It may sound as corny as one of his lyrics, but Neil Diamond truly is forever. The Beach Boys are perennials, an act that tours and sells lots of concert tickets singing timeless songs from another decade, rarely bothering to write and record new material. Like the Rolling Stone, Diamond started in the '60s and still tours in conjunction with an album of new material, even if the new songs don't become radio hits. That's because Diamond, like the Stones, is one of the great live performers of the rock era, as he demostrated Friday night before a full house of 18,000 at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Diamond, unlike the Stones, has never been hip. Even though he's had 37 Top 40 songs and sold more than 110 million albums worldwide, he's never even made the final ballot for the Rock 'n" Roll Hall of Fame, although he has been eligible for the past five years. His music has never been important -- he was making catchy rock fluff when the Beatles, Stones, and San Francisco bands were making essential progressive rock; he was making dramatic, self-absorbed middle-of-the-road pop in the '70s and early '80s when James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell were creating singer-songwriter statements that helped define an era.
What Diamond was making was popular music -- the sound of Middle America. That's who showed up at the Target Center. The couple in the matching Harley Davidson T-shirts, the woman with a tattoo on her shoulder blade, the mom a few rows behind me with infant in arms (Diamond's sound engineer dispatched earplugs to the newcomer). Plus there were thousands of clean-cut Middle Americans. It could have been the same folks who flocked to see Billy Graham at the Metrodome a few weeks ago. This time it was a Jewish guy from Brooklyn preaching "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," about how everyone -- black and white, gay and straight -- is one of God's children.
Diamond satisfied his audience the way Bruce Springsteen, rock's preeminent concert performer before he went solo last year, used to satiate his with a generous and exhilarating concert. For 2-1/4 hours, the consistently energetic Diamond, 55, played his hits from three decades (he hasn't had a hit single since 1983) and also tested the waters with a half-dozen new songs. His "Tennessee Moon" album is his best in years, but the new material sounded different in concert. It sounded more pop than country, the arrangements a little bit cluttered, the pedal-steel guitar missing.
Still, the large crowd cottoned to Diamond's country turn, which lasted 25 minutes last night. The fans loved his aggressive singing on "Can Anybody Hear Me" and his romatic yearning on "One Good Love," his duet with Waylon Jennings, whose phrasing he seemed to borrow in concert. For the swampy blues "No Limit," Diamond pared the band to just snare drum, bass, and acoustic guitar, which was quite effective. He joked about being divorced and writing a marriage-proposal song, but "Marry Me," which had a slight Eric Clapton undercurrent, had women swooning.
Still, it was with the oldies that the singer connected with his fans. Performing 28 songs, he must have broken his own Target Center record for most clap-along numbers in a concert. "Desiree," "Kentucky Woman," "Forever in Bluejeans," "America," "Sweet Caroline," and on and on. Diamond did plenty of ballads, too, with "Love on the Rocks" and "Play Me" (an entreaty to romance that had women screaming "me, me, me") being big crowd pleasers.
Diamond's voice has grown deeper, and he favors a distinctively dramatic style, both musically and with his grand stage gestures, an approach that probably wasn't apparent the first time he played in Minnesota in Duluth in 1967. Over the years, sometimes you learn to appreciate different facets of a gem.
Copyright 1996 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.