The older Neil Diamond gets, the more willing he is to tweak his Mr. Las Vegas image. A decade ago, the singer teamed with rock producer Rick Rubin, and in recent years he's been sporting a beard — as if to remind today's bearded hipsters that this old Brooklyn boy was hip back when their parents were still in diapers.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. In concert Tuesday night at a nearly sold-out American Airlines Center, the silver-bearded fox sounded pretty much like he did back when Hot August Night ruled the charts in the early 1970s.
There were minor disappointments, to be sure. In "I'm a Believer" and a few other songs, the 76-year-old Diamond yelled some lyrics instead of singing them. His famous over-sized arm-waves and finger-points had shrunk, and he sauntered across stage instead of strutting. A 20-minute band segment near the end of the 2-hour-15-minute show felt like a tactic to kill time and let Diamond rest his voice.
Yet there was plenty of growl left in Diamond's deep bass-baritone. And he was charming as ever, constantly flashing his megawatt smile, joking with the crowd, showing childhood home movies and dedicating 1976's "Dry Your Eyes" to victims of May's arena bombing in Manchester, England. When he spotted an usher blocking a fan from taking a picture near the stage, Diamond came to the rescue, yelling out mid-song, "Oh, let her come down!"
Performing on his 50th Anniversary World Tour (it's actually been 51 years since he started, but who's counting?), Diamond didn't have a new album to promote, so he devoted the entire show to big hits and deep cuts. Fans stayed glued in their seats for most of the show but jumped to their feet for the well-spun cotton candy of "Song Sung Blue," "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "Holly Holy," a song that set off a sea of waving smart-phone flashlights way up into the rafters.
Some of the concert's high points actually arrived in lesser-known tunes, like 2008's Afro-Latin dance song "Pretty Amazing Grace," and 1976's "Jungletime" which veered from jazz into more aggressive sounds: It wasn't "Welcome to the Jungle," exactly, but Diamond can still rock hard when he wants to.
His 13-piece band gave him tight, versatile backing on instruments as far-flung as accordion and conga drums. At times, however, the arrangements dissolved into Muzak, and some material hadn't aged well, especially a trio of goopy songs from 1973's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Diamond was hokey now and again, too. He indulged in some blatant crowd-milking early in the show and later he tried to introduce "Red, Red Wine" with a stilted grape joke.
Of course, it wouldn't be a true Neil Diamond show without a certain amount of cheese. But when it's served alongside pop songs as perfect as "Cherry, Cherry," "Cracklin' Rose" and "Sweet Caroline," the cheese tasted more like gourmet aged Gouda than plain old Velveeta.