Hard-core fans roar their approval, but this Diamond has little sparkle
AUTHOR : Michael Paskevich, Review-Journal
REVIEW: Neil Diamond
Two Stars

Despite decades of commercial success and grand gestures, Neil Diamond has never been a classic "rock star" in the manner of, say, Mick Jagger or even Bob Dylan. And he still isn't.

While the aforementioned artists were breaking new ground and furthering a change in social mores, Diamond was an AM radio alternative, churning out catchy pop songs such as "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Sweet Caroline" that essentially ignored the harsh realities of the world.

It was pop pabulum for the masses, and the masses turned out in full force Friday night for Diamond's first Vegas gig since he opened the Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts back in 1976. Facing a nearly sold-out audience _ a few thousand tickets remained for shows Saturday and tonight _ Diamond cranked up the band and let the MGM Grand Garden rotate around him as he performed on a slow-moving stage placed in the center of the arena.

The crowd, featuring a large percentage of women over 35 who consider him a deity (Kneel Diamond?), let out a collective roar as the 55-year-old singer, done up Vegas style in black slacks and a red sequined jacket, hopped onto the disclike stage to deliver a generous if decidedly lackluster overview of his popular pop ditties. "He's still got a cute butt," remarked a woman who quickly fell under Diamond' s spell during an opening that included "Desiree" and the terminally schmaltzy " Hello Again." There were plenty more bloated, histrionic ballads to come, most delivered in a grating baritone bellow that has become Diamond's trademark.

And everyone seemed thrilled, to a point. The distracting rotation of the stage may have provided some luscious back door views of the popster, but it also diminished any attempt at really connecting with the crowd as Diamond was in constant slow-motion. And most of the music matched.

Turgid tunes of love and betrayal flowed freely from the stage where 11 backup musicians tucked into pits on the circling stage set down thick and color-free support for the maestro who sort of strummed his black guitar when he wasn't pumping his left fist in the air. And it will be said that nobody pumps better. "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" sounded kitschy and campy, "Cherry Cherry" was lost in the din and "September Morn" simply sounded overwrought and downright silly. He added a gaseous "Play Me" and revealed his songwriting skills on "I Am . .. I Said" which contains the quasi-mystical line: "No one heard ... not even the chair." Whoa.

The focus remained on his pop hits of the past _ by the way, has this guy had a hit since "Heartlight" in 1982? _ with a welcome break coming early on when he shamelessly hyped his "Tennessee Moon" release with a couple of forgettable sel ections. "Here's another one, just in case you don't already have two or three copies at home," he said. He also hyped "In My Lifetime," a new boxed set of three CDs that provides a fitting (if somewhat frightening) overview of his vapid love tunes with bonus tracks from that epic work known as the "Jonathan Livingston Seagull Suite" _ or "Tommy" for bird-brains.

To his credit, the taciturn performer was in strong voice and generous with his tunes, never leaving the stage during an 150-minute set that was highlighted by a sprightly "Sweet Caroline" which induced a sort-of sing-along. A somber, sluggish "Holly Holy" roused the crowd and a still-solid "Cracklin' Rosie" highlighted a built-in encore segment before Diamond departed his worshipers.

Perhaps the rotating stage was to blame as it eliminated a reliable focal point and created added distance between the artist and his enraptured fans. Whatever, the fans were enthusiastic if well short of boisterous and Diamond never really seemed to connect with the crowd. They filed out in mannerly fashion after Diamond pumped his fist a few more times before saying good night.

He made no mention of a local legend that mobsters tried to shake him down financially after he opened the Aladdin two decades ago, thus prompting his lingering absence from Vegas. After seeing Diamond and all his excesses in concert, one can only wish that the "boys" back then would have shook him harder.

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