Critic-proof: Even the melodrama is endearing in Neil Diamond's way-cool presence
By Greg Kot
Rock Critic
The Chicago Tribune September 16, 1996

For the hair, think Tom Snyder when he was the king of the talk-show hosts at the dawn of the disco era. Eyebrows? So bushy they should otherwise belong to Sam Donaldson. Shirt--Vegas sequins that would make Elvis proud.

Is he cool, ladies and gentlemen? At 55, and still shaking his bum with more enthusiasm than George Michael, Neil Diamond is beyond cool. There's no mystery why more than 15 years since his hitmaking heyday, Diamond still has the goods to fill up the cavernous United Center for three straight shows, which conclude Monday after two weekend performances.

The man loves what he's doing, and the sincerity and zeal with which he takes up his mission---to entertain at all costs---make his occasional flights of melodrama tolerable, almost endearing. ''How can I hurt when I'm here with you? No way! '' For all the sloppy wet kisses he flings toward the rafters with a sweep of his left arm, for the all squinty-eyed, I-love-you-guys Sammy Maudlinisms that he spews, for all the 10th grade poetry he tosses out in his tunes----''No one heard at all, not even the chair''?---Diamond is critic-proof. He smiles, he sweats, he grimaces and he tells jokes at his own expense. He poses for a picture with two fans in midsong. He growls his lyrics like a rocker and gestures like Hulk Hogan as he brings another song to its knees.

And how about those songs? They're inside your head, whether you want them there or not. Titles aren't even necessary for many of them; just a few lines and the audience was off on yet another singalong. ''She got the way to move me ...''; ''You are the sun, I am the moon ...''; ''Me and you are subject to the blues now and then ...''; '' 'Cause we got all night, to set the world right ...''

While Diamond dug deeply and generously into his bag of '60s and '70s nostalgia, he remains a vital contemporary artist---contrary to what even many of his fans might think. His latest album, ''Tennessee Moon,'' contains some of his strongest original material since the '70s, and Diamond performed five songs from it in his still-strong baritone voice, which he frequently turned into a gravelly wail. Stripping his nine-piece band down to an acoustic three piece, Diamond evoked the Sun Sessions-era Presley with the rocking ''No Limit.'' On ''Everybody,'' cowritten with his son Jesse Diamond, a sinuous violin solo by Alan Lindgren brought out the new song's dusky beauty.

It wasn't long after this interlude, however, that Diamond brought the show to a dead halt by devoting some 15 minutes to band introductions and individual solos. However well-intentioned, the segment detracted from the singer's string o' hits momentum. The show worked far better when Diamond employed his backing cast as bit players in the domestic and psychic dramas his songs conjure.

There were many moments of Middle Americana, Elvis-style: The flags that unfurled during ''America,'' the preacher-in-a-pulpit sermonizing of ''Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show,'' the so-purple it's overpowering angst of ''I Am ... I Said''---Diamond's version of ''My Way.'' As the song says, he was the frog who dreamed of becoming a king and became one.

And if you can believe in that without laughing, or even if you laugh but somehow admire the chutzpah of someone who would dare to sing it as though it were written on stone tablets, then the magnetism of Neil Diamond becomes undeniable. ''Hands, touchin' hands, reachin' out---yes!----touchin' you, touchin' me.'' Go ahead: Mock the records at your peril. Pretend you're too cool to love Neil Diamond. Because in concert, this avuncular entertainer is too busy knockin' 'em dead, baby.

Copyright Chicago Tribune (c) 1996


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