Monday, April 26, 2010

Diamond in the rough?

Today, we discuss tribute bands -- musicians and singers who channel their love of their favorite groups and entertainers by singing their songs and mimicking their mannerisms as much as they can.

Last night, for example, we went to a show by a group called "The Diamond Collection," with a couple of friends who are hardcore Neil Diamond fans.

I must confess ... I'm not a hardcore Neil Diamond fan. It's not that I have absolutely no use for him. I like some of his songs ... and don't like a lot of them as well. I'm of the opinion that Neil Diamond -- at his best -- wrote and sang catchy pop songs ... and that, especially in the early days, he put out a lot of music that ends up on many, many lists of favorites.

You won't find many people arguing, for example, that "Cherry, Cherry," or "Holy Holy" are bad songs. They're not. They're very good songs, and he sang them well.

However, Neil, at his worst, to me, was unnecessarily overwrought. Now, his fans say that his overly bombastic and dramatic arrangements were simply cases of him putting so much feeling into his music. Maybe. I'm a big fan of feeling.

But, you know, feeling has to come from a certain place. And when you're waxing emotional about lyrics such as these ("I am, I said, to no one there ... and no one heard at all, not even the chair ..."), well, let's just say I'm not up for that kind of drama. Barry Manilow wouldn't even write and sing lyrics like that, and he's about the most shameless musical huckster I've ever had the displeasure of listening to (in general; "MacArthur Park" might hold the all-time prize, though, as the single most shameful piece of musical drek ever written; seven and a half minutes of sheer torture).

I've heard some good tribute bands over the years. The best was Beatlejuice, a band fronted by the late Brad Delp (of Boston fame). And back in the 1980s, a slew of Doors tribute bands became prominent throughout the country -- the best of which was called "Soft Parade." I don't know who the lead singer was, but he had Jim Morrison -- and his mannerisms -- down pat. He could sing a little, too.

Locally, in my neck of the woods, there was a group called "Class of '66," which didn't pay tribute to one band in particular, but all the old single-hit sixties bands (meaning, bands that made it big before the advent of album oriented rock and concept records).

Nobody mistook them for the real thing, and, further, nobody cared. Listening to a good tribute band was like listening to records down your friend's basemen when you were 11 and 12. You were there for the ambiance, and the shared experience. I never closed my eyes, for example, and imagined that it was Felix Cavaliere, and not Sammy Donato, singing "Good Lovin." It was just the music of my youth, and I enjoyed it no matter who was singing it.

(That, of course, is what makes karaoke so much fun, but that's a different story entirely).

I kind of feel the same way every time I see Kenny LaBelle channel is inner Neil at the Hu Ke Lau restaurant in Chicopee (or, as I like to call it, Chick Peas). You may ask why I -- an ambivalent follower of Neil at best -- would kill a Sunday night to travel all the way across Massachusetts to a Chinese restaurant to see some guy pretend he's Neil Diamond. Legitimate question.

Initially, it was because our friends asked us to go, and we're all so busy with our lives we hardly ever get to see them. It was a chance to reconnect, catch up, and just be with each other. It could have been the "Manilow" connection and probably wouldn't have cared (except, maybe, I'd have brought earplugs and some laundry to sort).

Let's also say I know a little bit about groupies. I spent much of my youth listening to the Moody Blues, and belong to an internet group that -- initially -- was devoted to them. I've heard about women from that board who jet from venue to venue, following them ... and who swear Justin Hayward himself is singing those intoxicating loves songs directly to them.

I say let them dream.

My friend Anne is a Neil Diamond fanatic. I'm pretty sure not even she could count the times she's seen him live ... or recall all the cities and towns (though she was at Fenway Park two years ago when Neil sang there) For that matter, I was at Fenway earlier this month when Neil appeared out of Canvass Alley in right field to sing "Sweet Caroline" at the traditional eighth inning break on opening night).

Anne found this group a while back, and a couple of times a year, she organizes these outings to see them play. This is, I think, the fifth time I've gone out to see them. In other years, we've had an army of people drive out to Chicopee to see "Fake Neil," as my son likes to call him. And it's a lot of fun, too. And isn't that what all this is supposed to be about? Isn't it supposed to be fun? Aren't you supposed to be able to, once in a while, escape life's drudgery and just go out and have a good time?

That's always how I've viewed tribute bands. Nobody's expecting them to break new ground. Nobody's expecting anything other than what these bands promise to deliver: a night to hear the music of a performer that, presumably, they and you hold in tremendously high regard. It's a pretty direct connection.

Despite some misgivings about the merit of some of Neil Diamond's music, I always enjoy listening to Kenny do Neil. I mean, if you squint ... and I mean really squint ... you can see a vague resemblance between Kenny LaBelle and a young (say, circa early 1970s) Neil Diamond. OK. Not really. I just threw that in to see if you were paying attention ... they look nothing alike.

But he does sound a little like him. And the band does its best, with the instruments it employs, to remain faithful to the original recordings, with a couple of intentional exceptions (one that works and the other -- to me, anyway -- that does not).

I have a friend (the same friend who told me about the Jump the Shark website) who swears that the "wussification" of Neil Diamond occurred at precisely the moment when he recorded "You Don't Send Me Flowers" with Barbra Streisand. Since I, too, cringed every time I heard the song back in the day (and I heard it way too often), I thought that was about as well put an analysis as there was.

LaBelle and backing vocalist Diane Slezek do a pretty funny takeoff on that song, with them as an older, bickering, couple, called "You Don't Smell Like Flowers." In any other context, this would be about as corny as it gets. But in this setting, among Neil Diamond fanatics, it works very well.

The other deviation is the song "America," from "The Jazz Singer." And here, LaBelle does something I really wish he wouldn't do. He changes the lyrics to reflect patriotism for American (instead of "they Come to America," he sings, "stand up for America"). Now, I've never seen Neil Diamond live (except for that one song at Fenway), and have no idea whether Diamond has taken to doing this or it's just post-9/11 fervor. But to those of us who would prefer our patriotism a bit more muted (and I guess I'm in that category), it just seems a a tad bit jingoistic.

I'm sure LaBelle's heart is in the right place. I'm sure he's not up there urging everyone to take up arms and kill every one of this country's opponents. And I have to be fair in saying that nobody else there seemed to mind. There were many, many people dancing to it, and singing along, and raising their fists. It's a pretty popular viewpoint.

I'm just saying it makes me uncomfortable.

The song is about immigrants who came over here hoping for a better life. It celebrates the diversity that made America what it is.

Neil Diamond, after all, was born of Jewish/Russian/Polish immigrants and I have a feeling he was channeling much of his family's history into that song. It's also one of the better one's he's ever written. It's really a small fly in an otherwise very satisfying bowl of soup, though.

I put Neil Diamond in a category of performers I stopped liking a generation ago (I'd also put Elton John in this group too). I've always thought that whatever Neil Diamond had back in the sixties and early seventies ... whatever it was that made his best music so memorable ... he lost in his desire to expand his horizons and attract wider audiences. There's a lot to be said for remaining true to who you are. It hasn't, for example, done Paul Hewson (Bono, for those who don't know) any harm, and it certainly hasn't lost Mick Jagger any money over the years).

Then, you hear a group like this and you remember, "ahhhhhhh. Whether I like him now or not, it doesn't change anything about what he did then." You hear songs like, "I'm a Believer," and "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime" and you do get transported to summer days and nights in 1966, with transistor radios blaring out of every sand blanket on the beach. You do remember where you were, and what you were doing, when someone first played "Hot August Night" for you -- easily the best live album I've ever heard from the late sixties-early seventies (particularly good is "Holly Holy," another of my favorites by him).

I can remember, a few years ago, walking across the Boston Common and coming across a couple of old-time revival tents where there was an actual meeting going on. I could hear the preacher screaming at the top of his lungs, and I could hear the congregation's "amens." It was almost surrealisic.

I could also hear Neil Diamond singing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" in my head.

It's nights like this when you remember two things. First, guys like Neil Diamond don't command tribute bands if there's nothing to which to pay tribute. Neil's been in the entertainment business for 45 years (we're going to back to the days in which he served his musical apprenticeship in the old Brill Building in New York, cranking out songs in Tin Pan Alley style), and he would be silly to suggest that everything he's done over that long, long span has turned into an instant gold nugget.

There's plenty of forgettable material there, but there's also more than enough songs that have truly stood the test of time. It's fair to say that he's either written or recorded enough genuine classics to have earned his reputation ... not to mention a few tribute bands in his name.

The second thing to remember is that as we get older, it's a good thing to have the Kenny LaBelles of the world around to remind us of how good these people were in their primes. Neil Diamond, for example, is 69 years old ... older than Paul McCartney and Jagger). He's sung a lot of songs, and his voice certainly isn't as rich and true as it once was.

I've always made fun of Harry Connick Jr., for example, because I always thought that if he were that good, he wouldn't have to go around pretending to be a young Frank Sinatra. But on the other hand, we don't have Frank anymore. And even when he was alive, we didn't really have that Frank in any other way but in our memories.

The band sings two songs I particularly love to lampoon: Shilo, which is said to be about Neil's dog; and "Longfellow Serenade," which, believe it or not, is is about something very similar to what Bob Seger was writing about "Night Moves." I'll let you do the math.

Oh, but how I'd make fun of it. I thought that, for a while, all of Neil Diamond's songs sounded alike, and I'd go around singing, "Longfellow Serenade, all my songs sound the same ..."

In the beginning, I went to see "Fake Neil" because it was a chance to connect with friends. That was five years ago. I've come to grudgingly realize that I wouldn't have kept coming back all those years if I didn't like what I was getting.

So, Kenny LaBelle, thank you.

Even if I have to sit through "Forever in Blue Jeans," and "I Am, I Said," he puts on a good show, and he remind me that regardless of how often I make fun of Neil Diamond, his material has stood up well.

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