Concert review: Neil Diamond at United Center

Neil Diamond clutches the microphone in his right hand, and makes music with his left. It sweeps, points, punches, waves, swerves and skips an imaginary lasso.

It blows moist kisses in the direction of the balconies. It clutches an unseen skull, a Brooklyn-born Hamlet addressing poor Yorick in the darkness at the end of “I Am … I Said.” And it reaches out and clasps the grasping hands of two female admirers in the front row while they’re serenaded with “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon.”

When Diamond dropped to his knees Friday to smooch those two admirers, it prompted a Justin Bieber-like ripple of hysteria through the sold-out United Center.  

Except these weren’t songs of teen puppy love, but of a 71-year-old sensitive loner in a sequined shirt. Diamond compressed most of the on-stage drama into a few compact gestures as he sailed through 24 songs in nearly two hours.

The lean, seemingly ageless singer started out his career as a tunesmith without a genre in New York in the early ‘60s, a child of the Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building song-for-hire tradition. He emerged just as the rock and singer-songwriter eras bloomed, and soon became a skilled performer in his own right. His songs – including 38 top-40 hits -- have been covered by artists ranging from UB40 to Urge Overkill, but nobody does the solitary-man shtick better or more persuasively than Diamond himself.

Diamond’s sensitivity sometimes dissolves into schmaltz. He often slowed songs down Friday, at times speaking the lyrics as much as singing them. “I’m a Believer” was turned into a weary elegy before reprising the Monkees’ garage-rock version. As the music by his 14-piece band fell to a whisper, Diamond intoned the payoff lines in “Done Too Soon” and “Play Me” as if they were engraved in blocks of granite. But there’s also something genuine, even touching, about his irony-free delivery.

Diamond’s voice remains supple and his phrasing has become more nuanced, so the ballad-heavy early portion of the show had an appealing Sinatra-at-closing-time vibe. “Pour me a drink, I’ll tell you some lies,” he sang with appropriately world-weary resignation in “Love on the Rocks.” It wasn’t quite jazz, but it was the work of a fine vocal interpreter, putting a fresh spin on some of his most familiar material.

He was at his best with an acoustic guitar strapped around his neck, driving the rhythm and locking in with his great drummer, Ron Tutt (a former member of Elvis Presley’s touring band). Diamond’s guitar riff on “Cherry, Cherry” is worthy of Keith Richards, and the ripple of the acoustic six-strings against the staccato horns still works on the unassailable “Solitary Man” (with its equally great and pithy kiss-off line, “Me and Sue, that died too”). Best of all was “Holly Holy,” with Diamond snarling as the band rode atop Tutt’s resounding kick-drum volleys.

There were sing-alongs and more sing-alongs. Certain songs demanded them because the choruses seem to have been implanted in several generations of fans at birth: “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” and especially “Sweet Caroline,” which was stretched to 10 minutes and repeated three times. With each, Diamond directed, his expressive eyebrows scrunched in concentration or arching in delight, his left hand etching little symphonies in the spotlight.     

Neil Diamond set list Friday at the United Center:

1 Soolaimon (African Trilogy II)
2 Done Too Soon
3 Beautiful Noise
4 Forever in Blue Jeans
5 Love on the Rocks
6 Play Me
7 Hello Again
8 Shilo
9 Red Red Wine
10 You Got To Me
11 Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon
12 Cherry, Cherry
13 Solitary Man
14 Glory Road
15 I'm a Believer
16 You Don't Bring Me Flowers
17 Crunchy Granola Suite
18 Holly Holy
19 Sweet Caroline
20 I Am ... I Said

21 Cracklin' Rosie
22 America
23 Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show
24 I've Been This Way Before

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has sued Chicago's former red light camera operator, Redflex Traffic Systems, for more than $300 million on grounds the entire program was built on a $2 million bribery scheme at City Hall that has already led to federal corruption convictions.

  • Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    Marrow's 'The Gold Standard' raises the Chicago rock bar

    The four musicians in Marrow know quite a bit about bringing diverse influences to the table. After all, three of them, singer-guitarist Liam Kazar, singer-keyboardist Macie Stewart and bassist Lane Beckstrom were in Kids These Days, a now-defunct septet that combined jazz, funk, rap and rock in...

  • The Kids These Days family tree

    The Kids These Days family tree

    From its 2009 beginnings to its 2013 demise, Chicago's Kids These Days seemed like one of the most promising acts the city had seen in years. While the band split up at the height of its hype, its members have since gone on to do bigger and better things—seriously impressive considering the hip-hop/rock/jazz...

  • Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    After the dissolution of Kids These Days, the much-buzzed about Chicago fusion-jazz-rock-rap septet that split in spring 2013 just a few months after releasing its only album, “Traphouse Rock,” some of its members spent what seems like all of 20 minutes bandless. "We were driving back from the...

  • Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Welcome to RedEye's "Song of the Day," an ongoing feature where music reporter Josh Terry or another RedEye staff member highlights something they're listening to. Some days the track will be new, and some days it will be old. No matter what, each offering is something you should check out. Check...

  • GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    Technical difficulties at GrubHub and Seamless over the weekend drove hordes of hangry would-be customers to air their grievances on social media. The food ordering and delivery sites, which merged in 2013 and use GrubHub’s back-end technology, errantly accepted payments on Saturday evening without...