With his deep, talky vocals, grandiose musicality, and catalog of hits, Neil Diamond has a special foothold in the marketplace, on showy display Sunday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
He was a swinging pop songwriter of the 1960s Brill Building era, a self-conscious post-folkie poet in the late '60s and early '70s, a prince of schmaltz and king of AOR soft rock in the late '70s through the '90s, and a journeyman who returned to his roots in the 2000s. His Melody Road of 2014 recalls his Technicolor arrangements and dramatic anthems of the '70s, the pomp of Hot August Night.
He reminded Sunday's audience that that album was from 43 years ago - then launched into the weird, winding baroque of "Crunchy Granola Suite" and the quasi-gospel piano of "Holly Holy."
Diamond was lean and engaging - even through the corny Jamaican patois of "Red Red Wine," in which his singing was at its most fluid, despite a comic spoken intro that was off-putting. His best moments came when he and his 13-piece band were era-appropriate. "Cherry Cherry," with its Cool Jerk rhythm and Latin-tinged pop-soul jauntiness, brought him back to the stoop of the Brill Building back when it was the New York mecca for music. The mildly raunchy brass, harmonica, and Bo Diddleyish kick of "You Got to Me" was pure bad side of Vegas, 1971. "Thank the Lord for the Night Time" was Diamond's version of what garage rock and gospel music meant to him in 1967 - a little fuzzy guitar here, a little uplift there. With its saccharine instrumentation, John Barry-like sweep, and cheesy, oxygenated sax break, "Love on the Rocks" was all of 1980 rolled into five elegantly grizzled minutes.
There were a few clunkers: the turgid new "The Art of Love," the equally listless "Beautiful Noise," some chintzy synth strings.
His delivery - a flinty yet tuneful fireside chat of a voice - has taken on Dylanish nuance, as Diamond ended his stanzas (as in "Hello Again") with a crusty downturn. New songs like the bittersweet "Something Blue" had a surprising country kick, while "Nothing But a Heartache" was classic, all chamber-poppy and open-throated. The crowd positively lusted for the "Sweet Caroline" sing-along, but this reviewer was happiest when Diamond got grand but stately ("I Am . . . I Said") and went for the theatricality of "Shilo."