Older, toned-down Diamond lets his songs sparkle instead


By Melissa Ruggieri

Published: December 9, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE For years, non-Neil Diamond worshippers carried on about what a joke of a performer he was, that despite his obvious talents as a songwriter (that line about the chair in “I Am, I Said” is an obvious exception), it was difficult to appreciate under the stacks of cheese.

But now, this 67-year-old Diamond is a subdued character, a laid-back guy who still might occasionally thrust his fist in the air to punctuate a lyric, but he is more content traveling through his five decades of hits in a simple black suit and on an expansive but clutter-free stage.

Nary a hint of sequins or snug pants were glimpsed during his two-hour set at John Paul Jones Arena last night.

But what was presented in ample dose were Diamond’s strengths.

He didn’t need to do much with his acoustic guitar given the crackerjack 14-piece band backing him, but he caressed it nonstop through “Holy Holy” and “Cherry Cherry,” prancing in step on the small platform that slid across the lip of the stage.

And Diamond’s voice, which in the past has sounded like he swallowed a box of nails, was a warm, robust rasp all show, sounding particularly effective on “Love on the Rocks,” one of those aching ballads that is his signature.

Diamond also still possesses the ability to charm, even though he didn’t need to do much except wiggle his prominent eyebrows at the women in the crowd to elicit schoolgirl-like squeals — “Play Me,” in particular, had a bizarre aphrodisiac effect.

Diamond’s newfound muted persona can be credited to producer Rick Rubin, who encouraged the singer to strip his songs bare with 2005’s excellent album “12 Songs” and this year’s equally potent “Home Before Dark.”

Sitting on a stool, Diamond crooned the title track of “Home,” adopting the role of a melancholy storyteller with obvious comfort, and strummed through “Pretty Amazing Grace.” That song recently hit the adult-contemporary charts, marking his first solo hit in about 15 years.

But it was the double-punch of “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “Sweet Caroline” that turned the arena into a giant karaoke bar, with 7,000 people “ba-ba-baaaa”-ing their way through the song’s giddy chorus.

Even though a more restrained Diamond was on display all night, it still might have been expected to see a mammoth American flag unfurl a the start of the rousing “America,” as has been tradition throughout his touring career.

But nope, just some pulsating lights and Diamond’s patented index-finger-to-the sky pose.

Considering that barely a decade ago Diamond on stage signified the Las Vegas of old at its tacky worst, it’s a relief to see him spotlighted as a musician who has decided to age gracefully.
Contact Melissa Ruggieri at (804) 649-6120 or mruggieri@timesdispatch.com .

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