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Even At 68, Diamond's Still Shining

Of the Oakland Press

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Ask most any musician where they prefer to perform and they’ll speak in favor the smallest, most intimate venues they can fi nd. Not Neil Diamond. As far as he’s concerned, the bigger the better.

“I have to say I prefer playing arenas,” says Diamond, 67, who’s been filling the big houses for decades, since a string of hits — “Cherry, Cherry,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “America” and the crowd singalong favorite “Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)” — established him as a pop superstar.

“I think the real attraction of the arena experience for people is not only to see the artists that they love but to be there at the same moment to experience the same song as it’s performed. It’s a very immediate, visceral kind of thing.

“I don’t see people standing up and cheering when they listen to one of my albums, but I do see it at a concert, and that’s the difference. That experience cannot be duplicated.”

Diamond, of course, has found a way to sustain the experience — and the audience that goes with it. Since debuting with “Solitary Man” in 1966, the Brooklyn-born Diamond — who dropped out of New York University, where he had a fencing scholarship, to pursue music — has sold more than 125 million albums worldwide, notched 36 Top 40 hits and has been a perennial top-draw on tour. He had a hit film in 1980’s “The Jazz Singer” and laughed at himself in the 2001 comedy “Saving Silverman.”

And if anyone thought he’s losing his luster four decades in, Diamond quieted them when his latest album, “Home Before Dark,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in May, the first time Diamond ever achieved that feat.

“I was sure I had a No. 1 album along the way ... so I was crestfallen,” Diamond said with a laugh. “It’s a nice feeling to be No. 1. It’s very nice. I enjoyed every moment of the time I was No. 1, and I enjoyed the fact that as people became aware that it was my first No. 1, they were a little amazed, too.

“I’m also told I’m the oldest performer on the Billboard charts ever to have a No. 1 album, which amazes me. I don’t feel that old. I feel very young. But it’s nice to feel that in this market that’s filled with young people (and) seems to be aimed at young people that an old geezer can come along and knock a few of them off their perches and say, ‘Hey, here’s for the senior citizens! We can kick a little butt, too!.’”

“Home Before Dark” is a different creative creature than the rest of Diamond’s ouvre, however. His second set produced by Grammy Award-winning rock and hip-hop impresario Rick Rubin, the album follows 2005’s “12 Songs” as a stripped-down and intimate collection focusing tightly on Diamond’s voice and guitar playing — and, of course, his songwriting.

“We had to twist his arm a little bit” to get Diamond to embrace that direction, said Benmont Tench, the keyboardist in Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers who played on the two albums. “But the songs are just wonderful and he’s a great guy and really, really fun to be with, and obviously he’s a great songwriter.”

Tench recalls one day during the “Home Before Dark” sessions when Diamond asked the musicians to stay late. His Heartbreakers bandmate Mike Campbell said, “ ‘Sure, if you’ll play ‘Cherry, Cherry’ with us.’ And so we played ‘Cherry, Cherry’ with Neil, and that was a treat.”

Diamond — whose girlfriend was coping with an illness during the making of “Home Before Dark” — acknowledges that the “12 Songs” and “Home Before Dark” material don’t have the same bombast as his body of hits, which makes turning them into concert pieces challenging. “I don’t do them quite as spare or as sparse as they are on the albums,” he said. “They seem to fit pretty well; the audience responds very well to them. I’ve put a little pizzazz into ‘Pretty Amazing Grace,’ which I like a lot and is fun to do.”

Diamond does, however, reject any notion that he’s tried to reinvent himself during the past three years by working with Rubin and the younger musicians who played on the last two albums. “I like the way I was invented originally,” he quipped, adding that he sees it as part of a line he’s followed since he was a staff writer at New York’s Brill Building in the early ’60s.

“This is just another step, that’s all,” Diamond explained. “I’ve been taking steps since the beginning, from ‘Cherry Cherry’ to ‘I Am I Said’ to ‘America’ to Christmas music to ‘Home Before Dark.’

“It’s just ... me. I’m not reaching out for anybody but the audience that wants to listen, that’s all. I’m not doing anything logical. I’m not preplanning anything. Maybe I would’ve had a better career if I had thought it out. It was all based on how well I could write the songs and how good the songs would be and how the audience took it to their hearts — or not.

“It’s still that way. It’s exactly that way.”

Neil Diamond performs at 8 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 31) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $120, $85 and $55. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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