Thursday, August 7, 2008

The stretch limos were lined up outside the Verizon Center on Tuesday night, disgorginga steady stream of Gucci loafers, well-cut suits and expensively understated jewelry. Little wonder — Neil Diamond was in town, and a generation that came of age to “Sweet Caroline” was not about to miss the event.

Over the past 40 years, Mr. Diamond has become a venerable American icon, racking up record sales of 125 million. As he proved in a roaring two-hour concert, he’s still going strong — and his fans are as crazy about him as ever.

Those who loved the Neil Diamond of old — the one who performed in spectacularly garish shirts and milked the sap from every last note — were in for a surprise, though. At 67, the singer-songwriter has largely toned down his famous flash. Dressed almost starkly in a black jacket and pants, with a brown embroidered shirt that lacked even a single sequin, Mr. Diamond sang with little of the overwrought drama that often turned his performances into schmaltz. Older and wiser now, he largely put the focus back on the music itself.

It worked. The near-capacity crowd went into rapture from the opening notes of “Holly Holy” and stayed that way through an evening that included almost two dozen of Mr. Diamond’s greatest hits.

The singer clearly was having a great time, strumming a black guitar and floating around the stage on a moving platform. His inimitable baritone isn’t as supple and resonant as it once was — it has an agreeable, weathered edge to it now — but he’s a powerful singer, a natural performer and, apparently, still a sex symbol.

“Shall we dance?” he flirted with the audience, which rose en masse for “Cherry, Cherry,” wives pulling husbands to their feet. When he stripped off his jacket in “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” the arena filled with so much female cheering that even the horn section was drowned out. On it went, as Mr. Diamond — backed by a full band and three backup singers — stormed through feel-good favorites from “I Am … I Said” and “Beautiful Noise” to the heartfelt “Play Me.”

“But that was then, and this is now,” he said, introducing three songs from his intriguingly personal new Rick Rubin-produced album, “Home Before Dark.” Opening with the introspective title track — a song of rare beauty — and moving on to “Don’t Go There” and “Pretty Amazing Grace,” he showed a new side of himself — quieter, subtler and far more intimate than the stadium-sized emotionalism of his big hits.

Good as they were — and they were superb — the new songs met with only polite applause; the audience really was there for the favorites, and Mr. Diamond obliged them. “Solitary Man” and “Forever in Blue Jeans” got the crowd to its feet, but the high point came in the classic “Sweet Caroline.” Arms in the air, the audience sang the refrain of “so good, so good, so good” at the top of its lungs — ending in such deafening applause that Mr. Diamond brought the song back for two more choruses.

Things got more than a little kitschy during “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” when Mr. Diamond sat at a table with a wineglass and a single rose to sing a duet with backup singer Linda Press. “Brooklyn Roads” — which featured home movies from Mr. Diamond’s youth projected onto giant screens over the stage — overflowed with earnest sincerity. However, the gospel-inflected “Man of God” and “Hell Yeah” came off with real conviction, and the closing encores (which included “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “America”) were pure Diamond: big, heartfelt and larger than life in every way.

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