert tour since 1987. But things are changing: His tour, sponsored by American Express, raised money for the fight against hunger. And the new album, ``Conversation Piece,'' is scheduled for release by Motown in March.
Judging by the second of two recent sell-out shows at Radio City Music Hall (which he dubbed for the occasion ``Stevie's House''), Wonder hasn't exactly gotten rusty. During the nearly three-hour show, the singer whipped through a brilliant and stylistically diverse repertoire.
Accompanied by a seven-piece band, a large orchestra, and a quartet of backup singers who are notable in their own right (the female group For Real), he performed hit after hit after hit. The audience was so exuberant that he had to keep admonishing them to be quiet.
Shifting gears effortlessly from ballads to funk, the singer, in excellent voice, managed to cover just about every facet of his career (``We can't do all the songs,'' he explained to the numerous shouted requests.), and he managed to make the inevitable audience sing-along sound more soulful than just about anything on the radio. The highlights of the show were truly amazing jam sessions on such funk masterpieces as ``Higher Ground,'' ``Superstition,'' and ``Master Blaster (Jammin').''
The music veteran also offered several songs from the new album, including the funky ``Sensuous Whisper,'' that promises if not a return to genius, at least a return to form.
At Webster Hall.
Tom Jones is having the same kind of career renaissance among the Generation X crowd that other veterans such as Tony Bennett and Johnny Cash are enjoying. But whereas Bennett and Cash haven't changed their style and are simply doing what they've always done, Jones has made a conscious and successful effort to perform new material.
He hit the charts with cover versions of Prince's ``Kiss'' and EMF's ``Unbelievable,'' and the new album, ``The Lead and How to Swing It'' (Interscope), shows Jones collaborating with a Who's Who of top contemporary producers, including Trevor Horn (Seal, Art of Noise); Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails); Teddy Riley (Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown); and others.
The results are mixed. One of the problems is that Jones may have hired the best young producers in the business, but he hasn't snared the best songs. The album sounds great, but the songs, with such exceptions as the crunching dance hit, ``If I Only Knew,'' are weak. Still, he deserves points for trying.
What makes this disparate group want to work with Jones is his charisma, showmanship, and still-amazing voice, which is endlessly soulful and, well, potent. He's a singer who can put across almost any material (although subtlety isn't his specialty).
Jones doesn't try to make it look easy; you can hear the sweat and the strain in his voice, and you appreciate it. And when he launches into that Roger Daltrey-esque scream that is the centerpiece of ``If I Only Knew,'' he puts younger rockers to shame.
Jones boasts that he always puts on the same show, whether he is performing in a huge Vegas showroom or a crowded rock club. Performing recently at the Webster Hall in New York, he pulled in a crowd ranging from grandmothers to black-clad East Villagers. He worked his way through a two-hour set that encompassed much of his current album, but didn't neglect his classic (and sometimes cheesy) hits like ``It's Not Unusual,'' ``What's New, Pussycat,'' and ``Green Green Grass of Home.''
Jones relishes his popularity, and he seemed to be having a great time bantering with the crowd and reveling in his image of sex symbol. He can still make the ladies scream while managing not to go too far over the edge.
* Stevie Wonder's tour has concluded. Tom Jones performs through Feb. 15 in Las Vegas; March 10, 11, 17-18 in Atlantic City, N.J., March 22 in Las Vegas, March 24-25 in Kellseyville, Calif.; and April 13-26 in Las Vegas.