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How can you have a Neil Diamond concert that’s neither cheesy nor sincere?

Neil Diamond
at Staples Center, September 29

If I’m gonna see a cheesy Neil Diamond concert, I say, bring it on. Let’s see some lasers and costume changes, smoke and capes. I wanna see him crackle his rosie right there in some lady’s monkey face, and then sing “Heartlight” to an animatronic E.T. flying across an inflatable moon. Come on, it’ll be great; we’ll get there early.

If, on the other hand, I’m gonna see a sincere Neil Diamond concert, well, let’s do that, too. The songwriting genius will actually sing the melodies and enunciate properly, and we won’t believe the power of his music, and he’ll break our hearts and we’ll all sing along and say what a neat guy! Because, I mean, listen, he is a neat guy.

But how can you have a Neil Diamond concert that’s neither cheesy nor sincere? I dunno, but that’s what we got. I guess his forthcoming album — one of those stripped-down Rick Rubin–produced jobbies designed to rescue some old singer-songwriter from years of hapless self-parody and usher in a classy era of cool confidence and self-knowledge or something — actually confused Neil more. And my man Neil does not need to be more confused. He’s always been unsure of his place in the world, and his sense of identity has never been more elusive.

Despite years of mainstream success, he’s always felt and cast himself as the Solitary Man. But Neil has let his alienation overtake him, and at the show he tunelessly barked his melodies and struck a forced rapport with the crowd that only increased the distance between himself, his music, his audience and himself again.

No lasers, no discovery. Oh, we had a smallishly large, torturously competent backup band whose main job seemed to be shilling for clap-alongs like “Cherry Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman” — tunes that Neil ruthlessly sabotaged with bizarre rhythmic and melodic alterations. And, oh, we had three ladies who sang, danced and dressed poorly, and did a phony call-and-response deal while Neil inexplicably apologized for writing pop songs (and then played one of his best, “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow,” after pretty much saying it was “tawdry” and “cheap”). And yes, we had a semi-hydraulic stage that lifted Neil about a foot and a half off the ground during “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” and a video montage of Ellis Island sad sacks during “America.”

Then he yelled to the audience “WE GOT ALL NIGHT!” on “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and they cheered, and then he only played one more song, and they turned on the lights and everybody filed out while they played a Muzak medly of Neil Diamond songs on the PA, I shit you not.

Only on “I Am . . . I Said” did he allow a song to overpower him, and he sang the melody, and it was great. When Neil Diamond sings “I am . . . I said, to no one there, and no one heard at all, not even the chair,” and points to a stool onstage, it’s just about more than one can handle. The line was tricky enough to begin with — a near clunker that threatens to turn his existential anthem into kitsch comedy, until you realize its true greatness. The chair didn’t hear him. He was not heard by the chair. Et tu, stool? And the girl next to me was crying, and the woman next to her was sleeping.

—Jeffrey Christian


Ledisi, Soulive
at House of Blues, October 1

By rights, Bay Area darling Ledisi should be one of the biggest names in modern American music. Steeped in Carmen, Ella and Sarah, a former student of opera, a hardcore fan of rap and old-school R&B, and a volcanic blast of energy onstage, she is without peer. (Chaka Khan is one of her most ardent fans.) Ledisi’s also an impressive DIY story: She released her debut CD, Soulsinger, on her own label in 2000, and then followed it up with 2001’s brilliant (now out-of-print) jazz opus Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue.

Taking the stage at House of Blues, supported by two bass players, a drummer and three back-up singers, Ledisi scatted over sparse but funk-drenched accompaniment before breaking into an Africanized overhaul of her hit, “Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue.” In this rendition, she supplanted the lush, horn-driven jazz groove of the recording with a knotted cascade of supple bass notes and frenetic drumming — “Sometimes I want more bottom than anything,” she quipped. (Her band and singers were sick.) From there she went into the Staples Singers–esque “Do You,” and a feathery version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” that kicked erotic sparks throughout HOB. Her voice unfolded with both shingle-shattering velocity and a thrilling ethereal purr, but Ledisi is never showy for the sake of it. Her vocal choices are always in service of the lyric; the integrity of the song is always respected. As she performed, she flipped from spastic, uncontrolled dancing to Alvin Ailey–precise, gyno-centric booty moves from the Motherland. (“I love my big butt,” she laughed. “Don’t be skurred.”) Rounded off with fan favorite “Get Outta My Kitchen” — into which she spliced in “Funkin’ For Jamaica” — and a raucous cover of “Come Together,” it was a too-brief set from a woman already on the path to legend status. Headliners Soulive loudly served up their jazz-fusion fare, sending fans into bliss and everyone else back to the days when Kenny G (of whom they’re simply a more muscular version) and his ilk ruled the earth. Soft waves, baby. It would be inaccurate to say that all their songs sound the same, but it might be more trouble than it’s worth to try differentiating them. As one concertgoer announced while beating a hasty exit, “This is the kinda shit you hear on late-night talk shows as they head into commercial.”

—Ernest Hardy


Laurnea

at the Temple Bar, September 30

Sometimes, all it takes is one moment of transcendence to elevate a good concert into an unforgettable one. There were two such moments at this show. A singer-songwriter whose soulful and elastic voice is rarely done justice by the songs she pens, Laurnea was sexy, playful and earthy (at one point lifting her sheer top to wipe the sweat off her belly) during her 12-song set. Her renditions of her hits “Infatuation” and “Happy” were rousing crowd-pleasers; but the show really soared when she invited her best friend, India Arie, onstage. The two traded verses on a birthday celebration song they’d written and the energy between them crackled, making the crowd forget the club’s sweltering heat. Part of that spark, however, was also due to Meshell NdegeOcello. Wearing a thrift-store orange skirt, a battered knit cap and some granny socks rolled down to her ankles, the shy goddess of bass walked meekly onstage behind India, but Godzilla’d the spot once she strapped on her instrument. Still, that was just a warmup for when Laurnea spotted Rochelle Farrell in the crowd and handed her a mike.

Channeling some Afro-Cuban parrot, eerily mimicking every kinda horn ever made and digging deep in that emotional and technical cave where she stores her bag of tricks, Farrell drove the crowd insane during an extended jam session. She finally convinced an understandably reluctant India to join her on the mike, and after much prodding Ms. Arie provided the rock-steady bottom. Having stepped back for a moment to figure out where the hell her show went, Laurnea slowly crouched deep at the knees and belted “Get, get, get it together!” over and over until it became a head-nodding hypnotic chant. With every octave leap, Farrell pushed shit higher. Meshell conducted the whole thing with fiercely gunned bass lines that ricocheted across the room. It was an extraordinary moment of artists sharing, converging and forcing one another to bring their A+ game. They did. The audience was fed.

—Ernest Hardy


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