Neil Diamond 2001-2003 Concert Reviews / Photos

New Orleans, LA - September 5, 2002

In all his schmaltzy glory, Neil Diamond shines in tour kickoff

All phases of enduring career touched upon

By Keith Spera
Music critic/The Times-Picayune

Will Ferrell's "Saturday Night Live" impersonation of Neil Diamond codifies the singer's trademarks: The measured baritone. The long stare. The heartfelt tapping of the chest. The slow nod coupled with a joyful grimace. An arm held aloft, hand extended, in acknowledgment of and tribute to his adoring fans.

All were in ample supply Thursday night when Diamond kicked off his fall North American tour at New Orleans Arena. Nearly 40 years into his career, he is the Las Vegas Bruce Springsteen, a populist wordsmith who thrives on grand gestures delivered with a shtick worthy of Wayne Newton. Consider his sequined top, slow-blown kisses and lounge-lizard banter. "Our show is real simple," he said. "You are the squeaky door, I am the lubrication."

However he may choose to present himself, Diamond, 61, has proven remarkably enduring. That he has not been exiled to Vegas or Branson, Mo., is testament to the breadth and appeal of his catalog. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, he was among the most popular singer-songwriters on the planet, and he has consistently filled arenas ever since with multiple generations of fans. On Thursday he treated those fans to a generous two-hour-and-15-minute set that sampled liberally from all phases of his career.

The giant American flag that served as a stage curtain rose to reveal Diamond and a 17-piece ensemble that included a string quartet and four horns. They opened with "America," which felt surprisingly perfunctory, as did "Forever in Blue Jeans" later in the set. Diamond and the band came alive during a spry suite of early hits, including "Solitary Man," "The Boat That I Row" and "Cherry, Cherry."

Elsewhere, the four horns punched up the chorus of "I'm a Believer." The ensemble navigated the first half of "Red, Red Wine" as a country-tinged ballad, the way Diamond originally wrote it, then finished with a quickened tempo reminiscent of UB40's remake. "Holly Holy" and "Soolaimon" unfolded with all their requisite drama.

Diamond's baritone is still in good shape and can still sell such well-worn melodies as "Play Me." Of the smattering of songs showcased from his most recent release, "Three Chord Opera," the strongest was the ballad "I Haven't Played This Song in Years."

Trimming four or so songs would have tightened the set, but the show was more satisfying than Diamond's previous New Orleans appearance, in 1996. This time out, he accompanied himself on piano onstage, a welcome surprise.

Although his shaggy mane is long gone, he still fancies himself the brooding romantic. He made a great show of kissing a woman's hand, first on his knees and then lounging on his side, as he serenaded her with "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon." After a monologue devoted to the "delicate parts" of men, Diamond addressed the women in the house. "When you take (men) home to your beds, when you've given them all they desire, give them a little more," he said. "For the hell of it. For practice. Why not?"

This stage persona is presumably a facade, masking the complicated personality that invests so many compositions with melancholy. During the final encore of "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," a pair of spotlights cast two enormous silhouettes of the singer against the arena's rear wall. It was an appropriate image, for here was a solitary man who has created an outsized persona and body of work. Diamond is still able to bear its weight.

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