Neil Diamond 2001-2002 Concert Reviews
Chicago, IL October 8-9, 2001
Diamond delivers some fine-crafted gems
Wednesday, October 10, 2001
By George Haas
Critics love to take potshots at Neil Diamond. He writes turgid love songs. He's an egotist with an overwrought singing style. He's got closets full of sequined and glittery shirts that were out of style when he first wore them 30 years ago.
Mostly, the 60-year-old Brooklyn native gets hammered for what he isn't. He isn't Mick Jagger. He isn't Bob Dylan. But if the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter comes up short in the list of baby boomer rock icons, he can take comfort in the fact that his brand of polyester pop still has legions of loyal fans.
They turned out in droves Monday night for the first of two sold-out shows at the United Center, and they didn't go home disappointed. Backed by a four-piece horn section, four-piece string section, a couple of vocalists and assorted keyboardists, drummers and guitarists, Diamond polished off a slick two-hour set of 25 songs in energetic fashion.
While he may lack the cutting-edge bite of some of his musical contemporaries, Diamond remains the consummate professional and a whole lot hipper than Wayne Newton and Tom Jones. He has an original style and grace and retains an unmatched enthusiasm for his craft.
He also isn't afraid to wear his heart on his glittered sleeve, evident in the crowd-stirring opener of "Coming to America" that was as majestic as the 50-foot American flag that was slowly raised from the front of the stage to the rafters.
Diamond urged the audience, a slightly aging mix of both men and women, up on its feet with the altered chorus of "Stand up for America; stand up for America." They didn't need coaxing and provided a thunderous applause at the song's closing.
Touring in support of his new album, "Three Chord Opera," his best-received recording in years, Diamond sprinkled a few tracks from the CD in among his 35 years worth of AM radio hits.
There were plenty of highlights.
He followed up a brief expression of sympathy for the victims of the terrorist attacks with a moving "Solitary Man," and then moved quickly through "Cherry, Cherry" and "Red, Red Wine," the latter song starting out low, low, low and then moving to its more familiar uptempo reggae beat supported by the horn section.
He brought the string section to the fore on "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" and new songs "You're the Best Part of Me" and "At the Movies."
His voice is clearly showing signs of age, and yet he soldiered on in song after song, his smarts for musical arrangement and use of backup singers helping out on "If You Know What I Mean," "Holly Holy" and "I Am, I Said."
He drew another standing ovation for "Sweet Caroline," with the audience coaxing him to do a couple of encore choruses, and he drew similar raves for "Soolaiman" and the duet "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," with vocalist Linda Press.
Less successful were "I'm a Believer," with Diamond shimmying like some misplaced senior on "American Bandstand," and the still kitschy "Forever in Blue Jeans."
But that's quibbling. For the most part, Diamond delivered some beautiful noise again and again.
The singer, "New York City born and raised," as he proclaimed in "I Am ... I Said," looked as though he couldn't quite shake the troubles that have befallen his hometown the last month, and his usual bravura enthusiasm was tempered between the rousing opener and the gung-ho finale. No matter what one thinks of Diamond's music, few performers throw themselves into their songs with greater zest, blow sloppy wet kisses to the audience with more unabashed glee, or draw more joy from the spontaneous combustion that occurs when a hit, any hit, is shouted back at him by thousands of Neil-aholics.
In contrast to earlier tours, this was a more somber, if still ingratiating performer. At 60, Diamond may be slowing up a touch, but his baritone voice still packs a lion's growl, and despite a tendency to drop into a sing-speak delivery for theatrical effect, he can still carry a tune. Diamond is embraced by various generations of rockers and hipsters in much the same way that actor Charlton Heston is; both are dramatic archetypes and melodramatic cartoons who invite adulation and parody in equal measure. He's cool precisely because he doesn't act like he knows it; instead, he gives every indication of living to serve his audience.
Diamond even played the rebel, by performing two songs that made a recent list of potentially objectionable songs circulated by program directors at radio conglomerate Clear Channel. He kicked open his two-hour performance with a flag-waving "America," which was less about jingoism than brotherhood, and later in the show he dedicated the Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.
The singer's willingness to address the tragedy head-on"if music has the power to heal, then let the healing begin"was exactly what the audience wanted. But his ardor wasn't sustained throughout the concert. He offered subdued versions of some of his strongest songs ("Solitary Man," "Cherry Cherry," "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon") and failed to build a persuasive case for his latest album, "Three Chord Opera." These new tunes, particularly "At the Movies," lacked the melodic lift of Diamond's best work and indulged in the banal lyricism that mars his worst. Diamond also dutifully performed "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," as a duet with backup singer Linda Press, but the drippy No. 1 hit from 1978 has not aged well.
Diamond never resorted to gimmicks, however. He lived or died with the music, and he has enough solid songs to rescue any evening from potential death by bathos. He was backed by a 17-piece band that framed the leader's voice with empathetic string and horn voicings, and deft percussion. The singer found his footing with "Holly Holy" and "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," the kind of pseudo-gospel rave-ups he does best, and indulged in multiple singalongs on "Sweet Caroline." The audience would not let the chorus go, and Diamond shook off his blues to once again become the bushy-browed Uncle Feelgood of American popular song.
Neil Diamond at the United Center
October 10, 2001
America is on high alert--Neil Diamond is on the road.
Ah, I'm just kidding. I love that man. It's a cheap shot to say that Diamond is putting on a full frontal assault on pop patriotism. He opened Monday's sold-out show at the United Center with "America," his tribute to immigrants from the "Jazz Singer" (1980) soundtrack. The stage curtain was an American flag and four more flags hung above the stage. Out in the lobby, Diamond vendors were peddling black T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the American flag--and a silhouette of Neil. How come Francis Scott Key never thought of this?
But Diamond is a uniquely American story.
He is all about possibilities.
He grew up in working-class Brooklyn, went to New York University on a fencing scholarship and cut his chops with the first wave of the Brill Building writers in New York City. By woodshedding with Carole King, Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, Cynthia Weil and others, Diamond wrote some of the best pop-rock songs of the late 1960s.
Early in Monday's show (which was repeated Tuesday), he strapped on an acoustic guitar and played timeless hits such as "Cherry, Cherry," "Red Red Wine" (which began with keyboardist Tom Hensley's ethereal Procol Harum-like passages before moving into the reggae shuffle that UB40 made popular) and "I'm a Believer," once a hit for the Monkees and now a hit for Smash Mouth.
Diamond, 60, fronted a 15-piece band and two background vocalists who helped cushion his vocals. He had trouble hitting kinetic notes in his hipper material. His voice cracked at the outset of the concert, when he told the audience, ''If music has the power to heal, then let the healing begin."
His seasoned pipes were more comfortable with his mainstream songs: "Beautiful Noise"; the new pop ballad "At the Movies," and "Forever in Blue Jeans," which inexplicably will forever be a throwaway crowd-pleaser, even though it was written by hard-driving Steve Earle guitarist-producer Richard Bennett.
Drummer Ron Tutt remains one of the most valuable players in Diamond's band. Tutt pushes Diamond, applying the charging jungle beat behind the 1970 hit "Soolaimon," laying out for "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" and framing "Holly Holy" with cresting majesty. Tutt learned his lessons well. He was Elvis Presley's drummer throughout the '70s. I believe this is why Diamond boldly carries on with the Elvis Vegas swivel-hip tradition.
The finale of Monday's two-hour "mission of love"(that's what Diamond called it) was something to behold. It was ignited with the three or four (I lost count) reprises of "Sweet Caroline," before Diamond revisited the theme of possibilities in America.
He concluded the 1974 ballad "Yes, I Can," with a measured and sincere delivery: "Yes, I will/If I might/If I can." Minutes later, the stage was drenched in blue and red lighting with white light illuminating the flag as Diamond marched through the Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." The final song of the set was Diamond's 1971 hit "I Am, I Said."
Even when he wrote the strangely introspective anthem about the frog who dreamed of being a king and then became one, little did he know how the lyrics would twist in a changing wind: "...New York's home, but it ain't mine anymore." Like the dreams of Neil Diamond, it now belongs to everyone.
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