Chicks dig spangly crooners.

Boy, do they ever.

As Neil Diamond, wearing a shiny black shirt studded with red-and-white rhinestones, pranced around the stage Wednesday night and belted out song after melodramatic song in that sonorous baritone of his, the mature women who'd flocked to nearly full MCI Center swooned.

They gazed longingly at the aging American idol and waved their arms from side to side. And when they simply couldn't hold back any longer, they shrieked, particularly upon hearing Diamond purr: "I one day woke up to find her lying beside my bed / I softly said, 'Come take me.' " The heated reaction prompted a mock-incredulous Diamond to remind the crowd: "It's only a song."

He may specialize in grandiloquent songs with lyrics that tend to be either idealistic or lugubrious, but he's still got some semblance of a sense of humor.

Neil Diamond remains one of the more polarizing figures in pop music, a man whose artistic legacy is a source of considerable debate. His music has been dismissed by more than a few critics as pablum, even as he has received a lifetime achievement award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and is pushed annually as a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

Rick Rubin has cast his vote, too. The mercurial producer (who, among other things, made Johnny Cash matter again) has come down on the side of Neil Diamond, Significant Artist: Adding to a resume that ranges from Run-DMC and Weezer to Red Hot Chili Peppers and System of a Down, Rubin is producing Diamond's new, as yet untitled, album due out in November.

But perhaps the singer-songwriter's biggest fans remain the ladies -- even if, at 64, he's inching dangerously close to Sam Donaldson doppelganger territory.

They adore him so much that, after the two-hour MCI Center show, which featured most of Diamond's biggest hits (among them "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry Cherry," "Holly Holy"), one female fanatic was spotted walking out of a Penn Quarter restaurant with a cup of ice in one hand . . . and a bruise on the other.

Huffed a younger woman who appeared to be the injured fan's daughter: "I told you to quit clapping."

Diamond's enormous appeal is hardly a mystery: He writes songs with basic harmonies, memorable melodies and simple lyrics, and he sings them with absolute conviction. It's a formula he has perfected since his days as a Brill Building writer, to the point that he has become one of the most successful singer-songwriters in American pop, with 50 million albums sold in the United States and so many hits that he can just about fill a top 40 by himself.

But Diamond hasn't recorded anything like a big song in more than two decades. And while that could change with the new album, it's basically irrelevant when it comes to Diamond's live shows.

Fans don't fill arenas hoping Diamond will rewrite the script that he has been using with great success all these years (which likely explains the worse-than-tepid response to the new material road-tested here Wednesday). They go because his concerts are wholesome, good-timey cultural flashbacks.

Never mind that Diamond sang about finding comfort in the bottle in "Red Red Wine," whose live reggaefied reading included an awkward rap, or that he celebrated "a store-bought woman" in "Cracklin' Rosie." When he wasn't in full-on lament mode ("You Don't Bring Me Flowers"), he was singing pseudo-gospel about believers and salvation and unrequited love and the greatness of America and, more than once, metaphorical soaring birds. The whole thing had the uplifting feel of a Promise Keepers or Women of Purpose convention, albeit one led by a hip-swiveling, arm-windmilling Brooklyn native who oozes just a teensy bit of sexy cool.

Backed by an 11-piece band and a trio of powerhouse female vocalists, Diamond closed the concert with "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," his 1969 almost-hit in which he takes on the persona of a preacher. Standing on a pulpit and bathed in white light, he sermonized some, and then he sang just a little bit more, repeating more than once the line "pack up the babies / grab the old ladies."

Just what they were wishing for.

Neil Diamond, 64, preaching to his faithful flock at MCI Center, hasn't had a hit in over two decades -- but he can draw a crowd.Neil Diamond's tried-and-true formula was deployed again on Wednesday at MCI Center.