TAMPA — Neil Diamond raised a superheroic eyebrow, lifted a hand with slow magician's intensity and intoned: "We're here to make some beautiful noise tonight." Then, punctuating his delivery as only the William Shatner of rock can, he asked the Tampa Bay Times Forum crowd, "Can you handle it?"
Haha! I love that guy! At 71 years old, one of the greatest songwriters and showmen, in the history of popsmanship can still deliver all the ham and cheese and gooey sing-along goodness you crave. Dressed in a sparkly black jacket (natch) and backed by a crack 14-piece band, Diamond packed his two-hour Sunday show with hit after hit, crescendo after crescendo.
Money in the bank, baby.
At one point, Diamond commenced I'm a Believer as a slow pained ballad, but at the risk of robbing the 12,382 diehards here from their giddy expectations, he set his band loose midway through and ended the song just like God and the Monkees intended: as a scooty good-time jam.
Diamond built his setlist the same way he wrote his classic cuts: a tingly beginning (Soolaimon), a frisky bridge (Done Too Soon) and then the big payoff (Forever in Blue Jeans, Love on the Rocks, Play Me). His concert sound system has always been legendary in the music biz, so even those in the cheap seats got a crisp, clean show.
Making John and Mary Daly (not to mention their son, who was properly raised on this stuff) very happy, Diamond raised the volume for Crunchy Granola Suite from his 1972 live masterpiece, Hot August Night.
Diamond's true gift, and a chief reason for his career longevity, is his ability to connect, staring into the masses with those serious eyes and letting them know they're special.
For us, this nugget: "This city has the dubious honor of being the first city in the world that paid me to sing. You paid me to sing."
He added with a smile: "And I'll never forgive you."
But as the chuckles died down, he unsheathed a solemn dagger: "I was born in this city."
Wow, I believe Neil Diamond just gave me the vapors!
Rubbing our delighted faces in the depth of his songbook, Diamond kept 'em coming: the life-affirming Cherry, Cherry (which might be the perfect song), Holly Holy (pretty darn good, too) and, of course, Sweet Caroline. Sure, you think you're sick of that one — especially since the Fenway Faithful have claimed it as their own — until you hear Diamond unload that beauty in concert, reviving that chorus over and over again. "So good! So good! So good!"
So sue me: I'm man-crushing on Neil. And why not? His voice is holding up pretty well. But does it even matter? The existential pap of I Am ... I Said has always been a spoken-word doozy, and here he uttered it with presidential gravitas.
For encore versions of Cracklin' Rosie and over-the-top immigrant song America (look, there's a bald eagle on the video screen!) the jubilant crowd — old men, young women, the works — stood in fist-pumping salute.
Yep, everyone's welcome in the Neil Diamond Fan Club. And bless the shameless hall of famer for still adding to his list of true believers.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.