REVIEW: He's more than just a singer-songwriter. Neil Diamond, now in his 70s, is an old-style showman.
Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond -- all born in 1941 -- became pop-music icons. Each Hall of Famer, a brooding enigma in his own way, continues to tour in his 71st year. It's quite remarkable.
Dylan is on his Never Ending Tour, which started in the late 1980s and has featured more than 2,300 shows (about 100 per year). The only new wrinkle in 2012 is that the marbly mouthed singer is playing grand piano onstage for the first time. When he performs, no matter on what instrument, he seems lost in his own space, head and music.
Simon says he tours -- he's in Europe now -- until he gets tired of playing "You Can Call Me Al." Well, here's to you, Mr. Simon. When he performs, he seems preoccupied with his creative and often complicated arrangements and his wonderful multi-culti musicians.
Diamond just launched a new tour on which he's playing his greatest hits. In April, he married Wife No. 3; so enough with the brooding solitary man, already. When he performs, he plays to the audience. He's a people pleaser. That was so obvious Wednesday at sold-out Xcel Energy Center.
The 60-something mom from Kentucky next to me rose to her feet for a rockin' "Kentucky Woman." The grandma from North Carolina on my other side stood for most of the concert, clapping, dancing and generally acting as excited as a teen at a Justin Bieber concert. The slender woman in front of me, well, she just shook it like a Polaroid picture.
That's because, in his nearly two-hour set, Diamond came across as Bruce Springsteen for the easy-listening crowd -- generous, exhilarating and exhausting. He puts oomph in the AARP set, he reaches out and touches every fan and he makes grandmas feel so good so good so good.
Every song was familiar to any Diamond fan. There was nothing -- disappointingly -- from his excellent stripped-down albums in the '00s with super-producer Rick Rubin. But at least Diamond essayed some of his oldies in that style -- allowing his acoustic guitar to drive and frame "Kentucky Woman," "Solitary Man" and "Glory Road." It found him in his finest voice -- frankly, there were some vocal issues during the show -- and forgetting about the grand hand gestures, which usually end every song.
When Diamond finishes one of his songs, it is sung and he lets you know with a flourish worthy of Liza with a Z on Broadway. Of course, that kind of slow-motion drama has become Diamond's stage signature. Forget all the Vegas slickster accusations. This Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is an old-school showman, a New Yorker who mixes the song-and-dance of vaudeville with Tin Pan Alley-inspired tunes. In other words, he's the perfect mix of ham and cheesy.
Diamond sold sincerity like a human greeting card, turning his dramatic songs into four-minute versions of a Telemundo soap. He encored with the unassailable combination of country (a heroic "America") and God (a histrionic "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"). He attempted to turn "I'm a Believer" into a sit-on-a-chair Leonard Cohen-like dirge. But, as the ensuing full band rocking version of "Believer" proved, the song is pop bubblegum, not poignant poetry.
Going to Neil Diamond for poignancy (unless you truly buy the existential pretensions of "I Am ... I Said") is like going to Springsteen to hear Top 40 pop. Diamond is the master of melodies and ear-worms -- those catchy choruses that you can't get out of your head. You go for the mass karaoke thrill of singing along with "Forever in Blue Jeans," "Holly Holy" and, of course, "Sweet Caroline," whose chorus he reprised three times -- twice insisting that the crowd take it in a higher key.
Speaking of which, Diamond took several of his songs in lower keys. His voice sounded a little froggy, especially on "Caroline," but at other times, notably on "Play Me" and "Solitary Man," his voice soared like a cantor's on Yom Kippur.
That's something that neither Dylan nor Simon could ever claim.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream