Like many people in the '70s and early '80s, Brian La Blanc grew up loving the music of Neil Diamond.|
The 51-year-old native of Stamford, Conn., had no idea then he'd be making his living traveling the country today paying tribute to the immensely popular 73-year-old Brooklyn singer/songwriter.
"I had never thought of doing any tribute stuff. It's been a great idea and so much fun," Mr. La Blanc said this week of "Simply Diamond," which he brings to Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse this Thursday for two performances.
An accomplished singer and songwriter from the New York City area, who's been performing both solo and with different bands over the past 30 years, Mr. La Blanc got the advice to start the show from Paul Shaffer of "The Late Show with David Letterman." They live close to each other in Westchester County, N.Y., and their wives are good friends. The music men first met about 10 years ago, and Mr. Shaffer noticed Mr. La Blanc did a great Mr. Diamond impersonation.
Mr. Shaffer has said: "Brian is the best Neil Diamond tribute act out there" and "His voice sounds like the real deal." The Letterman sidekick introduced him on an AOL Internet radio show in December 2010, doing "Silent Night," Neil Diamond-style.
Joey Reynolds, a well-known radio personality, said of Mr. La Blanc: "I can't tell the difference between Brian and Neil. If I closed my eyes I'd swear that Neil is here with me in the room."
He's been doing the tribute act with his band for more than five years, and Mr. La Blanc's deep, rich voice has an uncanny similarity to the original, but it's not exactly his own.
"My own voice, it doesn't sound like Neil Diamond," he said. "I've been doing it for so long, it's second nature. I don't have to think about it. My daughter is 14, and all when she was growing up, whenever she was listening to Hannah Montana, I'd do it in a Neil Diamond voice, and she'd go, 'Dad, please shut up.' "
Mr. La Blanc first got into music at about age 7, after seeing a guitar at a neighbor's house. He and his brother Rob have been hooked ever since and have performed together off and on since the '80s, including in the band Blanc Faces, recording a couple albums for an Italian label.
Mr. La Blanc fondly recalls going out on a Friday night in their early 20s and they'd play their mix tape of Van Halen and Eddie Money. When a Diamond ballad like "September Morn" came on, "there'd be four crazy guys singing Neil Diamond."
His favorite record is "The Jazz Singer" (1980), which includes the hits "America," "Hello Again," and "Love on the Rocks."
"This stuff is really fun," Mr. La Blanc said of Mr. Diamond's vast repertoire. "Something happens, when I put on that sequin shirt, it's like a football player putting on his helmet. It's my uniform. The band that plays with me, they're all A-plus players."
In a crowded field of Neil Diamond tribute acts, he prides himself by standing out and being authentic to the music, attentive to its details.
"A lot of them are impersonators, really not singers," Mr. La Blanc said of other acts. "All us guys, we're musicians first."
"All of the talented musicians in our band often marvel about the complexities of Neil Diamond's songs and arrangements. They may sound like simple songs sometimes but when you really dig into the arrangements, they are far from simple," he said. "The songs are brilliantly crafted from beginning to end."
Though Simply Diamond is true to the original song arrangements, they often put their own stamp on many of his songs, Mr. La Blanc said, noting one song that has really become a staple of their show is "Holly Holy."
"We really try and take this song to another level by rocking it out and the crowd seems to love it," Mr. La Blanc said. "A lot of his songs, they sound simple, but they're not. They have little turnarounds, one bar less in this chorus. It changes, so if you don't watch what you're doing, you can mess up."
He has performed at many well-known venues in New York City and across the country, including a television appearance on the original Star Search back in the '80s. Mr. La Blanc and his band have also opened up for national touring acts, including Grammy winners The Blind Boys of Alabama and Survivor. He said he doesn't imagine being a superstar himself.
"I really don't ever imagine being anyone other than myself. I respect what he's done, I would never want to be Neil Diamond," he said. "I'm happy singing his songs as Brian La Blanc."
If you go
-- What: "Simply Diamond -- A Neil Diamond Tribute."
-- When: 1 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Thursday, July 10.
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $44.67 for the matinee (including plated lunch) and $50.42 for the evening show (including buffet dinner), available at the Circa '21 ticket office, or by calling 309-786-7733, ext. 2.
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