By Mike Weatherford
Talk about a paradox. Las Vegas spends 10 years or so building excitement for modern concert acts and venues where they can perform, only to hire a quintessentially "Vegas" star as one of its big New Year's weekend attractions.
Just about everything about Neil Diamond's Friday concert in-the-round at the MGM Grand Garden -- the second in a two-night stand -- was reminiscent of that late '70s/early '80s era when Wayne Newton, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck ruled the showrooms, and (perhaps not coincidentally) they didn't have enough people to shut down the Strip on New Year's Eve.
Diamond followed the old formula all the way: First the circa-1978 stage get-up; sequined shirt and big black belt hitched up to the high-water mark. Why, we're not sure, since he's dressed tastefully on his last couple of album covers.
The song list tracing a career with enough longevity to have begun with pop-rock credibility ("I Got the Feelin' "), drifted toward melodramatic mush for middle-aged ladies ("You Don't Bring Me Flowers"). It never hurts to add a couple of Elvis ("Can't Help Falling in Love") and Sinatra (a weirdly slow "I've Got You Under My Skin") standards to touch even more bases.
Diamond's voice hasn't held up as well as Jones', and he's not as adept as Newton at killing time by charming the crowd with patter. Still, it beats Engelbert. Throw in the uninspired chatter, crowd participation bits, laser lighting and some plodding arrangements by a band wearing headphones -- a sure sign that they're playing along to a metronome "click track" -- and you have your basic showroom shtick that served the Strip for a good 25 years.
Two things, however, set Diamond above the pack. The first is frequency of exposure. Because he never settled into a regular showroom gig -- pulling a 20-year vanishing act from Vegas before his MGM debut two years ago -- Diamond wisely limits his availability as a concert attraction and builds the demand that enabled him to pack the arena. Second, Diamond has the credibility of having written most of his hits. Classics such as "Cherry, Cherry" and "A Solitary Man" still resonate, even if "resonate" is about all you can say about the way they're performed these days.
Like many a male singer, the 57-year-old's voice is almost unrecognizable from his early recordings. Without his upper range, the remaining melodramatic rumble better serves the likes of "Hello Again" and "Love on the Rocks" than oldies such as "Cracklin' Rosie." The world seems divided into people who "get" Neil Diamond and people who don't. The round, revolving stage emphasized his lack of natural charisma, yet people seem to love him with an Elvislike fervor. And even if you respect his song catalogue, he seems a careless custodian of it. Though the band sounded fine on an instrumental turn, the sound mix dropped to the dynamics of a portable AM radio every time the boss started singing.
Diamond claimed to be "lucky to have the greatest band in the world" for the past 20 years, but lethargic arrangements of hits such as "I AmÉ I Said" did him no favors.
And why on Earth does he need two percussion players for a sound that has almost no exotic or syncopated rhythms? Why not spend the money on a horn section instead of playing the horn sounds on keyboards?
Well, it's hard to question a formula that keeps fans paying top dollar ($150 and $200 for these concerts) for a guy who hasn't had any pop music relevance in years. And proven winners proved timeless: Dropping flags from the rafters during "America," letting the crowd sing along to "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "Song Sung Blue," and closing the show with "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show."
As people herded toward the exits, they started singing the counterpoint to "Sweet Caroline" as it played over speakers at the T-shirt stand, just as Diamond had instructed them in the show. He lived up to the oldest showroom adage: Go out on a high note.
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