Idol Chatter

neildiamondpicforic.jpgA friend and I were chatting last week about singers and songwriters who’ve managed to change and adapt, aging gracefully while writing relevantly. James Taylor is one. Sting is another. The Eagles and R.E.M. also come to mind, as does Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
One name that definitely did not come up was Neil Diamond, and surprised as I am to say this, maybe it should have.

He of the 120 million albums looked pretty good on “American Idol” a few weeks ago, and performed his newest single, “Pretty Amazing Grace,” in between some oldies last week on NBC’s “Today Show.” After watching a web clip of the live Rockefeller Plaza performance, and listening again on his website, I think this new song and CD may have some inspiration and relevance to it that might play well beyond his usual loyal crowd.
I’ve always thought that live performances on morning shows are real tests for musicians, since it’s an odd time of the day to be performing live, the crowd isn’t their usual following, and there’s little room to hide. Neil had some back-up singers and a cool band but he was the prime guy, front and center sounding, well, pretty good.
“Pretty Amazing Grace” is both a love song and a hymn. I love the boldness of a guy who takes the title (and some lyrics) from one of the most revered and famous church songs of all time and turns it into a gentle and poetic tribute to the grace of a woman from a man in need of it. It’s a down-to-earth and honest song that is as gentle and understated as it is direct and vulnerable. Church songwriters could learn a bit from this.
“Pretty amazing grace is how you saved me,” it goes on. “You stood beside a wretch like me…your pretty amazing grace was what I needed.” The references to the original “Amazing Grace” as well as some evangelical lingo won’t be confused for preaching, but it certainly shows a spiritual sensitivity not seen much since the days of “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.”
“You overcame my loss of hope and faith, gave me truth I could believe in,” goes the song’s last verse. “You took me to a higher place, showed me that love, and truth, and hope, and grace were all I needed.”
“Home Before Dark,” Diamond’s 26th CD, is due out on Tuesday.
I hope the candor and purity of at least this first single will overlap into his upcoming worldwide tour. He’s always been a showman on stage, but I think his early Hot August Nights were inspiring and powerful more in the moments when things got quiet (“Solitary Man,” “Brooklyn Roads,” “Shilo”) and this song is another in that tradition. It’d be great if he could lend some inspiration to a new audience that would go far beyond the few hours down memory lane that his loyal fans will always pay for.

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