Good times never seemed so good for Neil Diamond


Good times never seemed so good for Neil Diamond
REVIEW | At age 67, the pop music icon remains artistically vital

July 28, 2008
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BY BOBBY REED

Neil Diamond topped the Billboard pop albums chart — but it took a few decades. Although he has been releasing albums since 1966, Diamond had never reached that commercial pinnacle until May, when his excellent disc “Home Before Dark” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

Diamond salutes two colleagues on the deluxe edition of the album, which contains his versions of compositions by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. All three composers were born in 1941, and each of them had formative experiences as a young tunesmith living in New York City.

Diamond will never become as revered among the intelligentsia as Dylan and Simon, but it’s hard to imagine either of those gentlemen delivering the type of flashy, feel-good spectacle that drove packs of middle-aged women into a hip-shaking frenzy Saturday night at the United Center.

Performing the first show of a two-night stand, Diamond proved that his supple baritone, his songwriting skills and yes, his sex appeal, are still in fine form. Senior citizen celebrities are altering what it means to age gracefully these days. Still svelte at age 67, Diamond retains the power to send his fans swooning in the aisles.

Many husbands agree to be dragged to a Diamond concert for two reasons: to hear “Cherry, Cherry” and “Sweet Caroline.” This two-hour show featured extended versions of both monster hits. Diamond, ever the exponent of the grand gesture, concluded “Cherry, Cherry” with an index finger pointed skyward in a pose somewhat reminiscent of John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.”

Diamond turned his 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” into a literal showstopper. The singer and his 14-piece backing band had the capacity crowd bellowing the chorus throughout his complete rendition. After an ovation, Diamond sang part of the song again. After a second ovation, he reprised the song yet again. It was a bit much.

In contrast, Diamond’s use of video material illustrated surprising restraint. Two screens flanking the stage projected film footage only twice, and each episode was emotionally engaging. The autobiographical ballad “Brooklyn Roads” was augmented with home movies from Diamond’s youth, and “America” was accompanied by archival photos and clips of immigrants arriving in this country.

The new songs “Don’t Go There” and “Pretty Amazing Grace” (both from the Rick Rubin-produced “Home Before Dark”) were a welcome addition to the set list. The former was bolstered by vamping riffs from the four horn players, and the latter is an intriguing example of Diamond’s ability to meld religious and romantic imagery in his lyrics.

During a potent version of “Play Me,” Diamond slowly traversed the inclined stage so that he could croon to the folks stuck sitting behind the stage. Diamond’s voice remains so agile and his recent material is so strong that he could easily play an intimate venue and focus on “Home” tracks rather than conquer the basketball arenas, where fans reasonably expect him to run through his golden oldies.

The concert’s nadir was a theatrical version of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” with backing vocalist Linda Press singing the Barbra Streisand part on the famous duet. After beginning the song while seated at a dinner table adorned with a glass of wine and single rose in a bud vase, Diamond wrapped it up by slow dancing with Press, whose hand was pressed against his chest. This display was the kind of Vegas-flavored, show-biz silliness that his contemporaries Dylan and Simon have thankfully avoided.

Bobby Reed is a local free-lance writer and critic.

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