Neil Diamond doesn't have to sing anymore; he can just stand onstage and declare. This is a good thing, since, as evidenced by his Tuesday, Sept. 20, show at KeyArena, he doesn't quite have the kind of ageless energy that makes, say, Tom Jones appear to be hopped up on monkey gland injections. Oh, Uncle Neil was still decked out in a black, sparkly appliquéd outfit that suggested he was going to sweep your favorite aunt out the door to paint the town red tonight, baby. Yet the cozy, mild exertions of his current tour came off less like a big star's big-budget bonanza than the recollections of a noble troubadour showing off for his buddies in the back room of a favorite pub. And, hell, who wouldn't want to be at that pub?
It's easy to be ironic about Diamond, but less simple to place yourself above the joys of an arena full of exultant followers all singing "Sweet Caroline" at the top of their lungs. Diamond's oeuvre ranks in the upper echelon of sing-along ecstasies, so his show worked exactly as expected when he just laid back, wandered the stage, and talked/sung his thousands of old friends through comfortably rousing memories of "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "America" (accompanied, naturally, by video clips of the immigrant experience).
You had to know what you were in for, and you got it: the band rising dramatically from beneath the stage; glitzed-up, middle-aged women in the audience flashing their breasts; the kooky, brazen backup singer willing to make out with Neil at the end of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers"; standard cheesy shtick like Neil "rapping" a UB40 tribute during "Red, Red Wine," the Diamond original that the British band took to the top of the charts in 1988. There was a lot of roaming and striking of climactic poses, and the pushing of that raspy vibrato for applause on a final note.
But who knew the old guy would dare to pull the Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack—cue the bird video montage—out of his pocket? More surprising (and palatable) is that many of Diamond's classics actually work better since he's reached the age to truly embody the wistful reminiscing written into them. The packaged, world-weary nostalgia of his songs has earned its pretense the longer Diamond has hung around; they've softened a lot of their tendency toward kitschy pop bravado. "Shiloh," "Play Me," "Love on the Rocks," even the bombastic "I Am . . . I Said" sounded damn close to ruminative in the expressive tones of Neil's present rumble. You could try to laugh it off as sentiment, but why bother ignoring what the man can now summon from lines like "New York's home/But it ain't mine anymore"? As the song goes, he's never cared for the sound of being alone.