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The Grammys: The Concerts

Solitary man? No way.

A star-studded tribute to Neil Diamond spans generations and genres.

February 09, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

It was one of those Grammy events, full of unlikely bedfellows. Whoever thought Nash Kato of the band Urge Overkill, Chicago's erstwhile indie rock lizard king, would tread the same boards as operatic man-genue Josh Groban? Or that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill would share an inspiration with the Foo Fighters? Or that the Jonas Brothers and jazz great Cassandra Wilson would even be in the same room?

The 19th annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala, which benefits the Recording Academy foundation that aids musicians in crisis, always draws a cross section of stars. But this year's event was well-balanced across genres and generations.

Honoring Neil Diamond was a smart move. He attracted a capacity crowd to this pricey evening, raising cash for a worthy cause that, as academy and MusiCares President and Chief Executive Neil Portnow explained in his introductory speech, serves more needy artists than ever. Diamond also provided a songbook that's friendly to every style.

Jennifer Hudson earned whoops from the crowd as she turned Diamond's "Holly Holy," into a real soul declaration. Wilson, duetting with trumpeter Terence Blanchard on "September Morn" found the sensuality in the spaces between Diamond's words.

These triumphs were matched by the night's feel-good story, told by Diamond in a pretaped segment. He spun a yarn about calling Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and asking whether he'd play the benefit, only to discover he was speaking with Seattle-based Tejano musician Eddie Rodriguez. So he invited that Eddie to appear instead. (Chris Cornell seemed happy to fill in for his brother in grunge, rocking a baritone on "Kentucky Woman.")

In truth, Diamond had seen Rodriguez and his band, Los Volcanes, on television while in Texas aiding victims of Hurricane Ike. The crowd loved Los Volcanes as it performed "Red Red Wine" and gave the group a standing ovation.

The only off notes came from the younger acts. The Jonas Brothers seemed out of their league on "Forever in Blue Jeans." Adele might have sipped a little syrup before "Cracklin' Rosie," her delivery was so sleepy. Maybe you have to have sung Diamond's songs as a kid to capture their viscosity and grit. Chris Martin is only 31, but he led his band, Coldplay, through a beguiling acoustic version of "I'm a Believer."

At 27, Groban is "mature" for his age, so it was no surprise that his unironic reading of the swinger's manifesto "Play Me" worked. Eric Benet and Raul Malo had success underplaying the melodrama in Diamond's work. McGraw, performing "Hello Again," sounded the most like Diamond.

Ultimately, none of the performers, except maybe Hudson, could match Diamond's charisma, which he trotted out at evening's end. After a thank-you speech, the singer dismissed the backing band, brought on his ensemble and offered several favorites.

The highlight came when Hill joined Diamond to sing "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." The devotees in the room loved it. They even got on their feet. The crowd's staid mood -- until the man himself took command -- was the only disappointment in a Diamond night.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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