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Robert Hilburn : Warming A Cool August Night

August 16, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

Neil Diamond.

It's funny how those are almost fighting words.

To the 84,000 fans who gobbled up the tickets to Diamond's record-breaking 14-night engagement at the Greek Theatre, Diamond stands virtually alone among pop performers. His songs about reaching for fragile dreams have much the same comforting, inspiring ring for his generally conservative, middle-age audience as Bruce Springsteen's songs offer a younger and more progressive following.

Detractors, however, dismiss Diamond as arrogant and shallow. They may secretly enjoy some of the early hits--like "Sweet Caroline" or "Cherry Cherry"--but ridicule the bulk of his output--from the robust self-affirmation of "I Am I Said" to the wide-screen romanticism of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers"--as hopeless melodrama. Yecch.

Even though the outdoor venue was filled with loyalists Thursday, there was a tension as Diamond stepped on stage. There were lots of reasons why his "homecoming" could have been a bust.

The main one was that he had to compete with the expectations resulting from his 1972 "Hot August Night" stand at the Greek. It remains among the most celebrated series of shows by a mainstream pop-rock performer ever in Los Angeles.

Diamond did return triumphantly to the Greek in 1976, but he was armed with new songs from his most artistically ambitious album, "Beautiful Noise." His recent albums have been nowhere near that quality.

But Diamond adroitly sidesteped the dangers Thursday. One secret to the success of the opening night show was that he didn't try to stubbornly force the new material down the audience's throat. He realized that most of the fans wanted to hear the old tunes and he performed them with a gentleness and warmth that gave the evening a winning edge.

The concert doesn't deserve to be called a triumph because it didn't represent a dramatic extension of his accomplishments in his earlier Greek appearances. But it was a major victory--an open, embracing evening.

The cards looked stacked against Diamond before the curtain went up. Even the weather failed to cooperate. If there is a live album from this show, it'd have to be called "Cool August Night."

When things did begin, the stage was a blaze of green lasers and crisscrossing searchlights. Diamond came out wearing a glittery blue shirt (yet again) and black pants. He was so hyped up during the techno-pop "Headed for the Future" that he seemed to be skipping barefoot across some hot coals.

This hard sell appeared designed to say to the audience: Try to ever forget this great opening.

Or maybe just: I Still Am . . . I Said.

He then followed with an overblown version of "I'm Alive," turning on the house lights every time he got to the chorus--presumably to reassure everyone that they, too, are alive.

I was ready at this point to cast my ballot with the detractors.

But the evening soon took a dramatic turn. Diamond did away with the excesses. Though he later brought out the lasers and a huge American flag during "America," the tone most of the evening was similar to the sing-along warmth of his most inviting songs. He was serenading the audience as if they were a bunch of old friends, rather than critics to be won over. So, you could overlook some of the corn.

The truth is Diamond--at least the early Diamond--is much underrated artistically. While guilty in recent years of belabored ballads, he has also written a wide range of first-rate songs, the best of which are far more engaging than the work of such mainstream pop rivals as Billy Joel and Barry Manilow. They range from the rock-edged introspection of "Solitary Man" to the sophisticated trimmings of "Beautiful Noise" to the strongly poetic edges of "If You Know What I Mean."

Diamond connected the songs by low-key stories about what was going on in his life when he wrote them, and he graciously shared the spotlight with his female backup singer and several members of his eight-piece band during a lengthy and good-natured introduction.

In many ways, the evening--which was enhanced by excellent lighting and sound--had the nostalgic atmosphere of a high school reunion, where people are hopeful of reliving fond times. Diamond gave the audience more than that: He allowed it to go away with some rich new memories. Even many of his detractors would probably have been lulled into unclenching their fists and clapping along when he got to "Sweet Caroline."

LIVE ACTION--Elton John will be at the Universal Amphitheatre on Oct. 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12. Tickets go on sale Monday. . . . Tickets also go on sale Monday for Steve Winwood's Oct. 24 date at the Pacific Amphitheatre. . . . R.E.M. will be at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Sept. 24 and the Universal Amphitheatre on Sept. 30. . . . Elvis Costello will do a unique series of shows Oct. 1 to 5 at the Beverly Theatre. He'll appear in a different format each night: solo one night, different bands other nights. . . . New Edition, Morris Day and the Jets will be at the Forum on Aug. 31. . . . the Ramones will be at the Hollywood Palladium on Sept. 13, while the Smithereens are due Sept. 2 at the Roxy.

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