Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Neil Diamond concert review


Where: Citizens Business Bank Arena, Ontario, Calif.
When: Nov. 4

This entertainer holds a special place among my concert memories, as he was the first official concert I ever attended. It was back in June 1983 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif., where Diamond sold out a then-unprecedented seven nights at the venue.

I was a teenager, but remember very little except for his glittery outfit on the "Heartlight" Tour. My review, which originally appeared in the OC Register, follows.

On Sunday night, Neil Diamond sang “I’ve been around a good long time” and “I think of myself as a lucky old dreamer” during the riveting, acoustic guitar-based “Hell Yeah.” It served as a reminder that age shouldn’t make a difference in pop music if you have a good story to tell.

Lately, an increasing number of musicians who came to prominence in the 1960s (Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon) have continued to craft compelling studio albums despite so-called fans ignoring them altogether.

Add Neil Diamond to that list. Five years ago, he teamed up with rock producer du jour Rick Rubin for the “12 Songs” CD – a stark, introspective collection where the former Brill Building tunesmith returned to his stripped down roots. The result was Diamond’s strongest work in decades. The pair upped the ante for latest effort “Home Before Dark.”

Diamond told MOJO Magazine that the vulnerable lyrics throughout “Home” were the most difficult he’d ever written. “I had to dig (deep) for those songs, but I guess from that pain came something worthwhile…my soul is laid bare on it.”

The title track and “Hell Yeah” – definitely fall into that category. They were among four solid newer songs amid a rousing sold out show at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

Dressed in a tasteful black blazer, slacks and silk shirt – no glass beads in sight –the man some call the Jewish Elvis opened the 22-song, nearly two-hour set with a fiery “Holly Holy.” He strummed an acoustic guitar (and continued much of the evening) while the 14-piece band gradually built momentum. A joyous “Beautiful Noise” and dramatic, jazzy “Love on the Rocks” followed.

According to recent interviews, the current tour – which landed among 2008’s top 10 concert grosses and ends Thursday - has been one of Diamond's all-time favorites. Coming off his first No. 1 album debut and high profile appearance on “American Idol” last spring, the 67-year-old pop icon was raring to head out on the road again.

That high energy remained at CBBA, especially on “Cherry Cherry,” a rocking “Crunchy Granola Suite” and the extended, jubilant crowd participation number, “Sweet Caroline.”

Compared to area gigs this past October, the set list was shorter and a moving “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” was added after Diamond explained merch sale proceeds would benefit Hurricane Ike victims in Houston.

Fans that preferred the contemplative side of Diamond were rewarded with a romantic “Play Me,” NYC growing up tale “Brooklyn Roads” (archival family footage projected on the big screens) and over-the-top “I Am…I Said” (given a long standing ovation).

“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” became a mini-theater piece as Diamond sat at a small dinner table, wine bottle at the ready, to duet alongside longtime backing singer Linda Press. They slow danced and warmly embraced at the end.

Despite all the musicians onstage (including a brass section), the sound never got overbearing. Many times, it was surprisingly subtle. Soulful vocals from the Waters Sisters and tasteful rhythms by onetime Elvis Presley drummer Ron Tutt stood out from the pack.

Diamond the Showman was in full display. He played to fans all around the shifting tiered stage, joked around a bit, did his trademark pointing gestures and was in fine voice, even amid the ballads.

A SoCal resident since the ‘70s, the performer even proved he knew his geography on this debut Inland Empire appearance by listing a dozen cities in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties to cheers.

Everyone from grandparents to children stood for the electrifying encore including “Cracklin’ Rosie,” patriotic “ America ” and gospel fervor of “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”

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