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Dull August Night: My nerves were racked throughout the second night of Neil Diamond's two-night stand at America West Arena last week. I kept worrying that Neil's awed-into-silence fans could hear me mocking his silk and rhinestone chemise, which looked like something your aunt would wear out to her 50th-anniversary bash. But the audience's gaze was fixed squarely on the diminutive singer, and no one even turned around to shush me.
I should start by saying that I wasn't predisposed to hating Diamond. Quite the opposite, in fact. I came with an open mind, ready to be wowed by a man who's supposed to be the consummate showman -- equal parts corn and immaculate cob. I've known people who've gone to see Wayne Newton hating him, only to come away true believers. And certainly Elvis' brand of kitsch wasn't exactly subtle. But even at his worst, no one could accuse him of being anything less than a mesmerizing cultural train wreck.
Alas, after this show, it's clear that Diamond is no longer talented or even interesting. Led to the stage by a small army of what appeared to be his own black-clad secret police, the singer opened with "Beautiful Noise" and "Can Anybody Hear Me." The two songs worked as a glorified soundcheck to make sure everyone could hear the less-than-beautiful noise that Diamond's gravelly voice has become and to lower their expectations accordingly. It was here that we got one of the few cool flourishes of the night with Diamond's excited exhortation, "Take it away, fiddle man!" Always a wild man, that Neil.
Although he wasn't especially glib, the Diamond One did offer a glimpse of his cheese potential with an early post-Littleton peace-and-love monologue, "With all the tension in this world, it's wonderful that so many people can get together in the common goal of enjoyment."
But then Diamond took a "reach out and touch somebody" bit too far when he asked the audience to "humor me and turn to the person on your right and give that person a big kiss. You see how those walls can come down?" Ughh.
Soon I began to notice that Diamond's stage act also included the repetition of a number of key moves: the karate Elvis, the sliding magician palm, the slow motion kiss and the Ed Grimley dance. But the bit of onstage choreography that I (and Diamond himself, judging by the wicked troll-like scrunch of his face) liked best happened after each ovation when he would pull his fists to his sides as if to say, "I got 'em! These freaks are mine!"
And they really were his, despite the horrendous pacing of the show and song arrangements that either forgot or completely destroyed the melodies. "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," was the first of five excruciatingly slow renditions of his once midtempo Bang-era classics. After a while, it began to seem as if Diamond and his band were determined to play every song at the same speed as the rotating stage.
Few in the (primarily middle-aged or older) crowd seemed to notice or be disturbed by any of this. For most the concert was like a time machine -- which, for a few hours at least, allowed them to feel young again. Unfortunately, for me the show had the opposite effect. By the time Diamond was through with his geriatric extravaganza, I actually felt about 40 years older and was left with nothing but an insatiable craving for Geritol and Matlock reruns.
Still, the concert did have its share of stellar moments. Unfortunately, most of them came when Diamond wasn't singing. With his intro to "Brooklyn Roads," Diamond slipped into his everyman duds by claiming (quite laughably) that he had spent the day "walking the streets of Phoenix." As far as the song, Diamond seems to be outMuzaking his own Muzak now. "Brooklyn Roads" was never quite "Detroit Rock City," but Mike Post could sue for the way the tune has mutated into a bad rip-off of the "Theme From Hill Street Blues."
Diamond engaged in obligatory, but no less painful, run-throughs of "Coming to America" (complete with red, white and blue lighting and unfurled flags) and "Love on the Rocks," followed by the requisite product push, a medley from his latest record The Movie Album.
What Diamond did to "As Time Goes By," "Unchained Melody" and "Can't Help Falling in Love," I can only describe in language too unseemly for these pages. Let's just say that if there's a rock and roll heaven, then Dooley Wilson, Roy Hamilton and Elvis Presley are all smacking their palms with tire irons, waiting to inflict a little poetic justice on Neil. The only saving grace of this segment of the show was that the audience was spared Diamond's renditions of "My Heart Will Go On" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
The show ended with an obviously hoarse Neil struggling through "Song Sung Blue," "Cracklin' Rosie," "Sweet Caroline" and several other failed showstoppers.
The upshot of the whole experience came later in the night at central Phoenix's Chez Nous, where the house band offered up a far more convincing version of "I Am, I Said" than Diamond had been able to muster for his 16,000-plus fans. Too bad no one heard, not even the chair. -- Bob Mehr
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org