Tonight: Chris Denem channels Neil Diamond at Avonworth Community Park


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Look at the night and it don't seem so lonely. We fill it up by going to the Avonworth Community Park where, starting at 7 p.m., it's local singer-songwriter Chris Denem presenting his "Neil Diamond Tribute."

Every Wednesday evening -- rain or shine -- the Avonworth Community Park Board presents concerts in the park, free and open to the public. You sit on a lawn chair or a blanket on a grassy hillside and enjoy perfect summertime family entertainment, with treats from the nearby concession stand.

"We have a nice-sized playground right below for the kids," said board member Laurie Berie. "And you can swim in the pool from 8 to 10. It's just nice, simple, relaxing outdoor fun."

If it rains, the entertainment heads inside to the nearby Mayernik Center.

Tonight, they'll be enjoying the songs of Neil Diamond, performed by Mr. Denem, who makes a living performing his tribute shows throughout the region.

Where it began, I can't begin to knowing. But then I know it's growing strong.

"Singing has always been very natural for me," said Mr. Denem, 58, of rural Clearfield Township in Butler County. "I was singing when I was 8, 9 years old. I know music and I have a really good ear. But I never had any formal voice training. I guess my dad helped me out. He studied music at Duquesne."

Mr. Denem's attachment to Neil Diamond just sort of happened.

"Every singer starts out looking for something famous to cover," he said. "With me, it was Neil Diamond's soul music. It really wasn't planned. When I was in my 20s in the '70s, Neil was still churning out hits.

"I don't really imitate him. My voice is just pretty darn close to his and my range is so close. I just sing the songs, you know. I don't really have to work at imitating him. A lot of people think I do, but I don't.

"I'll put some of his signature things in there when I'm singing his songs, but it's not something like what impersonators do. When I sing Neil Diamond, it's more like a tribute. I don't care for the impersonation thing. And there's so much of that going on.

"I got started by Elmer Willet, who was manager of The Vogues when they were real popular. He was like my founder. He discovered me at a talent search in Monroeville in 1973 or '74, and I would credit him with coaching me. He's the one who pulled me out of the living room and put me on stage. He had me singing all kinds of different songs. He was a great coach and he worked with me for about three years."

But so much of performing cannot be taught. It's that "stage presence" thing.

"When you've been doing it this long, you have a lot of on-the-job training and you just catch on to what needs to be done," Mr. Denem said. "How you make that connection with the audience. It's something that you learn. If you can move the people through your voice and performance, that's what it's all about. My job is to make people feel something."

He strums guitar while he sings. Sometimes he performs with recorded music. Every once in a while he performs with a live band -- if the booking and the budget call for it.

But it's not all Neil, all the time. For Mr. Denem, Diamond's not forever. He has his own songs -- including a new CD that he recently recorded in a basement studio in Steubenville, Ohio -- and he drops those tunes into his shows.

"I'm very firm. I'm not out to be a Neil Diamond singer. I'm out to be Chris Denem," he said. "My music is different. It's more in the line of The Eagles, Tom Petty; it's like straight-ahead rock. There's a lot more lyrical content to my songs.

"But people are very receptive. It's always encouraging. People wonder, 'Does he do anything else other than Neil Diamond?' Then I'll ask if they mind if I do a little of my own stuff, and they'll applaud. Then I can usually rattle off five or six of them and people are fine with it. It goes well."

He has his own fans, people who follow him from gig to gig.

"There's some people out there that want nothing but Neil Diamond, but there's a lot of people that are very open-minded and they realize that there's the other side of me, too."

But the Neil Diamond stuff is what gets them in the seats.

"I've had a good following for years and it's enabled me to make a living at this," he said. "Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania is a good place. I've been working here a long time and people appreciate what you do."

He used to game it up a bit, too, with the Neil hair and the Neil look.

"I used to do that a lot more than what I do now," he said. "The last four years or so, not so much. I used to wear the shiny shirt. And I still will, like if I'm hired to do a serious Neil Diamond tribute out of state, where the producer just wants Neil Diamond. I'll wear the white shirt and black vest.

"Tonight I'll be wearing more of my country-rock Eagles-type image."

Asked if he can explain Neil Diamond's popularity, Mr. Denem pauses.

"It's amazing, isn't it? It's a good-time type music. It's light, but at the same time it can be heavy. 'Cherry Cherry' or 'Kentucky Woman' and then something deeper like 'I Am I Said' or 'Holly Holy.' It's amazing how many Neil Diamond fans are out there. I've had people come many miles to hear my show.

"What I do know about Neil Diamond is that his fans are like the most dedicated that you'll ever find. They just love him. His following is so huge. I hear people say, 'Well, he hasn't had a No. 1 hit in decades,' and I tell them, 'He doesn't need a No. 1 hit.' Everything he records is shipped gold. His fans just buy everything he does, no matter what."

There are other "impersonators" out there, but Mr. Denem takes his tribute seriously.

So pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes, 'cause everyone knows Neil Diamond's show.

The concession stands open at 6 p.m. and the music starts at 7 at Avonworth Community Park, 498 Camp Horne Road, Kilbuck.

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If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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