Diamond is still a gem only to fans
Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle
He's a better songwriter than Bob Dylan, a better singer than Smokey Robinson and a better dancer than James Brown. He's sexier than Tom Jones, hipper than Wayne Newton, and his name is easier to spell than Engelbert Humperdinck.

And if Elvis was alive today, which he may be, he'd get down on his knees and bow to the frog who dreamed he was a king, and then became one.

OK, not exactly. With his graying sideburns and glittery blue shirt, he's actually more like your uncle -- the self-styled swinger -- who insists on crooning a few tunes at your wedding reception while all the guests cringe.

But there's no denying that 30 years after his initial hit, Neil Diamond can draw a bigger crowd than any of the '60s icons mentioned above, with the possible exception of Elvis.

The Summit was packed to the rafters for Diamond's Saturday night appearance. He performed on a revolving stage set up in the center of the arena floor. The band was arranged in a circular pattern on a lower tier around the perimeter of the stage.

Diamond is celebrating the recent release of a three-disc box, In My Lifetime. The collection provides a career overview from his early years as a struggling tunesmith to his string of Top 40 hits in the late '60s and '70s and his subsequent success as a top-grossing touring act.

In a program lasting more than two hours, Diamond performed many of his best-known numbers, from Solitary Man through Sweet Caroline, Cracklin' Rosie, Song Sung Blue, I Am ... I Said, You Don't Bring Me Flowers and Love On the Rocks.

Diamond also sang several selections from Tennessee Moon, an ostensibly "country" album recorded last year in Nashville that has become Diamond's best-selling studio release of new material in a decade.

The audience responded respectfully to the newer tunes, while the familiar hits were greeted with an adulation that hardly seemed justified by Diamond's croaking delivery or the material itself. What is a verse like "You are the sun/I am the moon/You are the words/I am the tune/Play me ... " if not a triumph of schmaltz?

Then again, perhaps Diamond has been held by critics to an aesthetic standard he does not share. Although his career overlaps the rock era, Diamond comes from an older tradition; that of the Tin Pan Alley song-plugger.

His best rock 'n' roll songs -- Cherry Cherry, I'm a Believer, Kentucky Woman -- were the products of a system in which writers were concerned with constructing a hit, not plumbing the depths of their souls or railing against social injustice.

Some of Diamond's more embarrassing moments have come when he attempts to combine rock's personalized singer-songwriter ethos with his old-fashioned showbiz instincts.

In My Lifetime, the intended anthem from the boxed set, integrates motifs from Diamond's hits into an autobiographical account set to a plodding country-rock beat. The song was accompanied in live performance by a laser light show that spelled out the word "Lifetime" in big, bright colors.

But the fact is that while Diamond occasionally has rubbed shoulders with rock's royalty, he's always been more than a tad square at heart. And people love him for it.

With his index finger pointing in the air, hips shaking to a semi-rockin' beat, Diamond occupies the safe middle ground between Dylan and James Brown on one hand and Vegas lounge lizards on the other. Not too hip, not too square.

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