Published: Oct. 2, 1991

MANY, many decades from now, when social scientists try to unravel the Gordian knot of gender roles and sexuality that shaped the late 20th century, they will undoubtedly come across a Tom Jones concert videotape. They will carefully graph the butt-twitching, fist-pumping, pelvis-grinding come-and-get-it- baby moves. They will try to interpret the correlation between women's underwear and the pregnant pauses in the song "What's New, Pussycat?" They will puzzle over the role of sweat as a performance metaphor. And they will come to one conclusion: Now this was a man.

Friday night, before an adoring full house at the Circle Star Center in San Carlos, the 51-year-old Welsh paragon of masculinity punched his way through a workmanlike 90-minute, 21-song set that included all the old cornball favorites and a preview of what might be his richest work to date.

A generation of children has been born, raised and sent through college in the years since Tiger Tom bounded onto the pop scene with "It's Not Unusual" in '65. But the enduring appeal of this consummate pop jack-of-all-trades knows no age limits. Friday night, the old-line matrons in their big Cadillacs and Buicks were out in force, along with the sharkskin-suited Vegas crowd and a surprisingly large contingent of dressed-for-distress post-teen mods and rockers. They had all come to pay homage to the high priest of hip.

Midway through the set, the parade of female admirers -- ages 10 to 60 -- who sought a stage-side one-on-one audience with the Tomster became so unwieldy that he paused to conduct a receiving line. It's not unusual. . . . A little kiss here, a coy peck there, and -- boom -- we're back in business.

Let the record show that when the dust finally settled, these items were on the circular stage: six pairs of women's underwear, one pair of peach-colored pantyhose, three love notes, more than a dozen floral arrangements and one bottle of Dom Perignon.

Jones is the genuine item, a sincere and thoroughly convincing performer whose patchwork of schmaltzy pop, chugging rock and romantic ballads is held together by sheer force of personality. His credibility with the over-50 crowd is so strong he can open with two pounding, brassy rock rave-ups (as he did Friday) and still provoke Beatlemania-strength fits of shrieking out of the old guard. His credentials with the hip club crowd are equally impressive, due in large part to a young generation of disc jockeys who constantly use his old records as a form of comic irony. And unlike the Engelbert Humperdincks and Barry Manilows of this world, Jones is a bona-fide rocker who's forever forging new alliances -- with Prince, the Pogues, the Art of Noise and a legion of other forward-looking rockers.

Predictably, Friday night's audience reserved its strongest approval for the standards -- "What's New, Pussycat?" "The Green, Green Grass of Home," "Delilah" and "Never Fall in Love Again." But the new Van Morrison-penned material off Jones' current album, "Carrying a Torch," was nothing short of spectacular.

The marriage of Jones' larger-than-life baritone (which was in fair-to-middling shape) and Morrison's Celtic soul is one made in rock 'n' roll heaven. His glowing, inspired delivery of "Carrying a Torch" and "Some Piece of Mind" far overshadowed his work on the older material. Of the four new numbers he trotted out Friday, only "Killer on the Sheets" -- a grungy rocker best suited for the likes of Alice Cooper -- fell short of the mark.

To say Jones is a very physical performer is a great understatement -- he works like plow horse. His bumps and grinds were coarse enough to make a Madonna fan blush. After casting off his purple double-breasted blazer 10 songs into the set, he spent the remainder of the night with sheets of sweat pouring off his black slacks and black shirt like rain off a tin roof.

You could get sweaty just watching this guy -- and I'm sure a few people did.

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