It was beneath a warm Tuscan sky in July that we took our seats for the second gig of the 19th Lucca Summer Festival. It was surreal in so many ways.
Our seats were in the front row, the outdoor venue (Piazza Napoleone, in the heart of the historic walled city) was magnificent, we were on our first-ever trip to Italy and we were about to see two legends on stage: Sir Van Morrison and Sir Tom Jones. I was lost for words.
The couple sitting next to us arrived shortly after we did. She was beside herself, and I couldn’t help but engage with her. While we were there for Van Morrison, she – and her reluctant partner – were there to see Tom Jones.
“I don’t know what it is – whenever I see him, I just go funny all over. He doesn’t have to sing or anything – just looking at him, I just go all funny. I’ve never known anything like it. He doesn’t like it,” she said, pointing to her disengaged, eye-rolling partner.
On the dot of 8.30pm, Van Morrison and his band opened the show with the beautiful and lyrical Moondance. With characteristic lack of engagement with the audience, Van moved on to The Way Young Lovers Do and Magic Time, with its superb trumpet solo.
He followed with By His Grace, Someone Like You (the romance in both the melody and lyrics floor me, as did the performance of Van’s stunning backing vocalist, Dana Masters), Whenever God Shines His light, a fabulous remix of Have I told you lately, and Wild Night.
I’ve learnt that when Van picks up his harmonica, he starts to play it upside-down. He did so and remedied it quickly in the intro to the stunning Enlightenment, and again enthralled with his saxophone in Little Village.
It was at this point that my neighbour demonstrated what ‘going all funny’ meant. She jumped six inches off her seat, her legs went flying and kicking, and she screamed spontaneously. She was the first of thousands to scream in adoration as Sir Tom Jones strode across the stage in front of us to join his good friend, Van, for What Am I Living For?
It was Sir Tom who introduced their second number – “This is one we actually recorded together,” – Sometimes We Cry.
Sir Tom left the stage and Van picked up the pace with a medley of Baby Please Don’t Go / Don’t Start Crying Now and, as the light began to fade, Here Comes the Night. He followed with the lilting and romantic In the Afternoon / Ancient Highway / Raincheck, before strapping on his guitar for The Beauty of the Days Gone By, Why Must I Always Explain, and Think Twice Before You Go.
Van took his cordless mic, and I knew the end of his set was in sight. Not before the popular Brown Eyed Girl and Help Me. A quick “Thank you!” and he walked off the stage.
He responded to the audience’s applause and imploring screams to come back, and we leapt to our feet to his rousing, signature encore: Gloria. Van briefly thanked his band and, at 10pm, left the stage.
I often listen to Van – and on such wonderful occasions as this, watch him – and wonder where the music comes from. Where does he find it? That depth of passion and emotion? His words reflect deep, deep feelings and he writes extraordinary, awe-inspiring music to express it.
I don’t go ‘all funny’ when I see Van. But when I listen to his music, he reaches me in places I didn’t know could be reached. His gift is astonishing, his music sublime. He speaks a lot about ‘transcendence’; I think I’m getting to understand just what he means.
It was 10.30pm, the beautiful Lucca night was gently cooling and Sir Tom walked on to the stage with his fabulous band. After a moving Burning Hell, he greeted the audience in Tom style.
“Everybody feeling all right? Are we gonna have a good time?”
He talked about his years in Las Vegas in the ’60s, and introduced his next song: Run On.
“I used to spend time with Elvis Presley. After the shows, we’d sing all night – well, he did and I’d listen. He loved gospel music, bless him. I learnt a lot from him.”
His huge band backed him with enthusiasm, a huge amount of fun and jolly fine music. We couldn’t take our eyes off the horn section – the saxophone, trumpet and trombone/tuba players. The three excellent musicians who sang, danced and interpreted the lyrics in such a spirit of fun were a delight to watch!
Sir Tom followed with the popular Hit Or Miss, Mama Told Me Not to Come, Didn’t It Rain, and the wildly ‘funny-inducing’ Sex Bomb.
“Grazie!” he yelled to the audience. We responded loudly with screams and whistles.
After a brief nod to the recent wins of his much-adored Welsh football team, he talked about his late wife.
“When I used to make a new album, I’d bring it home and play it for my wife, Linda. She always had a favourite song. This was hers on my new album, The Long Lost Suitcase.”
After a beautiful and emotional Tomorrow Night, he said, “Ok. Well, here’s a happy song!”
A delightful and high-energy Raise a Ruckus drew huge applause and a huge “Yeah!” from the 76-year-old legend.
Take My Love (I Want to Give it All to You), led into the new Latin-esque Delilah. This got his band dancing and the entire audience singing.
“I love Lucca! It’s humid, and that’s good for the voice. That’s why Italy has so many good singers. And why Wales does too!”
The Soul of the Man followed, then Elvis Presley Blues – a haunting tribute to Elvis, written by Gillian Welch. The Tower of Song, and Green Green Grass of Home and a samba version of It’s Not Unusual were followed by a raunchy You Can Leave Your Hat On.
Between each number, Sir Tom yelled, “Yeah?” We responded, “Yeah!”, so he yelled, “Oh yeah! Come on!”
After If I Only Knew, Sonny Boy Williamson’s Early In the Morning offered each of Sir Tom’s band members a chance in the spotlight. As I Wish You Would ended, Tom left the stage and the audience screaming, whistling and shouting for more.
It was past midnight, and Sir Tom and his band came back on stage for Thunderball, with a collage of Bond movie-clips on screen behind them. The beautiful Kiss, a gracious tribute “to the genius that is Prince”, was followed by a song that Tom described as “rock ‘n roll, blues, gospel, with some boogie woogie on the side”. An extraordinarily arranged Strange Things Happening Every Day showcased his band’s energy and depth of talent, and ended the evening on a high.
Sir Tom Jones, to the adoring screams of thousands of devoted – and a whole lot of new – fans, assembled his band members. He introduced each fondly, and then thanked the audience.
“It’s because of you, that we do what we do. Thank you, and God bless you!”
The Two Sirs, the two legends, have 146 years between them. The two friends, with two hugely differing styles, gave us four hours of musical magic. It really was one hell of a gig.