Thursday, May 21, 2015 | 2 a.m.
The top music showman in town Sunday didn’t perform at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Instead, Neil Diamond entertained a spellbound, near-capacity audience for just shy of two hours down the Strip at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Sporting a gray mustache and beard and dressed in black tuxedo pants, red-and-black shirt, black jacket and black boots, Diamond, 74, appeared fit, trim and full of energy.
Moving across the front of a stage that extended the width of the Events Center’s main floor and in front of his 11-piece band, two backup singers and a giant diamond-shaped lit screen, Diamond was at ease with the audience from the first bars of his opening song, “I’m a Believer” (which he penned but became a megahit way back in 1967 when it was covered by The Monkees), all the way through to his five-song encore.
Throughout the evening, Diamond engaged the crowd, strutting from side to side, peering into the audience, waving, giving the thumbs up and urging them to stand up and, on many of the songs, sing.
Early on in the evening, he joked with those at stage left and right in the audience how they “always seem so much more excited than the people in the middle.” It was a shtick he would continue throughout the concert, often playing to one side or another (or one side against the other).
But he didn’t ignore the fans on the floor in front of the stage. At the end of “Play Me,” one of a litany of sing-alongs with the audience, he stood just above the middle-left floor section and instructed his band to replay the final eight bars of the song, declaring, “This is for stage left.” The section went wild.
He told stories, including about how he grew up relatively poor in Brooklyn but his family gave him “enough to feed the soul for a lifetime.”
And he sang. Hit after familiar hit.
“Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Play Me,” “Red, Red Wine” (which Diamond wrote in the 1960s and was successfully covered by UB40 in the 1980s), and he was just warming up.
Not until 15 songs into his set did Diamond sing from “Melody Road,” his new album that he’s promoting on this North American tour that began back in February and will come to a close at the end of the month. Diamond said the song “The Art of Love” took him five years to write and just three minutes to sing.
After those three minutes, the hit parade was back on, starting with “Forever in Blue Jeans,” a spirited “Cherry Cherry,” “Holly Holy” and “I Am I Said” before Diamond saluted the audience, took a bow and left the stage.
The crowd quickly beckoned the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer back to the stage, where he reciprocated with a five-song encore that included some of his most memorable hits: “Cracklin’ Rosie,” a sing-along “Sweet Caroline” and “Coming to America,” followed by “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and the finale, “Heartlight,” written by Diamond, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager.
Diamond continues to do what he does best onstage: Sing his greatest hits in his familiar baritone voice and make his fans feel good about coming to his concerts. If the master showman isn’t getting better with age, it’s because he’s been that good all along.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.
John Taylor is the copy chief of the Las Vegas Sun.