Neil Diamond closed his sold-out show at the Spokane Arena Tuesday with a
rousing version of "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," a fitting end
to a show which was practically a revival meeting itself.
The Arena was a big high-tech tent on this hot August night, and the crowd
was full of true believers. And out on stage was the charismatic preacher
himself, working the crowd into what can fairly be described as a frenzy.
The evening got off to an inauspicious start when some non-believer drove
up and down a long line of cars waiting to get into the Arena parking lot and
repeatedly yelled, "Neil Diamond stinks!" or a word that also begins with an
S and ends with a K.
Many people share that sentiment, and while I wouldn't go that far, I will
admit that my admiration for the man peaked in about 1967. But the opposite
viewpoint was far more in evidence Tuesday night. After all, that was one
guy yelling at hundreds of cars backed up from the Arena parking lot all the
way into Riverfront Park. That's the kind of backup you get when 12,000
people converge on the Arena. Obviously, Diamond has been doing something
right over the last 30-plus years.
And when the show began, it was easy to see what it was. Diamond is as
good as any tent-meeting revivalist at working a crowd and making people feel
they are part of a vast, joyous communal experience. Like Brother Love, he
reaches out to the audience constantly (often literally) and encourages them
to connect with him. And not only does he have the charisma to pull this
off, but he also has the music.
Diamond's best songs all have an element of the gospel tent to them. First
there was "Thank the Lord for the Night Time," one of his best and earliest
hits, which combines an infectious three-chord rock 'n' roll guitar sound
with a a good-time gospel attitude. Then there was "Holly Holy," a haunting
hymn whose chorus could just as easily be "Hallelujah." Then there was
"Soolaiman," an African-tinged song that reaches back to the roots of gospel.
And finally, just to make it plain as day, there was "Brother Love's
Traveling Salvation Show," complete with a sermon by Brother Diamond about
the need to reach out to one's brothers and sisters.
For me, the show's high points were the gospel numbers and the old, simple
songs such as "Cherry Cherry," "Solitary Man," and even his hit for the
Monkees, "I'm a Believer." These songs were light on the synthesizers and
light on the bombast.
The low points were much heavier on both, such as a snooze-inducing
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull" segment which sounded like Rod McKuen crossed
with Yanni. The other low point came when Diamond sang three songs from his
recent movie-theme album, "As Time Goes By," "Unchained Melody" and "Can't
Help Falling in Love." This latter song was symbolic of Diamond's penchant
for excess. Timpani on an Elvis tune? Isn't that a bit much? In all of
these movie songs, his idiosyncratic phrasing and odd vocal tics made it
clear why Diamond made his name as a singer-songwriter and not as an
interpreter of standards.
The rest of this two-hour-plus show featured a catalog of Diamond's
mid-period hits, some of them undeniably well-crafted pop tunes such as
"Sweet Caroline" and "Cracklin' Rosie," and others bordering on '70s schlock
such as "I Am, I Said," "Song Sung Blue" and "Play Me," which contains the
immortal lyric, "song you sang to me, song you brang to me."
Oh well, Everybody, including Paul McCartney, put out a lot of junk in the
Neil is past that now, and he seems content to bask in a formidable catalog
of hits and the adoration of the crowd.
Adoration would be too strong a word for what I felt, but a least I
understand it now. I may not be a true believer, but I don't think that the
"Neil Diamond stinks!" guy has it right, either.
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