Something seems to be tugging at Neil Diamond that has to be helping his performances on his latest tour.
There were hints at the CoreStates Center over the weekend that it's the hurt of divorce, the pain of realizing he's been visiting towns like this on the areana circiut for 30 years, or the paternal pangs of discovering he could record and perform quality music with his son, Jesse.
Together, these suggestions appear to have provoked an in-concert awakening for the 55-year-old entertainer. Suddenly, Diamond is emphasizing his undeniable Brill Building songwriting pedigree, earned in the '60's, and soft-pedaling the melodrama that has smothered his credibility since evolving into one of the best selling middle-of-the-road performers of the '70's. In the process, he has taken a quantum leap toward convincing his naysayers what his fans have always maintained - that his concerts have forever been touching affairs of intimate songs delivery and splendid showmanship.
By stripping down the overbearing show-biz trappings to which he would normally succumb and raising the earnestness level, Diamond managed to reach out and touch anyone who paid attention during his marvelously paced pair of weekend shows at the Core.
Whether he sang aching ballads, straight pop or pop-powered country, Diamond connnected in ways that only spelled maturity. His baritone, as long as it didnt't have to push for urgency, resonated with elastic conviction -- particulary during Play Me.
The lasers, meanwhile, were reduced to a minimum. The gestures weren't as swooping. The shirt, though still glittery, wasn't billowing and unbuttoned to the navel. He's even begun wearing a more tasteful hairpiece instead of continuing to comb his ever-thinning strands across his dome.
The renewed approach bodes well with both of Diamond's current recording projects. One is In My Lifetime, a three-album boxed set due October 29 that should undoubtedly present a more balanced picture of Diamond's formidable body of work. The other, Tennessee Mooon, is a country album released last year to critical acclaim and great fan interest that harkens back to his songwriting roots.
Uncharacteristically, Diamond devoted a good chunk of this two-hour show to Tennessee Moon with an intimate six-song mini-set that recalled Elvis Presley's Sun Studio beginnings -- assembling only an upright electric bass player, an acoustic guitarist and a drummer playing only a snare with brushes in the center of the in-the-round-stage.
Gone were less meaningful, even nonsensical fare such as Red Red Wine, a silly song that he only started including after UB40 took it to No. 1, and I'm a Believer, the best song the Monkees never wrote but depth-deprived ear candy nonetheless.
Diamond didn't totally come clean. He still felt obliged to repeat Forever in Blue Jeans back to back because of its devoted singalong response. And he ended, as always, wtith his traditional version of America while the red, white and blue unfurled. Taken in context, we'll forgive him those indulgences.