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.”
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