Live Review: Neil Diamond in Jacksonville, or, The Precise Midpoint Between Sheer Magnificence And Hideous Terror

800px-neil_diamond_2

He is, he said.

Florida Times-Union — The two sides of Neil Diamond — the fantastic Tin Pan Alley songwriter and the glitter-dripping Vegas bush elephant — coexist in a state of uneasy peace, like Simon and Garfunkel, or Leno and Letterman, or Cartman and Butters. They’re cool at the dinner table, but you get the sense that the minute no one’s looking, they’re thinking about how totally great it would be to stab the other with a salad fork.

Before we go any further, full disclosure: I’m 30 years old, younger than many of the songs Diamond uncorked to the nearly full house at the arena on Monday night, and my allegiances lie with that first Neil. Sweet Caroline Neil. Cracklin’ Rosie Neil. Anything-That-Doesn’t-Involve-Love-On-Any-Rocks Neil.

So when you’re writing your hate mail in about five minutes, I urge you to begin with a snarky gag involving my age (and please, stick with e-mail. If you leave me a voice mail, no one will hear it. Not even my chair).

Because to an observer who wasn’t around for those Solitary Man days, what’s so fascinating is how the seemingly counterintuitive chapters of Diamond’s past assimilate into a whole that, at a fantastic-looking 64, can produce a show at the near-mathematical midpoint between pure magnificence and hideous terror.

For example, Cherry Cherry and Forever in Blue Jeans came off as near-perfect pop timelessness, while I spent a medley of songs involving a seagull dreaming up ways to kill myself with my shoelaces.

Diamond sticks to the lower register these days, his band doesn’t have much punch in it and he doesn’t prowl the stage so much as saunter around it as if looking for his reading glasses. But the man’s a showbiz cyborg — “I go where the noise is,” he challenged the crowd early on, in just one display of old-school stage-patter genius — and a consummate-to-the-point-of-being-kinda-weird professional. And he served up two precise hours of what can best be described as a musical comfort cheese tray, and one of America’s most enduring at that.

Few could argue that Diamond’s at his best when he cedes the spotlight to his melodies, as he did on the one-two punch of I’m A Believer and Sweet Caroline, or the expertly soaring Holly Holy, or a schticky but potent Red Red Wine that gave a backhanded high-five to the UB40 version. And when he pulls out the lonely stool for I Am I Said, or puts on his acting face for You Don’t Bring Me Flowers — which, like every song performed on Monday, was brought to closure by a sweeping hand gesture that one might perform were one to release a baby white dove into the wild — a wave of viscous liquid cheese pours off the stage and down into the crowd, threatening to destroy everything in its path. Introducing that suite from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Diamond said, “It is a journey painted on the canvas of the soul.” Uh . . . right. Who needs a beer?

None of this is to suggest that Diamond is no longer bringing it — he is certainly in good, if no longer top, form. He wielded the acoustic guitar for You Got to Me and Kentucky Woman. He did Thank the Lord for the Night Time with the energy of a man half his age.

And then he dug into America, which, after all the years, remains overwrought and obvious enough that it’s a wonder Meat Loaf didn’t think of it first, and Love on the Rocks, garnished with a series of facial grimaces that you might expect from a man who’s passing a live squirrel through his colon. Anywhere else, repeated exposure to such stylistic turbulence could cause a permanent shifting of one’s posture, but at the Neil show, it’s just the way the world spins.

It’s that ragged back-and-forth that keeps Diamond from enjoying the level of songwriting acclaim he deserves, and ends up giving him a lot of acclaim he doesn’t. And since everyone is quite happy with the arrangement, that’s the way it’ll be for the forseeable future, until Neil’s battery runs out. Meantime, pass the cheese, please.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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