He has killer songs, Mephistophelean eyebrows and the ability to rock sparkly shirts like nobody's business. His voice has retained that husky lady-man's cool, and he's still making decent records three years removed from his 70th birthday.
And yet, as Neil Diamond took a large open stage Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum, there lurked another reason why he remains one of the most bankable touring acts in pop. It has to do with ham, and cheese, and William Shatner's line readings. It has to do with the way he prowled the stage during Play Me like a Shakespearean actor, clutching a mike instead of a skull. It has to do with the soap opera drama lurking in all of us.
For 100 minutes, 13,604 fans (a smallish crowd for him, but still a good one) ate up the gaudy glory that is Neil being Neil.
Mixing in cuts from new album Home Before Dark, a moody meditation produced by hip producer Rick Rubin, Diamond, backed by a 14-piece band of horns and guitars and wailing singers, chugged out all the hits with gusto: opening salvo Holly Holy, Love on the Rocks, the life-affirming Cherry, Cherry ("Gonna make our own lightning!"). He's known for having the best sound system around, and the folks in the rafters sure appreciated that.
A few months ago, Diamond's voice gave out on him. Although he had some trouble hitting and holding a few notes, he was once again sounding stellar and secure. "I got my first professional gig here in Tampa," he said. "And here we are again, 42 years later."
Dancing around the stage not unlike John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Diamond built his set list in the same manner he's crafted the classics: by inching closer and closer to that crescendo until — socko! — the whole joint, old and young, was up on its feet.
After relatively quiet readings of the title track from Home Before Dark and the new Pretty Amazing Grace, he unloaded a steady assault of sonic joy: the booming I Am … I Said, Solitary Man and Sweet Caroline, which was played once, then revisited, when his fans demanded more. (In Tampa, screaming along to Sweet Caroline feels especially so good! so good! so good! in the wake of the Rays beating the Red Sox, who have made this their unofficial anthem.)
Strumming a sleek black guitar, he turned I'm a Believer into a tent revival stomp, nearly unrecognizable but still retaining its pure heart.
Some songs, however, you just don't mess with: For an encore version of America, with the current backdrop of heated national politics, he summoned all the passion and gravitas he could muster. It was hokey. It was Velveety. And, of course, I bought every single patriotic second of it.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.