DIAMOND DELIGHTS -- It's arena rock on the easy side
by John Gonzalez
The Grand Rapids Press Friday October 11, 1996

Forget Kristi Yamaguchi, forget the politicians, forget all the VIPs. When it comes to entertainment -- this was the ''grand entrance'' for Grand Rapids' new showplace. Neil Diamond's sold out concert Thursday night at the Van Andel Arena ushered in a new era locally for arts and entertainment. There were limos parked outside of the arena, trendy outfits worn by those who like to be trendy, and people having drinks with friends and enjoying a night on the town. All of this, and Neil Diamond.

The jazz singer delivered the type of show many have come to expect: A solid performance, plenty of hits and a great band to back him up. He smiled, he danced, and he played every angle with the audience, milking the applause.

''I guess that's the first song at this arena, isn't it,'' he said to a crowd of 13,200 after opening his nearly 2 1/2 hour show with Crunch Granola Suite. ''(This arena) is a beautiful place ... It's great to be here and say to you all -- hello, again, hello.''

Obviously, he's used that line before. But the crowd ate it up. that's what made the evening so much fun at times, just watching some of the people in the audience who rarely go to shows.

Diamond seemed to sense the same thing. A veteran entertainer and performer, the 55-year-old Brooklyn, NY native paced himself -- maybe a bit too much in the early going -- but finally brought the crowd to its feet.

After the show Diamond spoken highly of the crowd, and the facility. ''It's always exciting to play a new building, and this is a terrific building,'' he said through his publicist, Sherrie Levy. ''The sound is fabulous ... But best of all the audience in Grand Rapids knows how to have a good time.''

He was stretching it a bit. Though pockets of fans seemed to be on their feet and dancing to nearly ever song, the crowd was way too relaxed for such a huge event. Some of it was because of Diamond, who performed in-the-round and saved the showstoppers for late in the show.

But mainly, the audience members seemed a little overwhelmed by the experience. When you think about it, though, who could blame them?

It seems odd to finally have such an impressive facility in Grand Rapids.

As the evening progressed, the crowd -- and Diamond, too -- started to have some fun.

About five songs into his 25-song set, he challenged the crowd to dance and get some ''nerve'' on Cherry Cherry. They did. And Diamond thanked them with outstretched arms and hand-blown kisses.

Beautiful Noise, the title cut off his million-selling album (from 1976), followed, and Diamond got the party grooving. But then he slowed it down, playing Play Me, Kentucky Woman, and five songs from his current album, the Nashville-recorded and country music influenced Tennessee Moon.

Though the newer songs indicate a change of direction, the older songs are what fans paid $36 a ticket to hear. Some of the songs were intriguing, especially Everybody, a song written by the father-song team of Neil and Jesse Diamond. But it slowed the pace down too much.

The rest of the night? Diamond let the hits e his co-pilot, leaving no question why he remains one of the most successful acts on the road some 30 years after cutting his first record.

Forever in Blue Jeans, Song Sung Blue, Shilo, Love on the Rock, Desiree, and a remarkably decent version of You Don't Bring Me Flowers (with backup singer Linda Press filling in for Barbra Streisand) all led many back on nostalgic trips back to childhood, high school, and college days.

Though Diamond's voice has lost some of its luster from years of touring, he still delivered with genuine emotion. At times some of the emotion seemed a little forced -- especially when he grimaced on a note or smiled after a tune -- but that's Neil Diamond, the expert showman who is good even on an off night.

Closing his regular set with the crowd-pleasing America (audience members ''oohed'' when four American flags were dropped into view from the lighting rig above Diamond), the singer said, ''Thank You Grand Rapids.'' (Talk about something that seemed odd.)

Diamond stood silently near the lip of the stage and waited for applause to build, and mouthed to the audience: ''OK, we'll do one more.''

Audience members screamed loudly when he dusted off Cracklin Rosie followed by Sweet Caroline and ending the arena's first full-length concert with Brother Love's Traveling Salvation /Show.

As for Neil Diamond's traveling show, in Grand Rapids it was a hit.

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