Diamond finds comfort in his classics

Diamond finds comfort in his classics
By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff | December 7, 2005

WORCESTER — The teasing began just before 8, when an announcer told the nearly packed DCU Center that Neil Diamond would be performing alone. An acoustic guitar waited onstage.

”I’ll tell you, I’ll be upset if he doesn’t have a band,” grumbled David Vanasse, a fan sitting a few rows to the left of the stage.

Two women sitting behind Vanasse said they would reserve judgment. They liked the new album, ”12 Songs,” with its stripped-down sound. They were willing to hear Diamond go unplugged.

But they would have to wait. Because a few minutes later, a sheet of fabric shot off the stage to reveal two rising sections of floor. Quickly, Diamond’s ruse was revealed: Eleven musicians and three black-skirted backup singers stood ready. Diamond, in a black shirt tucked into matching slacks, emerged from atop a stairway. He launched into a show-stopping version of 1971’s ”Crunchy Granola Suite,” shuffling across the stage with a cordless mike.

Thus began a curious night during which Diamond, riding a critical wave of acclaim for ”12 Songs,” virtually ignored it. Twenty-seven of the set’s 29 songs were at least a quarter of a century old.

Several times Diamond seemed to hint that he might dip into the bare-bones beauty of the new album, which debuted in the top five of the Billboard charts, and the band would descend into the bowels of the DCU Center. Then they would return to play another amped-up hit.

Unapologetically slick at times, Diamond made it clear that, at 64, he’s not interested in being recast as an underappreciated song craftsman. He’s at ease with his inner schlock. What Diamond has going for him, beyond a bottomless song catalog, is a gravelly voice that doesn’t seem to have been touched by age. It helps pump life into songs that could or should just as easily have been retired.

There were some deep valleys during Monday night’s two-hour show. Diamond’s medley from the ”Jonathan Livingston Seagull” soundtrack remains, to put it politely, an acquired taste. The accompanying film clip of an eagle in flight didn’t help. And early in the set, the sound was muddied by a synthesizer that would have been more at home in a Holiday Inn lounge.

Diamond’s set came alive four songs in during ”Beautiful Noise,” his 1976 tribute to New York City. On ”Cherry, Cherry,” he picked up the black acoustic guitar still waiting on a stand and proudly strummed the familiar introduction.

That said, the highlight of the night came about 90 minutes in, when Diamond took a seat and picked up another acoustic guitar. The horn section disappeared as Diamond talked of his early days, playing folk songs in Greenwich Village.

Backed by just a piano, guitar, and bass, he sang two lesser-known, late ’60s ballads, ”And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” and ”Glory Road.”

After ”Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” originally recorded by the Monkees, Diamond finally mentioned ”12 Songs.” He played ”I’m on to You,” a dark ballad accentuated by a moody, gut-bucket trumpet, and ”We,” the Dixieland-inspired album closer. That would be it for the new songs.

With the full band back, Diamond left his guitar behind and did what the crowd wanted: He reeled off another handful of hits, waved to the screaming gray-haired ladies, and called it a night.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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