Even when Neil Diamond was at his most stylistically lean and mean, way back in 1966, he was a theatrical singer with a flair for the dramatic that flirted with the melodramatic. He's never been afraid to lay it on thick.
As Diamond and his core audience have grown older, the singer has made everything bigger. (Maybe because our hearing and eyesight are shot?) His performances and arrangements are flashier and more obvious, sometimes coming across like a combination of vaudeville and a lounge act; but it works because Diamond is pure show biz, and that's never been a bad thing as long as you have the material to back it up.
Diamond does, and he doesn't mind repeating himself. Last night at Freedom Hall, Diamond was generous with his best-known material, especially for someone who is enjoying his most successful album in years with Tennessee Moon. Diamond, who performed on a rotating stage in the middle of the hall, didn't neglect the new record but the majority of his two-hour show was dedicated to the classics. And while Diamond did add a layer of Vegas to his older hits, he kept them straightforward enough to allow 17,000 fans to cop a strong nostalgia buzz.
Diamond's best songs go beyond nostalgia, though. Tunes such as Solitary Man, Cherry Cherry, and Girl You'll be a Woman Soon are among some of the greatest pop songs ever written, the kind of stuff for which car stereos were invented. And it's still kind of thrilling to hear Kentucky Woman, especily when several thousand Kentucky women are singing along.
Diamond has been cranking out three-minute dramas since the 1960's, when he dropped out of New York University to concentrate on song writing. He was discovered in Greenwich Village by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, two of pop music's greatest writers,and signed to a contract. His first recording session produced Solitary Man and Cherry Cherry and Diamond was a hit.
Those two songs were among many highlights last night. There was also a great slow-burn version of Holly Holy that was played out with restraint until the gospel-tinged chorus brought down the house. Diamond slid from there right into I Am...I Said, a beautiful monument to self-absorption and self-pity.
You Don't Bring Me Flowers was unexpectedly moving, as Diamond's highly evolved gift for schmaltz took the song way over the top, just where it needed to be. The big finish actually raised a few goose bumps.
Diamond went too far only once, during a bombastic take on America, the hit from the soundtrack of his acting debut in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. Near the end, Diamond raised his arms with a flourish and four American flags unfurled from above the stage. You had to groan.
But by the time Diamond and his smooth band were whipping through an encore of Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, it was easy to forgive the flags.
On an uncharacteristically Cool September Night in Louisville Ky, Neil Diamond strode onto stage and proceeded to welcome a crowd of 17,422 (according to Neil's count) into his world (Diamondville). And oh what a world that is!! For the next 2 hours and 15 minutes, Neil sang for, sang with, clowned with and genuinely gave himself to an audience which embraced the Pied Piper and followed him everywhere he lead.
I have attended 12 ND concerts over the past 20 years and as the rest of my comrads in arms, grown a bit older. However, a new generation of ND fan is emerging. This concert was very, very special for me, in that I got to share it with my 7 year old son, Neil Wesley Lovett. It was his very first ND concert and he had a blast. Since he knows all the words to all the songs, he sang, danced in his seat and did the wave(s) right along with my wife and I. The only downer for him was that Neil did not perform his favorite song which is You Got To Me.
In previous concerts, I have noticed that Neil worked so hard at keeping the crowd UP that he sometimes 'yelled' rather than sang the lyrics. Not this time! The lyrical integrity and vocal quality of this concert were the BEST that I have seen from him in a long time. He was truly at ease and enjoying himself. As for the crowd, they were there for him. When he takes the stage, it truly is Love in the Round!!
The prelude started with laser light animation reminiscent of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull animations from concerts of the late 70's. The band members ran onto stage as the prerecorded anthem built to a plateau. And just like the orchestra-to-rock transition of the Hot August Night prelude, the band drove head-on into Crunchy Granola Suite. Then, the man himself burst up the ramp to a thunderous ovation and the magic began.
After a couple of ballads, it was time to do some "oldies", which consisted of straight forward versions of Solitary Man and Play Me, a calypso-style arrangement of You'll Be a Woman Soon, and a Kentucky crowd favorite Kentucky Woman.
The next set consisted of a mixture songs ... which among others included: Beautiful Noise, Song Sung Blue which as Neil put it "the song I've asked you a thousand times to help me remember the words to", and Forever In Blue Jeans which had to be performed a second time because "4 people in the front row did not dance and sing along".
Neil performed 6 songs from the new Tennessee Moon album starting with Can Anybody Hear Me. The tempo of this number was slower, which did not provide the same effect, as the versions on the CD and the Ryman Auditorium TV special. Neil, this one needed a little more "boom, boom, boom". Waylon Jennings unfortunately could not make it to the show to help out on One Good Love, but as Neil put it "who cares".
Then in a cozy, jam-session setting just like the TV special, Neil, Ron (on snare drum), Reinie (on upright base) and 'Hadbone' Hadley (on flattop) performed No Limit and Everybody. It was evident, by the emotion with which he sang, that Everybody, co-written with his son Jesse, was a very special song for him.
Then Neil performed Marry Me with Buffy Lawson. Buffy, who duets with Neil on the album is a native of Lexington, Ky. And Neil invited her over to the Louisville show to sing for the home folks. As Neil put it "Boy you sure grow 'em pretty in these parts. Now you know why I named the song Kentucky Woman!!". And he was right. If you think she is pretty on camera, you ought to see her in person - a very beautiful and elegant lady.
From the Jazz Singer album, Neil performed Love on The Rocks and America - with the laser lights providing the fireworks, 'old glory' waving from the rafters and the crowd dancing in the aisles. I always get goose bumps when I listen to that song.
The band introduction was done to the theme of The Last Picasso with each band member performing a fairly lengthy solo - which was a very nice touch. After all they have been a musical family for nearly 20 years and outlasted two marriages.
As always, Neil saved the knockout punch for the end. The performance of Soolaimon, Shilo and Holly Holy were equivalent to those recorded for the Hot August Night album - clean, thorough and heart driven. Then he performed perhaps the greatest song ever written I Am...I Said. Of all the songs he has ever written or performed, this one says it all!! However, Brooklyn Roads, which was not on the play list, is not far behind.
One clever thing Neil did with this concert was to save and perform the classics Cracklin Rosie, Sweet Caroline and Brother Love as part of the Encore. With the stage and spot lights flooding the building, it was like a bright, golden sunset indoors. As I scanned the audience, I saw people young and old dancing, clapping and holding hands, doing the wave - it was a revival and it truly was 'Brother Love's Show'.
Unfortunately, it was over all too soon and we had to return to our own worlds of reality. As Neil slowly descended the stage ramp the crowd begged, stomped and pleaded for more. But then he was gone. As we left the arena, my son was singing the chorus to Play Me - perhaps a new favorite. Until next time old friend...
A female vocalist sang a duet with him (from his new album)and she and
Neil sounded really great together.
The show lasted about 2 1/2 hours of solid non-stop music. If I had the
opportunity I would definitely go see him every time he was within
decent driving range.