Neil Diamond in concert: So good! So good! So good!
BY HOWARD COHEN
Neil Diamond gave the thousands who filed into Sunrise’s BankAtlantic Center Sunday night an easy way to describe his performance. It’s in the lyrics of his most beloved hit, Sweet Caroline: ‘So good! So good! So good!”
In case we missed it, Diamond sang that audience participation number twice. “I saw two people not singing,” he joked after the first pass at the 1969 hit. “So you know what? We’ll have to do it again.”
And so he did.
Amusingly, Diamond’s tease brought to mind a PE coach who makes his students do 10 more push-ups for sloughing off the first batch. Of course, singing the “bah bah bahs” and the “so goods” in unison with more than 10,000 neighbors is a considerably more enjoyable exercise.
Diamond, at 67, is, like the woman next to me said after a soulful rendition of Love on the Rocks, “like fine wine, he gets better.” It’s a cliché, but it’s also difficult to think of a peer of his who, this far into their career, can still make the old songs sound fresh and inspired in concert and who has new material of such great depth it complements the classics.
For too many years, it was easy to forget what this concert reminded us of — the fact that Diamond is a brilliant pop songwriter. Most of the blame belongs to Diamond for squandering his gifts on a series of easy-listening albums once he left MCA/Uni for the Columbia label in 1973. This artistic slide lasted, more or less, through the mid 1990s.
But the 2000s have brought out the best in Diamond. The schmaltz evaporated and in its place is a truthful songwriter and consummate performer whose voice carries richness and feeling.
True, on some favorites, like the 1972 ballad Play Me, Diamond no longer smoothly sings the graceful melody. Instead, he sings two words of the lyric, offers a pause, sings another two words, pauses for a beat and continues as such. The opening of Love on the Rocks also feels more spoken than sung.
Yet, in the 1990s, he was given to barking out these songs and that wasn’t the case in Sunrise. When he needed to hold a note steady or sing strong, as on a powerful I Am . . . I Said or Hell Yeah, his deep voice navigated the emotional terrain with ease and resonated passion.
I’ve seen Diamond in concert for more years than I’ll readily admit and Sunday’s show, part of his Home Before Dark tour (in honor of the album of the same name which, in May, became his first No. 1 album after 42 years of trying) might well be the best yet.
Diamond expertly paced the show, almost like a skilled lover. Clad in black, he opened the two-hour set with the spiritually upbeat Holly Holy to get attention, put muscle into the pulse of Beautiful Noise and then put aside his acoustic guitar to skillfully fold in romantic ballads like Love on the Rocks and Play Me. For these, he’d move to every side and angle of his stage to give fans a view from front to back.
That stage design was also imaginative. I counted 13 musicians, among them a horn section and three female backing vocalists, and each group had their own lighted square which would, in turn, slide across the stage almost like the icons on an iPhone screen. Diamond’s band, featuring some members who have been with him since 1970, was exceptional and the sound mix in the arena was clear, warm and detailed.
After the ballads worked their charms, Diamond asked, “Shall we dance?” and got his way as people came out of their seats for his 1966 rock and roller, Cherry, Cherry. This one got an expanded treatment, the better to showcase terrific musicians such as percussionist King Errisson, drummer Ron Tutt (who once backed Elvis Presley) and bassist Reinie Press.
Diamond somehow also found a way to please purists who want to hear the hits the way they remember them — mess with Sweet Caroline, Solitary Man, Forever in Blue Jeans, America or the closing Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show and die — while subtly reinventing the arrangements on some others with smart touches. Love on the Rocks, for instance, gained a seductive and smoldering sax solo bridge. This year’s gorgeous Pretty Amazing Grace, one of his finest compositions, took on a Latin lilt with well-placed horns and a rhythm section. Some unplayed earlier classics like Cracklin’ Rosie, Soolaimon and Song Sung Blue had to go AWOL but in their place Diamond added some unexpected numbers like the lively Hot August Night album opener Crunchy Granola Suite and affectionate story songs Done Too Soon and Brooklyn Roads. (The latter featured home movies on the big screen of a young Diamond and his family.)
If any pick should be cut, it would be the tired duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. Minus Barbra Streisand’s soaring leads from the 1978 recorded version, it now feels like a bad Lifetime channel movie. Diamond has been singing it for decades with backing vocalist Linda Press (the bass player’s wife) but, unlike with Streisand, Diamond and Press, who act it out as estranged lovers, don’t sing it as a dialogue. Diamond handles most of the verses, Press simply joins on a chorus twice. Flowers should be retired as a once-loved relic of the Swingtown era and swap in selections from his current artistic renaissance albums, 12 Songs and Home Before Dark.
That single glitch aside, Diamond proved for two hours why his tours continue to top the box office in every decade since the 1960s and handily outsell whatever contemporary artists happen to be in vogue at the time. He’s pretty amazing.