Tommy James – Live & On Fire (CD review)

Tommy James & the Shondells – Live and On Fire (Angel Air) CD review –

Tommy James is hiding something from us.  Perhaps he found the fountain of youth?  Maybe he made a deal at the crossroads?  Or, could it be that James is from another planet? (“Crimson and Clover” DID always sound “otherworldly”).  Whatever it is, someone his age shouldn’t be able to sound this young.

Live and On Fire is actually a collection of two separate releases.  The “Live” part is a DVD concert film “Live at the Bitter End” from 2000, which finds James in fine voice, backed by a band of ace musicians who lend great harmonies and searing lead guitar to his songs.  This DVD makes perfectly clear how many GREAT songs Tommy James gave us.  And, perhaps it’s time to crown him the “King of the Party Song” — how many others can say they gave us TWO of the greatest Frat rock songs of all-time, in “Hanky Panky,” and “Mony Mony”?

The real treat here, and what is baffling me, is the “On Fire” part, which refers to James’ last studio effort, Hold the Fire, released in 2006.  He was 59 at the time this originally came out, but one listen to these tracks reveals a singer that sounds HALF that age.  His voice is clear and strong, and downright youthful.  This is no more apparent than in the title track, where his voice soars over the gentle ballad.  And, his voice isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed.  James shows that he hasn’t lost his knack for writing great melodies either: “Love Words” has a great chorus.  “It Keeps On Goin’” is reminiscent of “Tighter and Tighter,” the hit he wrote for Alive and Kicking in 1970.  “Angels and Strangers” has an Eighties feel and probably could have been a hit if it was released then.  He even reprises one of his most under-appreciated tracks from the Sixties, “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which here gets a church-like feel.  Even when James steps out of his comfort zone, as in the digital beats of “Amy,” it’s still wrapped around a great melody.  The disc adds a couple of bonus tracks, “I Just Wanna Play the Music,” which dates from his 1980 comeback album, and a spirited live rendition of his 1967 hit “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

So, I’m trying to wrap my head around this one: here is a guy who made his most popular music over forty years ago.  Yet, on this collection, both on the live set and especially the studio disc, it sounds like absolutely no time has passed at all.  For those fans of James’ original hits, you will not be disappointed in this release.  As for me, I’m phoning him up and getting him to tell me where he’s hiding his youth pills.  –Tony Peters