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Stars make a beautiful noise for Neil Diamond at MusiCares Gala

February 7, 2009 | 12:43 am

Neildiamond It was one of those Grammy weekend events, full of unlikely bedfellows. Who ever thought Nash Kato of the band Urge Overkill -- Chicago's erstwhile indie rock lizard king -- would trod the same boards as operatic man-genue Josh Groban? Or that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill would share an inspiration with the Foo Fighters? Or that the Jonas Brothers and jazz great Cassandra Wilson would even be in the same room?

The 19th annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala, which benefits the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences foundation that aids musicians in crisis, always draws an entertaining cross section of stars. But this year's event was particularly well balanced across genres, generations and schmaltz content.

Honoring Neil Diamond was a smart move for the foundation. Not only did Diamond attract a capacity crowd to this pricey evening, raising serious cash for a very worthy cause that, as NARAS and MusiCares President/CEO Neil Portnow explained in his introductory speech, serves more needy artists than ever now that the economy has tanked. Diamond also provided a songbook that's friendly to every style, though owned by none.

Serious Diamond fans, as well as those who appreciate his oracular hamminess as camp, might have liked a little more hip shaking and arm waving from the reverential performances. Plus, I know they're mostly wealthy and were full of chicken and chocolate-dipped strawberries, but how could the audience members  not dance?

Still, the vocal performances were outstanding, suiting Diamond's gradual transformation from someone rock fans enjoyed only with an eyebrow arched to a full-fledged leader. Only a few of the night's singers stumbled on Diamond's wide and well-paved musical road.

Jimmy Kimmel, who stayed loose and chatty as the night's host, quoted a passage from David Wild's recently published book, "He Is ... I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond." Asked whether he felt awkward taking part in the countercultural going-away party that was the Band's concert film, "The Last Waltz," the 68-year-old showbiz veteran said, "I don't fit in. But you could put me in any show and I wouldn't fit in."

That's the beauty of Diamond: He's a populist artist who, by virtue of his contradictions, stands alone. In his long career, he's convinced millions as both a rocker and a lounge act, a nice Jewish boy and a preacher of love's gospel, a sentimental fool and a cynical rogue.

So for once, the parade of Grammy-friendly artists that makes up these charity galas made some kind of sense. Virtually everyone who performed found his or her inner Diamond and (Borscht Belt-worthy pun alert) quietly let it shine.

Jennifer Hudson, who looked slim and somber in a gold lame jacket and black pants, earned whoops from the mostly sedate crowd as she turned Diamond's churchiest song, "Holly Holy," into a real soul declaration. Wilson, duetting with trumpeter Terence Blanchard on the chanson-inspired "September Morn," found the quiet sensuality in the spaces between Diamond's words.

These artistic triumphs were matched by the night's feel-good story, told by Diamond himself in a pretaped segment. He spun a yarn about calling Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and asking if he'd play the benefit, only to discover he'd reached the wrong Eddie -- he was speaking with Seattle-based Tejano musician Eddie Rodriguez. So he invited that Eddie to appear instead. (Chris Cornell seemed happy to fill in for Vedder, his brother in grunge, rocking a very Ed-style curly coif and a hoarser-than-usual baritone on "Kentucky Woman.")


The story about Rodriguez was a "Daily Show"-style joke; in truth, Diamond had seen Rodriguez and his band, Los Volcanes, on television while in Texas charitably aiding victims of Hurricane Ike. The crowd loved the rambling rhythms of Los Volcanes as it performed "Red Red Wine" and gave the group one of the night's few standing ovations.

The night's only real off notes came from the youngest participants. The Jonas Brothers seemed out of their league crashing through "Forever in Blue Jeans." Adele, in a strange mini cape-dress and with a giant bandage on one finger, may have sipped a little syrup before attempting "Cracklin' Rosie," Diamond's ode to cheap intoxicants; her delivery was that sleepy.

Maybe you have to have sung Diamond's infectious songs as a kid -- virtually a given for any white American or Brit older than 30 -- to properly capture their golden blend of viscosity and grit. Chris Martin is only 31, but he led his band, Coldplay, through a beguilingly ragged, skiffle-inspired acoustic version of "I'm a Believer."

At 27, Josh Groban is "mature" for his age, so it was no surprise that his utterly unironic reading of the swinger's romantic manifesto "Play Me" worked. Eric Benet and Raul Malo had similar success underplaying the melodrama inherent in Diamond's work, and just riding the luscious melodies -- though giving Benet the minor, "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"-inspired "Heartlight," and leaving "Shilo" unsung, was just wrong.

Tim McGraw, wearing a leather cowboy hat and a pinstripe suit to perform "Hello Again," sounded the most like Diamond. He was able to balance emotional intensity with manliness, to quote Kimmel again quoting Wild.

Ultimately, though, none of the night's performers, except maybe Hudson, could match Diamond's own musical charisma, which he happily trotted out at evening's end. After giving a droll little thank-you speech (he concluded by telling Portnow, who'd purchased Diamond's vintage Thunderbird as part of the evening's charity auction, that they'd go for a ride soon) the singer dismissed the all-star backing band, brought on his large ensemble and offered several favorites.

By glittery Grammy standards, the mini-set's highlight came when Faith Hill joined Diamond to sing "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." The Diamond devotees in the room loved it all, as they always do when this trouper trots out his routines. They even got on their feet. Why didn't they get up and do their karaoke moves long before? The crowd's relatively staid mood -- until the man himself took command -- was the only real disappointment in a very Diamond night.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Gina Ferazzi /Los Angeles Times