I’VE SEEN Tommy play live a few times now, in mid-sized London venues like Shepherds Bush Empire and Kentish Town Forum at the turn of this decade. But while non-megastar artists in the twilight phase of their careers tend to play increasingly smaller spaces as the years roll by, Tommy is impressively bucking that trend by virtually selling out the capacious concert venue that is the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank.
It makes him seem even more slight of figure as he enters the stage with only his faithful vintage acoustic guitar as accompaniment, and that’s notwithstanding his also bucking the trend of middle-age spread by remaining as svelte as ever.
But it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen this veteran virtuoso, or how big or small the venue is – he always delivers the goods with a beam on his face and a deftness and agility of touch that leaves you wide-eyed and sometimes laughing out loud in response to another ridiculous lightning-quick arpeggio.
Tonight’s more popular offerings include gentle renderings of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Julian Lennon’s 1991 hit Saltwater, contrasted with the livelier standards Classical Gas and the ever-amazing Beatles medley, which he appears to enjoy banging out as much tonight as when he first started playing it on the circuit.
And when I say ‘banging out’, I mean literally, as there are also the unexpected guitar-as-percussion moments, as well as longer set pieces where he at length slaps and thumps his poor wooden instrument with breathtaking rapidity.
For tonight’s set closer he brings onstage his hirsute special guest JD Simon, who provides some warmly received electric accompaniment to a meandering medley crowned by an extended jam on Otis Redding’s Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.
It’s that bit of variety which keeps Tommy’s shows so fresh and engaging, along with the avuncular anecdotes and ceaseless enthusiasm imbued in his stage craft, which guarantees bums on seats wherever in the world he plays. And whenever he’s back in London I’ll be back too with another friend to convert.