Aftermath: Neil Diamond at Toyota Center

As I walked into the Neil Diamond concert last night, I was already bathed in decades of derision. Years of being told by popular culture that he was a corny and trite leftover from the coked-over '70s. A sad relic of popular music history, when men could wear sequined jumpsuits, chest hair blazing like six-shooters. Aimed at our grandmothers' hearts and nether regions, with a cavalcade of hits that belonged on oldies radio and on the soundtracks of sub-par Jack Black films. Let me say now that this is not a review of a performer at the end of his reign, or a backhanded jab at borrowed nostalgia.

This is a rock writer learning his lesson.

I began my night on LaBranch and Bell merely a spectator, searching for people to ridicule. A hunter armed with a Sony Cybershot and an unflinching disgust for the common man, ready and rowdy to caption them into oblivion. I saw any number of old folk, drenched in garb ranging from sparkly skulls to J. Crew finery.

At what age does one forget how to dress to a concert and begins instead to look like they just stepped out of a Levitra ad? Then I looked at the marquee and saw that smiling Jewish Elvis staring down at me and I realized I wasnt on Westheimer anymore. This was a foreign land and I was just a tourist.

Walking through the doors of Toyota Center, the first thing I heard was a man asking a concession worker, "Can I get a chardonnay?" The marbled ground was already stained with spilled wine. The crowd walked in sedation, with some looking like they might as well have been sitting in a crowded waiting room, anticipating that next prostate exam.

I feel like Im at a steakhouse that I cant afford. Well-manicured cougars run free of husbands, searching for provisions. A nun in full religious regalia walks by a hairsprayed elderly heiress, too arthritic to throw panties anymore. Youthful fourth wives walk hand in hand with men old enough to have fired their grandfathers. A few sprinkled twentysomethings mingle, deep-fried in hot-oil irony already. "Brah, Im at a Neil Diamond concert!" read the mass text messages.

I felt that same way as I sat down in my seats, just feet away from the back of the stage. I had pity for the people who spent so much money for this, this ridiculous icon and his velvety baritone. Better than all these aged couples, sitting two by two in quiet anticipation. That was my stance until the man walked out with his guitar.

"Holy Shit!" I bellowed to no one in particular, except maybe the poor dude in front of me trying to walk down the aisle. The sight of Neil Diamond captivated my black, jaded heart. Here was a man who enthralled the baby boomer generation, whose music had probably been the catalyst for any number of conceptions and late-night mistakes.

He appeared, swathed in a black sequined suit and from then on I was no longer a heretic, but a steadfast convert. Instantly the air in the arena was hot and musky, my friend Jeremy remarked; it was as if Neil himself had been pumped into the air ducts. Immediately, a middle-age woman four seats over was in absolute hysterics, wringing out tears at the Jumbotron as she sang along.

Neil tells the crowd to stand up and dance. He tells us, Theres only one rule here: Do what you want. Jesus, Ive never heard that at any show let alone on where half the crowd was old enough to have voted for Kennedy. He jumps into "Love on the Rocks," and the guy still has pipes, even while Im transfixed on his dyed eyebrows.

Squeals emit from the audience, not unlike hyenas in heat. Neil walks over to our side of the stage and sings "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" and as he closes, I give him the metal horns. I look down at my hands in disbelief. Really, guys? We just gave Neil Diamond the metal salute like were a damn Judas Priest show. Super.

As "Cherry Baby" and "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime" roll on, Jeremy and I look at each other and say, "Pot?" Yes. People are getting stoned here, as is aromatically evident.

Diamond does a two-song set of stuff from his new record Home Before Dark, his second straight Rick Rubin-produced album of new material. The songs are sparse but gilded with Lee Hazlewood-esque flourishes. On the title track, they reflect on the life lived, as the final act begins and you start to do the final assessment. "Don't Go There" is female treachery laid bare, preaching the ills of powders and nicotine.

The highlight here is the evergreen "Solitary Man," which still puts any modern-rock tales of male angst to shame. "Sweet Caroline" gets not one but two consecutive renditions, by demand of the now wily and loosened throng in front of him.

I get oddly misty-eyed during "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," and then realize it's time to hit up Boondocks. I love Neil Diamond and all, but I'll be damned if the guy makes me cry. I stay for his "I'm a Believer" a song the Monkees made famous, and not many realize he in fact wrote and the beer bug bites me again.

You win this round, Mr. Diamond. - Craig Hlavaty

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray