- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

A Neil Diamond production remains a sparkling gem, even if that gem is cubic zirconium.

Mr. Diamond, he of the sugarcoated songbook and schmaltzy veneer, visited the MCI Center on Wednesday.

In black from head to toe — from his sequin-encrusted jumpsuit to his still-dark locks — Mr. Diamond was received rapturously. His faithful aren’t just baby boomers dreamy-eyed with nostalgia. At MCI, a generationally diverse crowd cheered and sang as if he were Ashlee Simpson lip-syncing her pretty little heart out.

Maybe the irony of embracing their parents’ music didn’t register. More likely, songs such as “Sweet Caroline” simply render cultural chasms moot.

Mr. Diamond’s smoky tenor sounded a tad hoarse initially, but the gruffness lent character to such confections as “Desiree” and “I Am … I Said.” Less forgivably, he sporadically talk-sang, like a lazy lounge singer who knows the crowd’s too drunk to notice.

The twin big screens flanking the singer were surprisingly kind. Mr. Diamond’s hair is thinning, but much of it remains, and his frame is lithe enough to justify the jumpsuit. Whatever concessions to age he couldn’t camouflage only endeared him to a crowd with its fair share of chrome domes and paunches.

Mr. Diamond, 64, had more than a little help from his friends Wednesday night. His 14-member band supplied all the brassy kicks and electric guitar flourishes his work requires, and the three backup singers provided an angelic complement to his signature sound.

But oh, the patter, that focus-grouped chit-chat that introduces songs or lets him take a breather, sounded like it could have been culled from any of his tours over the past 30 years. How could this troubadour, who has remained near the pinnacle of the music industry since the tumultuous ‘60s, not have great stories to share?

He introduced his crowd-pleasing classic “America” with a video montage of immigrants streaming to Ellis Island — and even Michael Moore might have dabbed at his eyes from the blend of photos and Mr. Diamond’s unapologetic optimism.

The singer’s phrasing on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” was so melodramatic that it bordered on parody, yet he tackled “Forever in Blue Jeans” with all the cocksure posing of a rock god.

The closest the night came to a confessional was when he recalled his days strumming his guitar in Greenwich Village coffee shops. He realized then and there, he said, that his dreamier ballads wouldn’t pay the rent. The memory segued into something he wrote for the Monkees as a songwriter for hire, the semiobscure “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).”

He mixed such less-familiar material into his set but always returned to classics such as “Cherry, Cherry” and “Play Me,” the latter milked for all its emotional worth.

Mr. Diamond remains the musical equivalent of comfort food, but it’s fare that still can fill arenas just as surely as much younger acts such as U2 and Coldplay.

Should his upcoming album, recorded with ultrahip producer Rick Rubin, score as intended, the throngs hanging on his every note could get even younger.

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