By James Hebert
August 2, 1999
Stand up. Sit down. Stand up again. At Neil Diamond's concert Saturday night, there was more of that rise-and-be-seated ritual than most churches see in a month of Sundays.
And no one minded at all. Not even the chairs.
Of course, no one asked them, as far as could be determined. But if anyone would have been sensitive to the feelings of the furniture, Neil would be that guy.
I am I said, to no one there / and no one heard at all, not even the chair, goes his immortal line from 1971's "I Am . . . I Said." Despite that being one of the flakiest lines in the entire pop canon, the song proved one of the more memorable moments in Diamond's two-hour-plus show at the Sports Arena.
The number stood out mostly because, of the 28 songs Diamond performed, it was one of the relatively few on which he resisted his impulse to overdramatize, to exhort, to posture and to preach.
There was more to all that standing and sitting than just the normal ebb and flow of a show. Onstage, Diamond revealed a kind of revival-meeting streak: leading the crowd in clap-alongs, singing urgent, yearning anthems in his stentorian voice, even -- as on a reprise of "Sweet Caroline" -- instructing the audience on its singing parts.
On the final song of the night, "Brother Love's Travel-
ing Salvation Show," Diamond could have been singing about the gospel-espousing title character, or about himself: Eyes black as coal / and when he lifts his face / every ear in the place is on him.
Diamond might be a demagogue if he weren't such a nice guy -- and if he didn't write such nice songs.
Yes, he did compose the music to "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Yes, his Sports Arena concert did include a couple of selections from the soundtrack, inspired by the Richard Bach novel about a neurotic bird. Yes, they were still kind of dopey, in that '70s way. (He is a child of the universe; he has a right be here. So deal with it. And have a nice day.)
But a Diamond concert is also a reminder that this 58-year-old pop survivor has written some of the more memorable songs in popdom.
His fine performance of the once-innocent "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" carried an odd resonance, since the 1967 song is now frequently linked with Urge Overkill's 1994 cover for the ultra-violent movie "Pulp Fiction."
His "I'm A Believer," though, conveyed every bit of the energy that The Monkees brought to it in their 1967 hit-making version. "Cherry Cherry," from 1966, was equally peppy, even if Diamond's nine-piece band smoothed some of the edges of this party tune.
The makeup of the band, in fact, seemed a key reason that many songs ended up overblown and oversold. It included two keyboard players, which proved an open invitation to layer on too-sweet orchestral effects and unnecessary dramatic flourishes.
The most glaring example was in Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love," from "The Movie Album," Diamond's 1998 collection of movie-tune covers. It's a simple and pretty song, but in the hands of Diamond's band, it metamorphosed into an epic drama complete with kettle drums and keening strings.
His version of "As Time Goes By" (from the film "Casablanca"), was similarly hobbled. "Unchained Melody," from "Unchained" and "Ghost," was the only movie song spared the shmaltz.
The show also could have done without the self-conscious shtick that was staged before "Thank The Lord For The Night Time," when Diamond had guitarists Doug Rhone and Hadley Hockensmith play dueling electric licks as a goofy gag.
(Diamond's comment that "These guys turn the amps up to 11" unintentionally conjured thoughts of the heavy-metal movie spoof "Spinal Tap," from whence that line comes. Perhaps we'll see Spinal Tap's "Break Like The Wind" on Diamond's next movie album?)
In spite of the musical overload, though, the band showed undeniable chops. And backup singer Linda Press, relegated to the shadows for most of the show, unleased a beautiful vocal in her duet with Diamond on "You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore," the 1978 hit that originally featured Barbra Streisand.
Other Diamond hits, from "America" to "Song Sung Blue" to "Forever in Blue Jeans," had the distinctly older audience on its feet, waving arms and singing gleefully. When Diamond sang "Play Me," with its slyly suggestive chorus, the gray-haired singer was greeted with enough hoots and screams to make one think Ricky Martin had just popped in.
Diamond acted coy, shrugging his shoulders in humble confusion, as if he didn't know what the fuss was about.
No one was fooled. Not even the chairs.
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