In the late 1970s, after watching Neil Diamond play a Las Vegas showroom, Bob Dylan launched what one critic called a “Neil Diamond masquerade.” He hired Diamond’s manager, Jerry Weintraub, dressed in sequins and jumpsuits and hired a big touring band to play kitschy arrangements of his iconic tunes.
So maybe Diamond went to see Dylan perform recently. For two fun and often fascinating hours at Verizon Center on Thursday, Diamond delivered what for him was an utterly understated performance, in which several chestnuts were reworked in a downright Dylanesque manner.
To “Red Red Wine,” he had his band add the same ska tinges that U.K. pop act UB40 inserted on its 1980s cover of Diamond’s vintage single. “Solitary Man” and “I Am . . . I Said” were both presented as dirges, but remained wondrous. Diamond even took “I’m a Believer,” the biggest pop song of 1966 as recorded by the Monkees, and rendered it as a ballad. He said he’d wanted to record a slow version before the Monkees hit the charts with their up-tempo classic.
He devoted more time than usual to his non-hits, also, including quasi-profundities like 1969’s “Glory Road,” a wordy mass not too removed from Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” which was released a year earlier. Diamond has been known to like his props, but other than the few patriotic shots of eagles and flags that flashed on big screens during “Coming to America,” this was a no-frills show.
Dylan masquerade or no, Diamond did not mess with “Sweet Caroline,” which younger generations have turned into a baseball anthem on a par with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” On this night, feeling the fans’ hunger for that particular tune, Diamond played the song three times in a row, and the arena-wide singalong got louder every time.
Diamond, 71, occasionally got reflective. He told the crowd that hits didn’t come easy to him when he started his songwriting career in the late 1950s, but by the middle of the next decade he couldn’t figure out how to write anything but smashes.
“Everything I did, everybody recorded,” Diamond said, as if some extraterrestrial force was responsible for the musical successes that came his way.
And the night wasn’t totally devoid of schlock. He responded to the fans’ raucous devotion — some sort of lingerie was tossed at him during “You Got Me” — by kissing his palm and sweeping his arm out to the crowd, a gesture best left to “The Dating Game’s” closing ritual. He dropped at least one “Dig it!” into his between-song patter. And while reprising the best deflowering plea in pop history, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” Diamond fell to his knees and laid his hands upon a few fans who by all appearances have been women for decades and decades and decades.
Dylan never could have pulled that off.
McKenna is a freelance writer.