Neil Diamond looked about ready to unleash another zinger after the umpteenth rousing chorus of “Sweet Caroline” on Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl. He arched his iconic black eyebrows and gave a little grin. What would it be, a loving insult thrown at a fan trying to sneak out to use the bathroom, or a lightly wry reminiscence of growing up a Brooklyn boy? But wait -- the crowd was still up and dancing. They knew the drill.
“Well,” Diamond purred, uttering the instructions he’d certainly given on many a previous night, “it looks like we’re gonna do it one more time!”
On cue, Diamond’s well-oiled band resumed the familiar chord progression, Diamond hit the high note on the line, “Good times never seemed so good,” and the fans shouted back: “So good, so good, so good!”
Diamond’s concert (the first of three area performances, with another at the Bowl on Thursday and one Saturday at Staples Center) took place during the Jewish High Holidays, traditionally a time of reflection, not boogalooing to infectious rhythms. Yet what is more ritualistic than a Neil Diamond show? He’s the rocking rabbi of ecumenical pop, spanning the distance between deep thinking and hip shaking with a strum of his guitar.
Diamond’s many hits represent the musical smorgasbord that’s fed him since his early days as a songwriter-for-hire in New York. In good voice after a recent bout with laryngitis, the 67-year-old delivered his beloved hits in subtly expanded versions that showed their roots.
Latin rhythms surfaced Wednesday in oldies like “Cherry Cherry” and the new “Pretty Amazing Grace.” Some ballads, like the eloquently performed “I Am . . . I Said,” invoked French chanson; others veered closer to gospel. Interpreted by Diamond’s 14-piece band, these familiar songs gently grew, but not in ways too challenging for the devotees joyously clinging to every verse.
A few songs from the Rick Rubin-helmed albums that recently have given Diamond’s career a kick were embedded into the set list. He was careful to warn those wanting “Song Sung Blue” (which they didn’t get) and “Love on the Rocks” (which they did) that artists will keep growing, even in their golden years. “That was yesterday; this is now,” he announced before leaving behind his old stuff for a mini-set from this year’s “Home Before Dark.”
Diamond can still write a line that sticks in your head, even if it makes you groan at first. One new number was based around the cliched phrase “don’t go there,” but the music set it in that sweet spot where Elvis meets Dylan and made it work.
Throughout the evening, shtick happened, but so did some top-notch playing. The younger fans dancing alongside Diamond’s grandma constituency needed only to catch the percussionist’s name to realize that this senior citizen has his own kind of street cred: It was King Errisson, who’s played conga on many great albums, including “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, one of the most sampled songs of the hip-hop era.
Most of the players present were old friends; the core group has been together since the mid-1970s. Their interplay was not what you’d call spontaneous, but it had an easygoing verve, especially on such favorites as “I’m a Believer.”
Perched on platforms that slid back and forth occasionally to refresh the staging, the musicians were spared the kind of hokey interplay that veteran performers sometimes demand of hired guns. Maintaining balance while performing on the equivalent of a small Rose Parade float was enough.
Diamond had his own mechanized platform, and he pleased the ladies with some Elvis shimmies as it inched him across the stage. His moves were as well-rehearsed as his music, and as well-sourced.
He punched the air and raised his hands to the heavens like a preacher during churchgoing tunes like “Holly Holy.” Crooning “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with longtime backing vocalist Linda Press, he went Broadway, sitting at a cafe table with a glass of wine, then striding over to take Press in a slow embrace.
Walking through the first few rows of the audience while singing “Play Me,” Diamond shook fans’ nervous hands with the nonchalance of a Vegas lounge veteran. His between-song jokes were straight from the Catskills; he even referred to the Bowl, a much bigger venue than the Greek, as “kind of like the Greek Theatre with a goiter condition.”
He made that joke after singing the heartfelt autobiographical anthem “Beautiful Noise,” and before “Street Life,” a deceptively peppy song that’s really about pimps, junkies and “hell in the city.”
But the mood never felt broken. Diamond is often judged as over-dramatic, but his most enduring gift might be for balance: weighing camp against sincerity, and grandiosity against earthiness.
Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Price: $55 to $120
Contact: (213) 742-7100