There was a touch of grunge in Neil Diamond's show Monday night at the Continental Airlines Arena. Not in the music, of course, but in his voice; a hoarseness that made him sound like he was trying to imitate Pear Jam's Eddie Vedder on the lower reaches of his range.
Besides that, the in-the-round concert, which opened a sold-out two-night stand, followed the usual Diamond formula: catchy melodies, melodramatic singing, slick band, crowd-pleasing banter, lots of hits. The frequent cragginess of Diamond's voice, undoubtedly brought on by his heavy touring schedule of late, was a drag, but he went on with the show as if he didn't notice. Nothing fazes this guy: Even when his sound system emitted a loud buzz during the first half of his ballad, Play Me, he glided around the stage, seemingly lost in a reverie, and sang as if nothing was wrong.
The show's biggest surprise, and one of its unexpected highlights, was an acoustic version of No Limit, where the nine-piece band that backed him throughout the show was reduced to just a quartet: Ron Tutt on a single snare drum, Reinie Press on standup bass, Hadley Hockensmith on acoustic guitar, and Linda Press on backing vocals. The lean, driving country-blues arrangement spurred Diamond to one of his most intense and unmannered performances.
No Limit was one of seven songs from Diamond's recent Tennessee Moon album to make it into the show. Now, Tennessee Moon, which includes a rerecording of Kentucky Woman (one of the seven songs), was promoted as Diamond's country album, but in truth, it has only a slight country flavor. And except for the rootsy No Limit, the songs seemed even less countrified, if possible, Monday night.
Diamond, 55 and looking as fit as ever, also sang In My Lifetime, the newly written title track for a boxed set, combining hits and rarities, that's due out Oct 29. The most interesting thing about this nondescript song was his use of soundbites from John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Neil Armstrong, and others.
In My Lifetime and the Tennessee Moon songs proved that Diamond refuses to limit himself to his old hits. On the other hand, nostalgia was a huge part of this show, as Diamond played a slew of oldies, often introducing them with comments like ... ''You've heard this next song a thousand times.'' The crowd reserved its most fervent cheers for his patriotic anthem America and joined together in some serious arm-swaying action during Song Sung Blue, but for the money, the highlights were Soolaimon and Cracklin Rosie, hard driving songs that, like No Limit, gave listeners a break from the easy-going pop that ruled the show.
Diamond solidified his bond with his fans by chatting between songs, talking about how writing Everybody with his son wasn't the bonding experience he thought it would be (''he still treats me like dirt''), poking fun at the arena's corporate sponsor (he said he know the airline had taken over ''because they've put the seats closer together'') and refusing to apologize for the absence of duet partner Waylon Jennings during his introduction of One Good Love (''Who cares,'' Diamond deadpanned, ''I know all the words.'')
Throughout the show, the superstar acted like a good-natured cheerleader, encouraging people to dance and sing, and even though he teased some audience members for staying seated after he had asked everyone to stand, he made sure there were no hard feelings afterwards, thanking them ''for being such good spirits.''