BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
(This post was originally filed on June 7, 2012)
Between the incessant finger-pointing, the rippling eyebrows and the habit of delivering lyrics with ponderous melodrama, it’s so easy to find Neil Diamond insufferable.
But as he’s aged – and at 71, he still cuts a striking figure, especially in his black and red sparkly shirt – the performance habits that years ago made you wish he’d go to Vegas for career death (since that’s what used to happen in Vegas) now make hope you he goes there for a triumphant residency at Caesars Palace.
The Diamond of today can still milk a lyric like few others, whether growling through the tribal-by-way-of-Brooklyn “Soolaimon” or caressing the Dewar’s-smooth “Love on the Rocks.” But the jaunty clap-along tunes – “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Cherry, Cherry” – were delivered with a creased grin, while the introspective moments, such as 2005’s “Hell Yeah,” clearly came from a place of knowing wisdom.
Yes, the Neil Diamond who performed a two-hour set for about 13,000 fans Wednesday night at Philips Arena was, actually, pretty cool.
It took Diamond and his ace 14-piece band – a unit that has been together, somewhat astonishingly, since 1976 – a few songs to get comfortable with the set. A combination of muddy sound and restrained energy dented the first handful of songs, something that can surely be fine-tuned since this was only the third night of a tour primed to continue all summer.
But with the trio of “Rocks,” “Play Me” and “Hello Again,” which he introduced by recounting a performance at the Fox Theatre 30 years ago, Diamond hit his confidently raspy stride.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the crowd leaned toward his target demographic, and amusingly, the “come take me” line in “Play Me” had a cluster of mature ladies near the front of the stage squealing like mall rats at a One Direction concert.
But a glance around the arena found plenty of generational variety. Even some middle-aged men seemed to want to be there – and not merely as an obedient spouse.
This is also the perfect tour for the casual fan who is most familiar with Diamond’s 37 Top 40 hits. Not that he played them all, but he did roll through the ‘60s (“Red Red Wine” – yes, kids, he’s the one responsible for that horrific UB40 song we suffered through in the ‘80s – “Holly Holy”), the ‘70s (“Crunchy Granola Suite,” Cracklin’ Rosie”), the ‘80s (“America”) and today (the aforementioned “Hell Yeah”).
One highlight came when he stripped “I’m a Believer,” his song made famous by The Monkees, into a ballad form. It was a wonderful change-up, but Diamond knows his audience, so of course the song was repeated in its familiar uptempo form.
An intimate duet with backup singer Linda Press on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” shimmied with sensuality (those whippersnappers on “Duets” should take notes on this performance with Barbra Streisand to learn how to share a song and a stage – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj10EzNKA2M).
And, of course, “Sweet Caroline” continued its tradition of being the ultimate karaoke song. Almost everyone in the occasionally muted crowd stood to wave their hands (touching hands), punch the air for the “ba-ba-baaaaaa” segment and gleefully shout, “So good! So good! So good!” at Diamond’s barely needed command. A couple of reprises of that chorus – perhaps one too many – followed, and Diamond appeared genuinely thrilled at the reaction that he surely receives every time the song is performed.
Something that has always set Diamond apart from many of his peers is that he isn’t only a song interpreter, but, like Barry Manilow, a tremendous songwriter. Is there a healthy layer of cheese coating “America”? Well, yeah.
But after hearing Diamond dedicate it to his grandmother – “the inspiration for everything I’ve done in my life,” he said – it would be tough not to get a little misty-eyed listening to the lyrical picture he created with those familiar lyrics: “On the boats and on the planes…they’re never looking back again.”
Sometimes, you just have to look past the posturing and respect a musical institution.