A Neil Diamond concert is a pretty no-nonsense affair.
Just before his Wednesday night show at the Xcel Energy Center began (right on schedule at 8:15) the PA system announced “the lights will dim abruptly.” They did, and after a brief introductory recording of ’60s sound bites (Walter Cronkite, JFK) in honor of his 50th anniversary tour, Diamond’s longtime band started into the opening number, “Cherry, Cherry.”
Within a few bars, the man himself bounded out in all black, with a grey beard, slim in form-fitting pants with a sequined side seam -- Mandy Patinkin dressed as Johnny Cash. He slipped out of his black jacket halfway into the second song, accompanied by chaste whooping from the audience. And for two hours, he ran through most of his hits.
Diamond's physical presence on stage makes you remember just how sexy he was in his heyday. He was an early outer-borough sex symbol, smoldering at a time when white America generally regarded Jewish guys as nebbishes, the bookish Brooklyn boys in the World War II movies who were the first in the platoon to get blown up. You don’t have to squint that hard to see that Hot August Night magnetism now. He still looks terrific.
He moves like an older man, though. Diamond spent a lot of the show making his way around the stage, pointing at people in the audience, waving, winking on “You Got Me,” open-handed gesticulating on “September Morn.” He moved a little slower, though, a little stooped over. But then you think, well, you know, he’s 76 years old. He’s the same age as Dick Cheney. And beyond his impressive physical performance, his voice still sounds very good.
Diamond’s voice has always been good, but he’s never been particularly virtuosic – he’s closer to Leonard Cohen than Stevie Wonder. But there's a velvety quality in his voice that’s served his songs well, particularly as he’s aged. A lot of the hits that Diamond sang at the Xcel were written by a young guy looking back at adolescent pleasures and struggles, mining a vein of sentimentality that drove hip rock critics in the 1960s and ’70s crazy. His performance of “Brooklyn Roads,” from 1968, accompanied tonight by grainy home movies of Diamond as a boy and his parents in postwar Flatbush, is a case in point. It’s a wistful elegy to the old neighborhood that might have seemed absurd when sung by a twenty-seven-year old guy, but had a real tear-jerking quality when sung by a man nearly a half century later, actually sitting down onstage and recounting it to the audience while footage of it played above him. Even at his most romantic and seductive, Diamond has long inhabited the character of glum, sentimental outsider in songs like “Solitary Man” and “I Am I Cried,” both of which he sang with a precisely calibrated level of mawkishness.
Then there are the super-hits. Diamond busted out “I’m a Believer” and “Red Red Wine” around the one-hour mark. Another thing about Diamond that separates him from his peers is that he started as a songwriter, moving on to stardom only after establishing himself as a go-to hit-maker. To that end, he’s always been very comfortable with other people’s treatments of his songs, and in fact, builds those treatments into his own interpretations. When he played “Red Red Wine,” he wasn’t doing his own moody 1960s version, but UB40’s 1983 reggae version (see Chris Molanphy’s recent piece on the complex history of this song). When he sings “I’m a Believer,” he’s incorporating the best elements of the Monkees’ hit version, maybe even a light dusting of Smash Mouth’s postmillennial Shrek-powered version.
Which all leads, of course, to “Sweet Caroline.” This poor song has been manhandled so thoroughly by the good citizens of Boston over the past two or three decades that no one could attempt to perform it without the obligatory audience participations parts (“SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”). And you know, Neil doesn’t mind one bit. In fact, he has adopted the edits to the song so completely that not only did he turn the microphone back to the audience during those parts, but after the song ended, made an executive decision to play the chorus once more, so people could get in on it again. He seemed to love it. The band seemed to love it. The audience loved it, no seemed about it. Neil Diamond may be a sentimental guy, but he’s also a guy who will embrace the aspects of his own music that have organically evolved in the pop arena over the decades.
Diamond’s ease as a performer is legendary, and it was on full display at the Xcel. When he took a moment to introduce the players in his long-time band, he ran through them affectionately, like an old guy in a Brooklyn bar lightly razzing the regulars -- “he’s a keyboardist, he’s a journalist, he’s annoying,” he said of his keyboardist.
In fact, Diamond’s ease with the crowd is so commanding that they’ll go with him on somewhat odd tangents. The strangest part of the evening was when Neil introduced 1970’s “Soolaimon” with video footage of New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby squad’s haka introduction – the players take the formation on the field before a match, and chant a Māori song to intimidate their opponents. Diamond said he and the band had gone to New Zealand, saw the haka in action, and wanted to share it on tour. And so they did, and a New Zealander rugby tradition was transplanted to a hockey arena in St. Paul with Neil Diamond at the head of it, and there you go.
It’s like when you go to the old neighborhood bar back in Brooklyn, and the owner is out regaling everyone with stories of the old days, but just to keep you on your toes, he plays some videos of his vacation in New Zealand. Like a lot of blurry closing times in your non-hip neighborhood dive bar, the night also ends with a sing-along of “Sweet Caroline” that maybe goes on a little too long, but come on, that’s just how things are in the old neighborhood. You’d be heartless to complain.
The crowd: If not a sellout crowd, pretty close. In the Minneapolis Star’s 1970 review of Diamond's first local appearance, writer Dodd Lamberton described the audience that night as “the more conservative of today's youth.” That still sums it up fairly well, though they’re not young anymore, and they brought their kids and grandkids with them. That said, a lot more people saw Neil Diamond in 1970 than saw the MC5 at the Minneapolis Armory the same year. Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski: the bums lost!
Overheard in the crowd: Not a particularly chatty crowd, but in the security line (I brought my tote bag like the arena show amateur I am, so had to wait in the bag line for 20 minutes), I overheard at least two people who were talking about having seen Neil at the Minneapolis Auditorium show mentioned above, and at least two other mother-daughter parties.
Critic’s bias: As a kid growing up in the '80s, I had an obsessive and maybe slightly tortured relationship with oldies radio in my hometown (rest in peace, WRKA). Neil Diamond's constant presence on the playlists was rivaled maybe only by Johnny Rivers and Gary Puckett, all of whom I lumped together in the syrupy-lonely-guy-soft-rock subgenre. At the time, I was a little resentful of Diamond, because I figured all the rotations of "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Kentucky Woman" were elbowing out the stuff I really wanted to hear, like “You Really Got Me” and “Ballad of the Green Berets.” But damned if all of those songs haven’t stuck with me all those years, even discounting all the thousands of times I’ve heard “Sweet Caroline” at sporting events and wedding receptions. They seem as much a part of the cultural landscape of the late twentieth century as hot dogs and baseball. They’re touching me, and touching you. BAH BAH BAH!
You Got to Me
Love on the Rocks
If You Know What I Mean
Dry Your Eyes
Forever in Blue Jeans
You Don't Bring Me Flowers
Red Red Wine
I'm a Believer
Pretty Amazing Grace
Lonely Looking Sky
Crunchy Granola Suite
Done Too Soon
I Am ... I Said
Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show