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Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center, 7/11/12

Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center, 7/11/12
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

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Slideshow: Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center

Neil Diamond
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Wednesday, July 11, 2012

With the spate of festival and concert cancellations announced over the last few days (even you, Hoobastank?!), it certainly was nice to have a sure thing to depend on Wednesday night. The tireless, 71-year-old singer/songwriter/showman Neil Diamond thrilled a sold-out Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, delivering a spirited two-hour set full of chart-topping hits that had fans of all ages singing and dancing along.

There are very few people who are lukewarm about Neil Diamond, you either love him or you don't really care. And everyone who was packed into the X last night was deeply entrenched with the man and his music. Diamond generates so much emotion and enthusiasm through his songs and his stage presence that his devoted fans (men and women alike, young and old) can't help but profess their undying love for the man. And Neil returns that love back to his fans each and every time he takes to the stage.

After two rather tentative opening numbers ("Soolaimon" and "Beautiful Noise") which featured Diamond playing acoustic guitar while supported by his talented but never overbearing 14-piece backing band (featuring a four-piece horn section and three back-up singers), the set caught a spark on a rich, soulful version of "Forever In Blue Jeans," that found Neil strolling all around the stage, making a deeper connection with his audience who were singing the uplifting number right along with him.

Diamond clearly has a long-lasting, fruitful musical relationship with the Twin Cities, as he mentioned early on in the show. "We've played St. Paul since 1971, and we've played Minneapolis since 1970. We're happy to be back. Thank you so much for showing up. We want to earn your loyalty tonight." The crowd roared their approval back to Neil, but the packed arena should have let Diamond know that he earned our loyalty long ago.

Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center, 7/11/12
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

The hits just kept on coming throughout the performance, as Diamond, who looked dapper as always in his customary all-black suit, shifted into more somber, but no less passionate material, as a robust, stirring rendition of "Hello Again" was quickly followed up by heartfelt versions of "Love on the Rocks" and "Play Me." A poignant rendition of "Shilo" was Neil's touching ode to youth and the eternal bonds of friendship, and was an early set highlight among many, with Diamond's voice in fine form as it was throughout the entire set.

With most of the older audience settling into their seats after a string of slower numbers, Diamond pleaded, "C'mon, I need you to dance with me now." And the whole arena responded by getting up and dancing away during a zydeco-tinged version of "Red Red Wine," and a bluesy, swinging run through of "You Got To Me." After a smooth, crowd-pleasing rendition of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," Diamond addressed the ovation. "I react like all human beings -- when I hear people screaming or see people smiling, that's where I go." And indeed, Diamond strutted all around the massive stage, making sure to sing to the thousands of supporters in front of him, to the sides, and also those fans who even packed the area behind the stage.

Neil then picked up his famous black guitar to play along with his band on a cracking version of "Cherry Cherry," which featured a brief solo from each member of his 14-strong group. A bouncy rendition of "Kentucky Woman" kept the energy level high before Diamond slowed things down a bit with a moody, wistful version of "Solitary Man," his first single to achieve moderate success back in 1966, which, along with "Cherry Cherry," found its way onto Diamond's debut album, The Feel Of Neil Diamond.

 

Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center, 7/11/12
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

"Behind every solitary man is a dreamer," Diamond announced before "Glory Road," and after a somewhat tepid version of that track, Neil continued to share his thoughts. "Like all believers, the road I've taken has been long, and bumpy, and lonesome. I knew I couldn't hold down a job, so I had to become a singer. And I've been doing that for I don't know how many years now." Over 50 years, actually, but who's counting. And Diamond truly doesn't show any signs of rust, performing with a vigor of a man half his age.

Diamond turned the Monkees hit (which Neil wrote) "I'm a Believer" into a loungey ballad at first, but after he finished singing he mentioned, "There are two versions of that song. Oh, you know, do you? Let's give 'em the rocking version, gang!" And with that, the crowd again sprang to its feet to swing and sing along to the faster (and better) version of "I'm a Believer." Linda Press, who has been part of Neil's band since 1976, sang along with Diamond on "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," and while her voice certainly doesn't compare to Barbara Streisand, when Press and Diamond danced together during the song's outro, it was a warm, affectionate moment that made the somewhat schmaltzy version memorable.

The set began to drag a bit with the dated hippy gusto of "Crunchy Granola Suite," but what better song to snap the performance back to life than the slow-burning, jubilant anthem "Holly Holy." It was one of the night's clear highlights, with Diamond in great voice and the band laying the simmering groove behind him, and truly ignited the rest of the show into a celebratory affair.

 

Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center, 7/11/12
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

The house lights in the arena were switched on for "Sweet Caroline," which turned into a rousing crowd singalong, as it is each and every time Neil plays the song, no matter where he goes. Diamond really stretched it out, as well, reprising the chorus three additional times, which gave all of us another chance to sing out the indelible refrain. Diamond even joked about getting the words wrong, saying "I've been singing it 'Whoah, whoah, whoah,' and it turns out it's "Bah, Bah, Bah.' I'm not even the boss of my own song any more. Let's do it one more time for me so I can get it right!"

An earnest version of "I Am...I Said" ended the main set, with Neil leaving the stage to a rousing ovation while the rest of the band remained. With the cheers showing no signs of letting up, Diamond returned to join the group for a lively rendition of "Cracklin' Rosie" which enthusiastically kicked off the encore. Diamond then took a moment to get personal with the crowd. "Over 100 years ago, a 12-year-old girl took a train from Kiev to Rotterdam, Holland. There she boarded a ship that would take her to America. That girl was my beloved Grandmother. This song is dedicated to her."

And while the over-the-top patriotism of "America" might be too blatant for some artists to pull off effectively, complete with jingoistic clip-art images of eagles and the Statue Of Liberty on the screens while red, white, and blue lighting drenched the arena, Diamond turned the number into a celebration of the endless possibility and potential that this country possesses, and everyone was rightly moved. The show probably should have ended there, for what song can truly compete with "America"? "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" certainly tried, but ultimately couldn't compare.

The show came to a close with "I've Been This Way Before," which was a touching love-letter from Neil to his passionate and supportive fans, subtly thanking them for being there throughout his long career. It was truly a tender moment, and brought the show to an elegant conclusion. Whether this was the first time someone in the arena was seeing Neil Diamond perform, or the last time they will get the chance to see him play, his soaring, uplifting anthems filled everyone with a special joy that will last a lifetime.

Neil Diamond at Xcel Energy Center, 7/11/12
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: I had always viewed Neil Diamond as being my parent's music. But after tonight, he's mine too.

The Crowd: Packed to the rafters with a nice mix of old-timers and younger fans, all getting swept away by the majesty that is Neil Diamond.

Overheard In The Crowd: Women of all ages, mothers and grandmothers, professing their undying love for Neil. With plenty of men doing that as well.

Random Notebook Dump: Only Neil Diamond can truly get away with having his own songs serve as the pre-show music in the arena.

Bonus GIF by Stacy Schwartz:

Setlist:

Soolaimon

Beautiful Noise

Forever In Blue Jeans

Hello Again

Love On The Rocks

Play Me

Shilo

Red Red Wine

You Got To Me

Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon

Cherry Cherry

Kentucky Woman

Solitary Man

Glory Road

I'm A Believer (Ballad Version)

I'm A Believer (Rocking Version)

You Don't Bring Me Flowers

Crunchy Granola Suite

Holly Holy

Sweet Caroline

I Am...I Said

Cracklin' Rosie (Encore)

America (Encore)

Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show (Encore)

I've Been This Way Before (Encore)


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