DIAMOND SPARKLES ON OLDIES
Singer carries his past with an unusual grace
Kiel Center, Saturday, July 6
By Chris Dickinson, Post-Dispatch Pop Music Critic
When hot-shot director Quentin Tarantino went looking for songs to punctuate the film "Pulp Fiction," his rifling through the pop culture handbag yielded among other things, Urge Overkill's version of the Neil Diamond classic "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." Although the song's appearance in "Pulp Fiction" helped propel Diamond's work onto the MTV generation stage, Diamond was cool long before Tarantino ever focused a glassy eye through a lens.
The Band's Robbie Robertson understood Diamond's enduring place in pop music history when he included the man in The Band's farewell concert documentary "The Last Waltz." Among the bluesmen and the rock gods, Diamond was a representative of the last of the bona fide Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths.
When Diamond trotted down an aisle of the packed Kiel Center last Saturday, waving his arms and taking center spotlight on a revolving stage-in-the-round, he carried his past with casual grace. Recently divorced after 25 years of marriage and touring behind his new album "Tennessee Moon," Diamond plucked songs from the various eras of his long career.
Backed by a nine-piece band, including longtime percussionist and chief houserouser King Errisson, Diamond divided his two-hour set among new material, mid-'70s work like "Beautiful Noise" and his earlier classics that have consistently lit up the ever-changing pop landscape.
The man demonstrated his ease in front of thousands by occasionally chatting about his life. Before launching into the unplugged ballad "Everybody," Diamond talked about writing the tune with his son Jesse, and laughed that even when kids grow up, they tend to treat parents the way they always have -- "like dirt!" In reference to his marital break-up, Diamond jokingly introduced the new love ballad "Marry Me" by saying that songwriters tend to write divorce songs when they're happily married, and vice versa.
But much of Diamond's more recent material is a long way from the Brill Building. A number of schmaltzy ballads took the place of the vital, near-gospelish meltdowns this guy can punch out with fervor. Absent from this night was "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show," the kind of tune guaranteed to rock the roof. But even without that crowd-pleaser, Diamond's occasional upbeat songs ignited mass sing- and clap-alongs, a testament to his ability to still fill an arena with the faithful.
The songs that Diamond referred to as "the oldies" were clear proof of the classic portion of his repertoire. They also accounted for his best moments. Strapping an acoustic guitar over his glittering shirt, he leaned into a melancholy version of "Solitary Man." Demonstrating that he can far out-hip Urge Overkill, he slipped his rough baritone around the languid guitar breaks and conga fills of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." Picking up the tempo, he loped through the glorious hooks of "Cherry, Cherry" and "Kentucky Woman."
It was this passel of "oldies" that remain Diamond's greatest contribution: weighed together in a row, these simple yet heart-felt, precisely constructed pop nuggets continue to turn up in fresh forms. They are songs that were around long before Urge Overkill -- and will undoubtedly be around long after as well. Kinda like the man himself.