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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Diamond Tells L.A. Hello Again, Lets His Songs Speak for Him

June 30, 1989|PAUL GREIN

Imagine the pressure on Neil Diamond as he approached his record-breaking 10-night engagement at the Forum.

Though the veteran singer-songwriter has been a favorite with Los Angeles concert audiences since the early '70s, the Forum stand represented a daunting challenge: Diamond was playing to a phenomenal 187,590 primed and eager fans.

Diamond must have been sorely tempted to spritz up his show with lots of crowd-pleasing gimmicks to ensure that it would live up to all the anticipation. Maybe a montage of patriotic images for "America" . . . or clips of vintage TV appearances for "I'm a Believer" . . . or a series of family snapshots for "Heartlight."

But Diamond resisted the temptation Wednesday night, letting his songs speak for themselves. The result was an evening that had less razzle-dazzle and seemed less forced than his 1986 show at the Greek Theatre, his most recent Los Angeles appearance.

That confidence in and commitment to his material helps set Diamond apart from such other pop superstars as Barry Manilow and Diana Ross, whose concerts these days tend to focus on glitzy special effects to the point of short-changing the performers' musical histories.

Diamond's show had virtually no glitz: No costume changes. No medleys. No elaborate stage set. No props. No intermission. No opening act. Diamond proved that "middle-of-the-road" performers don't have to succumb to the gaudy trappings of a Las Vegas show, but can make it simply on the strength of their music.

It helps that Diamond has 23 years of material to draw from and that his songs cover such a wide range of tempos and moods, from the exhilarating "Cracklin' Rosie" to the brooding "I Am . . . I Said" . . . from the graceful pop tones of "Sweet Caroline" to the galvanizing gospel fervor of "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show."

Though Diamond hasn't had a Top 10 hit since 1982, he didn't allow the show to become strictly an oldies session as have, say, the Beach Boys. Ten of the 30 songs were from this decade, including four from Diamond's current album, "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Because the show was so tightly formatted, the general deterioration in the quality of Diamond's songwriting in the past decade wasn't apparent. The selections from the new album held their own amid all the oldies, though it's noteworthy that the most affecting of the new songs--the confessional ballad "Baby, Can I Hold You Tonight"--was written not by Diamond but by Tracy Chapman.

The show's tight format allowed just one surprise--a quirky, baroque-jazz arrangement of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"--and even that was well-rehearsed. Diamond explained that he has included it ever since the tour began in December.

Diamond and his nine-member backup band may be a little too well-rehearsed. His version of "Solitary Man"--one of his most engaging songs--was especially slick, lacking the lean, rock-edged dynamics of his 1966 single. And "The Best Years of Our Lives" lacked the anthemic fervor of the Springsteen-esque album version.

Diamond pushed too hard vocally on the opening numbers, overpowering the conversational intimacy of "Hello Again." But he soon relaxed and hit his stride.

The Brooklyn native was in good spirits, wryly updating the reference to Los Angeles in "I Am . . . I Said" to "Palm trees blow / And rents used to be low. . . ." He also mimicked UB40's recent reggae version of his 1968 song, "Red, Red Wine," even including a lighthearted rap about the British group's rendition reaching No. 1 last fall.

The striking laser and lighting effects--the one concession to big-time show-biz--added a lot to the show. Though used rather heavily, they never distracted from the music.

For all the speculation about why Diamond is such a concert box-office phenomenon, the answer may be as simple as his integrity and confidence as a performer. Other pop entertainers would do well to follow his example and call in the glitzbusters.

The sold-out engagement continues through July 10, with Saturday, Monday and Tuesday off.

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