Shine like a Diamond: In wake of new, well-respected CD, singer brings show to Wachovia Arena


Shine like a Diamond: In wake of new, well-respected CD, singer brings show to Wachovia Arena
BY JOSH MCAULIFFE 12/02/2005

It?s taken a few decades, but the supposed experts are finally starting to give Neil Diamond something his legion of devoted fans have always been all too happy to dole out.

A little respect.

In case you haven’t heard, the 64-year-old pop megastar last month released “12 Songs,” his first studio album in four years. The response, from both critics and the record-buying public, has been nothing short of spectacular.

Produced by noted musical miracle worker Rick Ruben, the CD debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart, the singer’s highest charting position ever.

That’s due in no small part to the media blitz surrounding the CD’s release. For the first time in more than 30 years, Mr. Diamond is getting good reviews. Near-unanimously good. Downright terrific, in fact.

Rolling Stone gave the album four stars, Entertainment Weekly graded it an “A” and People magazine proclaimed, “You will be blown away by the new Neil Diamond album.”

Local Diamondheads will have the chance to hear what all the fuss is about Wednesday night at 8 when Mr. Diamond makes his third visit to Wilkes-Barre’s Wachovia Arena, the venue he christened to great fanfare six years ago this month. Tickets are $77.50 and available at all local TicketMaster locations, by phone at 693-4100 and online at ticketmaster.com.

Highly regarded songwriter

Mr. Diamond has been a dumping ground for music writers and comedians for so long that it’s easy to forget there was a time when he was a highly regarded singer-songwriter. This was way back in mid-1960s, when Mr. Diamond first came on the scene with his unique approach to pop songcraft, honed and perfected during his years writing hits for others (i.e., The Monkees “I’m a Believer”) at New York City’s famed Brill Building.

Things started to change in the early 1970s, when the Brooklyn native’s highly charismatic stage presence began attracting more and more people to his concerts. Before long, he was selling out arenas, in the process becoming one of the era’s biggest acts and earning the nickname “The Jewish Elvis.”

As Mr. Diamond’s audiences got bigger, his outfits got louder, his songs more melodramatic, his albums more slickly produced. The press, in turn, turned on him en masse. His name became synonymous with all things terminally uncool and schmaltzy. It seemed you couldn’t pick up an article on the man without coming across at least one reference to his fondness for sequined shirts.

Critics be damned, though, because a million bad reviews couldn’t extinguish the irreversible goodwill Mr. Diamond had built up with his fans, the staunchest of whom remain, to this day, middle-aged women. As a testament to his everlasting popularity, consider the fact that Mr. Diamond was the top-grossing concert draw of the 1990s, a decade more closely associated with grunge rock, hip hop and boy bands.

If anything, “12 Songs” is the culmination of a steadily building rehabilitation of the Diamond legacy.

A host of well-respected musicians, for instance, has long sung Mr. Diamond’s praises, including the members of U2, who have covered his songs in concert, and indie rock icons Urge Overkill, who memorably redid his “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” for the soundtrack of the Quentin Tarantino ’90s film classic, “Pulp Fiction.”

Meanwhile, numerous Diamond tribute bands have sprung up in recent years (the most popular act is called Super Diamond), affectionately celebrating the kitsch factor of Mr. Diamond’s act. The phenomenon was played up in the 2001 movie comedy “Saving Silverman,” which featured comic/musician Jack Black as a member of a Diamond tribute act that kidnaps Mr. Diamond, who plays himself in a good-natured cameo.

And who has not sat in a crowded bar and gleefully screamed along to the chorus of “Sweet Caroline,” a song that has become something of an anthem for Boston Red Sox fans?

Much of the credit for Mr. Diamond’s late-career renaissance goes to Mr. Rubin, the bearded, svengali-like uber-producer who’s worked with a jaw-droppingly diverse list of artists, including Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the death metal band Slayer. It was Mr. Ruben’s series of “American Recordings” albums with the late Johnny Cash that restored the country legend’s coolness quotient in the final years of his life.

A couple years ago, Mr. Rubin, a longtime fan of Mr. Diamond’s work, contacted the singer about the possibility of someday working together. For a good while, they just got together and talked. The more they talked, the more they realized they had quite a bit in common.

Finally, the two hit the recording studio, where Mr. Ruben implored Mr. Diamond to look way inward. Up to the task, Mr. Diamond churned out some of the most introspective songs of his career, presented with stripped-down arrangements dominated by his acoustic guitar playing, which he hadn’t done on record since the late ’60s.

“The hushed ’12 Songs’ isn’t easy-listening: Diamond sings with a close-miked sincerity so disarming and lacking in his usual gruff bravado that it’s almost refreshing when he lapses into overstatement,” said Rolling Stone in its review. “The album’s bulk deals with a solitary man searching for profound love in his autumn years. He’s as direct as he’s ever been with his lyrics, which give them an extra poignancy.”

Seems highly appropriate that Mr. Diamond is coming to Northeastern Pennsylvania to promote “12 Songs.” Back when he was just starting out, Mr. Diamond played Sans Souci Park in Hanover Township. Then, in December 1999, more than 20,000 people showed up over two nights to watch him become the first performer ever to play Wachovia Arena. Two more sold-out performances followed in March 2002.

For all his newfound hipness, fans should still be able to count on their beloved Neil to stick to his guns when it comes to his stage show. He’ll still be the consummate showman, shimmying and smiling and hamming it up to no end. More than likely, he’ll still be sporting those sequin shirts. And, as a true man of the people, he’ll still be pulling out all the old chestnuts, from “Cherry, Cherry” to “Solitary Man” to “America” to “Song Sung Blue.”

Mr. Diamond has nothing to be blue about these days. It’s a great time to be Mr. Diamond, and he and his Diamondheads should have a grand old time Wednesday night.

Contact the writer: jmcauliffe@timesshamrock.com

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