Neil Diamond 2001-2002 Concert Reviews

Portland, OR December 2-3, 2001

THE OREGONIAN

Hard not to love Diamond, sentimental lapses and all

12/03/01

MARTY HUGHLEY

Much of pop music's hold over us is achieved through a basic, if nonetheless tricky, alchemy. Filter a familiar emotion through a simple idea, add a pound of conviction or a tart little twist of the unexpected, heat with energy and charisma, then reap the rewards of your magic.

Neil Diamond learned the pop sciences early and well. By his mid-20s, he was writing for the New York song publishers in the storied Brill Building, penning such hits as "I'm A Believer" for the Monkees. And soon enough, he was off on an incredible run of hits as a performer, with 10 Top 25 singles between 1966 and 1972.

Diamond has maintained his star status ever since, as witnessed yet again by a full house at the Rose Garden arena on Sunday night, the start of a two-night stand. The singer himself is 60 and his audience skews toward those old enough to recall such classics as "Kentucky Woman" and "Sweet Caroline" as fresh new sounds on the radio. But for an artist no longer making much impact on the singles charts, his appeal is surprisingly multi-generational.

Maybe it's because he so diligently works that basic formula for all it's worth, taking straightforward, memorable melodies and easy-to-apprehend lyrical ideas and painting them with as much bright color and grandeur as they'll support.

As a young wizard in the pop world, Diamond was about as good at that game as anyone, and tunes from the early part of his career form the better part of his current repertoire. "Cherry, Cherry," "Red, Red Wine" and "I'm A Believer" aren't terribly profound, but they carried the idea that simple feelings can have powerful impact. Coming in succession early in the show, they and their creator were hard not to love.

The show started about 8:20 p.m. with an instrumental fanfare and the raising of the giant American flag from in front of the stage, followed by the patriotic "America." To create the scope and detail of Diamond's sound, he came prepared: a 17-piece band with horns, strings, guitars, percussion, backing vocalists -- the works. His voice was a little grainier than normal at first, and cracked noticeably a bit later during "Play Me," but largely was the stately baritone of legend. "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," which added to his cache with the alt-rock set a few years ago when it was covered by Urge Overkill, was compelling enough coming from Diamond himself that he got a lengthy smooch from a female who went to the lip of the stage. Like we said, hard not to love.

That ballad also showed, though, that a turgid sentimentality has long been one of Diamond's weaknesses. So too is that particular blend of middlebrow pretension and cheerful bad taste that's come to be known as cheese. Diamond exports more of the stuff than all the dairy farmers in Wisconsin.

But as he's gotten older, Diamond's knack for riding that line between the simple and the banal, the unabashed and the embarrassing, has seemed to desert him. That was shown early in the show when the new "Mission of Love," an awkward Vegas-meets-Sesame Street number about matchmaking was followed with "Solitary Man," among the most genuinely affecting of his early tunes. If that wasn't enough to demonstrate how far he's fallen, a mid-set string of other tunes from his new "Three Chord Opera" album reached its nadir with the unintentionally hilarious "At the Movies."

But then, he was back with "Holly, Holy" and the kind of earnest urgency that animates him at his best. As mawkish and overblown as his act can get, he still has the old alchemy down well enough to dazzle the faithful yet again.

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