Neil Diamond 2001-2002 Concert Reviews

San Diego, CA November 29, 2001

By George Varga
POP MUSIC CRITIC

From the Union-Tribune, Please visit their website!

Neil Diamond's fall tour was planned long before the tragic events of Sept. 11.

But for those seeking solace in the form of musical comfort food, his ongoing concert trek couldn't have been better timed.

Or as Diamond told his 10,051 fans Thursday night at SDSU's Cox Arena, just before "Solitary Man," his third selection: "If what they say about music having the power to heal is true, then let the healing begin."

His Cox performance began with his flag-waving anthem of brotherhood and all-inclusive unity, "America," the same song that concluded each of his three sold-out concerts at the San Diego Sports Arena in 1989.

Of course, the days when this veteran singer-songwriter could sell out three consecutive shows at the Sports Arena are long gone. And it's been even longer since he scored a major hit record.

Regardless, on Thursday he provided a reassuring aural balm for his listeners, a mostly nostalgic trek back to a somewhat gentler, more innocent time. And while the less-than-capacity audience seemed slow to warm up, it was transformed into a mass congregation of swaying, cheering celebrants well before the 28-song set concluded with a reprise of "America."

In between came a mix of vintage Diamond-penned hits, among them "Cherry Cherry" and "I'm a Believer," two pop-rock gems that were given surprisingly subdued readings. He began "Red Red Wine" by strumming a lone chord on his jumbo-body acoustic guitar and singing just the word "Red." The crowd cheered mightily in anticipation, and many -- including a woman in a neck brace -- danced when the song segued into the clipped-beat reggae version made popular by UB40 in 1988.

Diamond, 60, doesn't belt lyrics the way he used to, and he's less prone to employ melodramatic vocal flourishes, in part because his husky baritone doesn't soar as easily as before. He also strolls across the stage -- which was draped by a huge American flag -- rather than sprint as in decades past. And without his trademark sideburns, he now looks even more like veteran TV newscaster Sam Donaldson, albeit more naturally hirsute.

But Diamond brought with him a newfound cachet of cool, thanks to his growing reputation as a Mack Daddy of '60s pop-rock who has transcended the Vegas-y kitsch appeal of many of his '60s peers.

Credit for this unexpected conversion goes to popular cover versions of Diamond's songs by such bands as Sugar Ray ("I'm a Believer") and Urge Overkill ("Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"). Equally notable is the spate of Diamond tribute bands, including the Los Angeles-based Super Diamond, which regularly fills the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach with retro-hipsters who sing along to nearly every word.

Diamond lost momentum with several selections from his earnest but ordinary new album, "Three Chord Opera," which received only polite applause. But he easily recovered with inspired readings of "Forever in Blue Jeans," the gospel-inflected "Holly Holy" and an extended "Sweet Caroline," which found the crowd singing and dancing along with infectious enthusiasm.

He also updated the climactic "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" by adding "gay and straight" to his list of "God's children all," placing them alongside "black and white, rich and poor, great and small." And he received solid accompaniment throughout from his 17-piece band, anchored by former Elvis Presley drummer Ronnie Tutt and featuring a four-woman string section that appeared to be miming its parts more often than not.

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