Neil Diamond 2001-2002 Concert Reviews

Sacramento, CA December 8, 2001



Review: Diamond gives crowd what it wants -- plus new songs
By Rachel Leibrock
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
(Published Dec. 10, 2001)

Neil Diamond, playing to a sold-out audience at Arco Arena on Saturday, sang for two hours and covered his 40-year career. Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

Some things are just a given.

So it was no surprise to see a giant United States flag draped in front of the Arco Arena stage Saturday night. It is generally understood, after all, that when Neil Diamond plays your town, the legendary singer-songwriter and showman is going to make you feel good.

And in today's uncertain social, political and economic climate, there's nothing like a peppy go at "America" (the 1981 hit with the rallying refrain "My country tis of thee / Today! / Sweet land of liberty / Today!") to raise everyone's spirits.

Diamond certainly knows how to work a crowd, and the 60-year-old performer proved it at the sold-out show.

As the opening notes of "America" filled the arena, the giant flag lifted to reveal Diamond -- beams of light seemingly shooting out of his chest -- standing in front of a 17-piece band. Dressed in black pants and a sparkly black top, he urged the happily obliging crowd "to stand up for America."

It was an exhilarating -- if somewhat predictable -- start to a two-hour musical odyssey that spanned a 40-year career. And if it felt as though Diamond was tugging at the heartstrings a bit too heartily at times, forgiveness was easily exchanged for another round of favorites.

Diamond is a bona fide song- writing machine, and he demonstrated his stylish chops Saturday night covering classics from every era of his career. While his more recent material doesn't hold up too well, Diamond's earlier pop songs still shine.

Rolling through more than two dozen songs including a three-song encore, Diamond touched on all the classics -- from 1966's garagey "Cherry Cherry" -- which still sounds teenage fresh -- to the pensive "Solitary Man" (for which Diamond strummed the guitar) and on to a twangy rendition of "Red, Red Wine" that unfolded into a reggae party tune.

Throughout, Diamond played his audience -- comprised of people of all ages although dominated by the 40- and 50-something set -- with skill and precision.

Before breaking into "Play Me," he asked the audience for a "hankie." After choosing one from a female fan in the front, he proceeded to use it to wipe the sweat from his face -- much to her swooning delight.

Later, during a saucy, sultry rendition of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," Diamond courted another admirer who was standing near the front of the stage. Dropping to his knees, he kissed the young woman on the hand then slowly unfolded into a reclining position until he was lying on the stage -- all the while smooching her hand, her forehead and her very happy lips.

The cheese factor was, without a doubt, in full effect. Neil Diamond is an old-school showman with overripe stage banter and exaggerated stage moves, and his performance often strayed into Vegas territory as he moved about in a two-step, side-to-side shuffle and pumped his arms in frenzied time to the symphonic beats.

At times the band played too loudly and the backup singers nearly drowned out Diamond's vocals. Indeed, his voice sometimes sounded rough and croaky -- occasionally breaking down into the watery sing-speak manner. And midway through the show, when Diamond played three new songs in a row (all from his latest CD, "Three Chord Opera") it became clear that the once master-songwriter is past his prime. Although "You Are the Best Part of Me" benefited from the pretty, refined accompaniment of a string quartet, the showy "At the Movies" is a cringe-inducing cliched groaner and the tired "I Believe in Happy Endings" only served to drag the show into a mid-set lull.

But Diamond atoned for any down beats by engaging his fully appreciative audience with cheerful aplomb and an understanding of how to pull a show back from the edge of satire. Thus, for every Bic lighter moment (and there were many) or canned joke, he offered redemption by way of genuine enthusiasm and a palpable, whole-hearted love of performing. One particularly touching -- and telling -- moment came when Diamond approached a baby grand piano and revealed the awe that the instrument -- after years of writing and performing -- still inspires in him.

"Every time I see one of these I see so much potential," he said before sitting down to play "Lady Magdelene." "There is so much that is still unwritten."

On the songs that have already been written, spirited audience singalongs -- especially on "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Sweet Caroline" -- showcased the phenomenon that at his finest, Diamond can easily and gracefully straddle the line between being an unwittingly ironic entertainment relic and a beloved pop culture icon.



Diamond is forever
By Tony Sauro

Record Staff Writer

It's quite obvious that this Diamond definitely is forever.
It already seems like an eternity -- or at least the better part of a lifetime -- since Neil Diamond started producing all those multi-carat pop music gems of his 35 years ago.

As he proved once again Saturday night, they have lost none of their luster or appeal.

Neither, apparently, has Diamond. This guy's still a class act and very much the people's -- not the critics' or the tastemakers' -- choice.

Looking and sounding pretty good for a 60-year-old grandfather, Diamond -- an impeccable craftsman who remains the consummate showman -- alternately rocked and serenaded an adoring, multi-generational crowd of life-long believers and younger converts at a sold-out Arco Arena in Sacramento.

Embarked on his first tour since 1998, Diamond delivered a typically polished performance during a generous, all-encompassing 27-song, 130-minute show that mixed vintage rock classics and easy-listening staples while moving sleekly and slickly from a melodramatic overture and flag-draped opening to a raucous, tent-revival finale.

Diamond, dressed all in black with his sequined shirt sparkling, worked the mostly enthusiastic crowd flawlessly from a huge, unadorned stage -- backed by a 17-member ensemble that included an energetic string quartet, four sizzling horn players and two big-voiced backup singers, and surrounded by state-of-the-art sound and lighting worthy of the Vegas strip.

Trapped as we are in a period of puerile, prefab pop, a little sincere old-school schmaltz and schtick like Diamond's can be good for you.

After a giant American flag was lifted into the rafters, Diamond & Co. paid their post-Sept. 11 respects with a surging, synthesizer-powered version of "America," his 21-year-old tribute to the nation's immigrant legacy. Red, white and blue lighting and three smaller, floating flags added to the effect.

It was love at first sight and sound for most in an all-ages crowd -- including entire families -- that ranged from grooving grannies to stylish yuppies, T-shirted Diamondheads, college students and slightly puzzled-looking grade-schoolers.

No dummy, Diamond cemented the relationship as he strapped on an acoustic guitar and introduced "Solitary Man," an ageless attitudinal anthem that was his first single in 1966.

"Is this the same place where the Kings beat the crap out of the Lakers last night?" asked Diamond. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he now lives in Los Angeles, but said he "loves" the Kings, Sacramento's pro basketball team.

After the roar subsided, he added he was proud to be touring America, "especially with what our country is going through now. Music has the power to heal. So let the healing begin."

Diamond's music has been doing that for lots of people for a very long time.

Making only a few concessions to the years with some slower tempos -- and with his craggy baritone croon sounding a bit ragged only on the harder-rocking tunes -- Diamond ranged far and wide over his sturdy 46-album catalog, including five songs from this year's "Three Chord Opera."

The jukebox cranked out early classics such as "Cherry, Cherry" (1966), "Red, Red Wine" (1967), retooled with pedal steel and the kind of reggae rhythms England's UB40 used on its hit version, and a jumped-up, horn-fired soul take on the timeless "I'm a Believer" (1967), a hit for the Monkees back then and for San Jose's Smash Mouth now.

Diamond sang the Gap TV commercial ("Forever in Blues Jeans," from 1978), and turned "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" (1967) into a sexy tableau, serenading and kissing a very obliging woman from the audience, rolling onto his side next to her before "passing out" on his back as her partner came to the rescue.

Friendly, appreciative, funny and quick to schmooze, Diamond also requested a hanky from the audience before attempting the tender "Play Me" (1972). He wiped his forehead and armpits with it and threw it back.

After a grand piano popped up in the middle of the stage, he was much more serious -- reminiscing about the early days before performing "Lady Magdalene," a lush and beautiful obscurity from 1974. He followed that with "Shiloh" (1967), a touching tune about the power of an imaginary childhood friend.

He also dedicated a hushed, hopeful version of "Captain Sunshine" (1972) to Vince Charles, a longtime member of his band who died recently, and sang "He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother" (1970) to "our new heroes" -- both from Sept. 11 and those currently deployed in Afghanistan.

The crowd, up and down in fits and starts, couldn't contain itself at times, singing, swaying, swooning and stomping during rousers such as "Holly Holy" (1969), an extended "Sweet Caroline" (1969), "Cracklin' Rosie" (1970), about the charms of cheap wine, and the closing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" (1969), during which Diamond switched into his Elmer Gantry routine atop a pop-up podium.

The four-woman string quartet also popped up to sweeten the new "I Haven't Played This Song in Years," while singer Julia Waters did some gospel shouting during "Soolaimon" (1970). Her partner, Linda Press nailed the Barbra Streisand bits during the severely schmaltzy "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (No. 1 in 1978).

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