It's easy to take shots at Neil Diamond, and plenty of critics do; He's way past his prime: he's the ultimate egotist; his lyrics are inane. But you can't deny 30 years of songwriting, 31 gold albums or millions of diehard fans. And, if you were at Key Arena last night for the first of two sold-out Seattle performances, you can't deny he can still put on quite a show.
From his opening number, "Crunchy Granola Suite," which was complete with lasers and roving spotlights, Diamond gave an energetic performance, a tough task considering he's had the same basic playlist for so many years. His aging was obvious during "Desiree, " when he strayed from the original lyrics by singing, " I became a man/at the hands of a girl almost half my age." instead of "Twice may age." After all , if he sang the original version, Desiree would be 110 years old.
Diamond sang just five songs from his latest album, "Tennessee Moon" during his two hour set, including "One Good Love" and "Marry Me". Before singing " Marry Me'' he joked about his much publicized failed marriage, which he repeatedly has said during interviews he takes the bulk of the responsibility for.
While the audience responded with whistles and yells of approval to his new material, it was the old stuff that got them out of their seats.
Hits such as "Kentucky Woman", "Song Sung Blue", "Cherry Cherry", and "Forever In Blue Jeans", had the mostly middle-aged crowd members on their feet.
From his circular stage in the middle of the floor, Diamond, dressed in black pants and a spangled shirt, swayed during "September Morn," strutted through "Desiree" and gave emotional renditions of "I Am...I Said" and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers", the latter with talented backup vocalist Linda Press. He was backed by eight musicians, most of whom have played with him for years.
When he sang "America" and American flags unfurled above his head while he was standing with eyes closed and one arm thrust up, it brough back images of the final scene from the 1980 movie, "The Jazz Singer", when Diamond's character is singing the same song. In the movie, Diamond's character has just emerged as a rock star.
Now, here he was, a decade-and-a-half later, with gray hair and slightly paunchy middle, singing that song for probably the zillionth time. Still, Diamond was able to whip the crowd into a final frenzy by following "America" with lively versions of "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Sweet caroline" befor finishing with "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show".
When Diamond asks fans to participate, they eagerly oblige, and there was something satisfying about watching more than 19, 000 people sing, "Cracklin' Rosie you make me a smile..." while shaking their hips and clapping their hands.
Entertainment Weekly once offered five reasons why the Solitary Man has been so amazingly popular the past three decades, and one seemed fitting, particularly after the failed marriage comment last night: "Thesis No. 2: Neil Diamond as Metaphor for Mankind's Existential Crisis in an Illogical Universe: Diamond has been a loner to the point of being one of the most perverse mainstream icons in pop....We are all born alone and die alone, and in the years between we subject ourselves to innumerable bad haircuts and gaudy clothes. Neil Diamond knows this."
And if you don't believe it, you weren't among the thousands who packed into the Key Arena last night for the first of two Neil Diamond shows. Though silver-haired and a little rough around the vocal edges, Diamond is still the prince of polyester pop.
Before Diamond entered his revolving stage-in the-round, an impressive laser light show with diamonds turning into birds that flew around the world let the crowd know that this was the usual upscale production. Then, dressed in a glittery gold and dark-colored striped shirt and black pants, Diamond sprinted into the lights, and the enthusiastic crowd rose cheering.
Backed by the same nine-piece band that has been with him for years, Diamond played it safe at first covering hits like "Desiree" and "Hello Again". For "Solitary Man" he stood at centre stage, strapped on a guitar and strummed along. The instrument wasn't plugged into any amplification, and the strumming that came over the speaker system was done by the guitarist in the musicians' pit, but no one in the audience took offence at the ruse. They came for the dramatic and romantic image that has made Diamond a star for 30 years, and nothing was going to detract from that.
After a couple of light rock numbers - "September Morn" and "Play Me" - Diamond segued into a set from his new album with "Kentucky Woman". Which was a hit for him in 1967 and also appears on the new disc, "Tennessee Moon".
One of the reasons Diamond has been popular for so long is his ability to take what is hip at the moment and adapt it for the masses. With "Tennessee Moon" he has made the trendy country-folk-rock movement his own. With just a hint of country harmonies, a fiddle here and there and a trio setting for some of the numbers, Diamond took the crowd to a space that was between a honky-tonk and a coffee house. And they went along gladly.
The tunes from the new disc, many co-written by Diamond and some of country music's finest writers, are quite beautiful and dark. Just divorced after 25 years of marriage, Diamond used the album to purge his pain, and it showed, even on the love songs. "Can Anybody hear Me" was a foot stomping demand, "One Good Love" was a plea for an end to loneliness and the rootsy "No Limit" was a man trying to move from a state of despair to one of hope. "Marry Me" was one of those songs that shows the irony of life.
"When you're married, you write divorce songs," Diamond said in introducing the song. "And when you're divorced, you write married songs. I'd like to do a married song."
Then Diamond returned to proven hits like "Forever In Blue Jeans" and "Song Sung Blue".
After seeing Diamond in his sold out performance at Vancouver's GM PLace on July 27th, I made the trek 150 miles south to see him on his home turf, the USA.
Seeing a performer twice in a week may seem slightly ridiculous to some, but they are not part of the world inhabited by Neil Daimond fans.
The differences between the two shows was easy; there weren't any! But, this is where Diamond's professionalism shines through. To be able to get up in front of almost 18, 000 people 6 times a week and do the same material over and over again with as much enthusiasm as that of any 20 year old aspiring musician is a credit to the performer.
Elvis Presley said it best years ago, " I have to excite the crowd, I have to be 110%. it may be old hat to the band and I, but most of these people haven't seen us before." Many other performers that stop doing their old hits or stop touring all together should follow that advice, Diamond obviously has, for everytime he sets out on tour, the concerts sell out quickly and very few are disappointed because he follows this credo.
Diamond is also a smart performer, he doesn't overload the set with tracks from his new release, "Tennessee Moon" he does just 5 from this album. He knows that it's the old hits that keep the people coming back. Using this tactic probably sells more copies of the album because he gives you a little taste and then returns to a proven track record.
And what a track record it is; "Desiree", Beautiful Noise", "September Morn", "Play Me", "Solitary Man", "Sweet Caroline" "Cherry Cherry", "Hello Again" and "Cracklin' Rosie".
These are songs that are imbedded in the public consciousness, anthems from 20 years ago. One only had to witness the audience singing "Forever In Blue Jeans" along with Diamond to know that they were bonding with him, and he with them.
Diamond has always had style, grace and entusiasim for his work, old and new. Last night's performance proves that Diamond will still be at the top, when other performers fade quickly, once their record has faded from the charts.
August 5, 1996