By: David Schultz
Unless you are approaching AARP eligibility, telling people you’re going to see Neil Diamond on a Saturday night evokes some pretty interesting reactions. For the most part, it all boils down to one thing: is Neil Diamond cool? The perennial go-to response has always been, “Of course Neil Diamond’s cool, he was in The Last Waltz.” However, that close to 32 years ago. To put it in perspective, there were also a lot of plaid leisure suits in The Last Waltz. Feel like wearing one of those in public? Saving Silverman made Diamond out to be a minor deity but a moronic movie cannot confer hipness. Also in the inconclusive category is the Saturday Night Live skit in which Will Ferrell gave him Diamond a blandly psychotic edge. (“This next song I wrote after I killed a drifter to get an erection.”). More concrete, Diamond did get the Rick Rubin treatment, not once but twice. In the end, it boils down to a nice little Catch-22: Neil Diamond’s show is cool but going to see it isn’t.
Saturday night’s concert was the last of four not-exactly sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. Diamond’s show is very much a throwback, not remotely geared towards a modern or young crowd. It’s cool in the same way the outdated Rat Pack antics of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. remain hip. Prior to taking the stage, announcements were made alerting folks as to how everything was going to proceed, that the lights will dim abruptly and that all of Diamond’s fans should fasten the brakes on their wheelchairs. (I may be wrong on that last part). Once the show began, Diamond went through the paces, putting forth an extremely solid show notable for its devotion to its tight choreography and staging. It didn’t seem as if Diamond was working off a script but you really couldn’t point to any single moment of spontaneity. It hardly mattered; people came to listen to Diamond’s warm and comforting voice, not to be part of a spectacle.
Diamond ran through a veritable slate of his greatest hits, stopping the hit parade only briefly for a couple songs from Home Before Dark, his latest album. In every bit of the word, Diamond is a showman and there are very few that can deliver a song like he can, regardless of genre. Over the course of his ninety minute show, Diamond breathed life into “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman” and “Cracklin’ Rosie,” brought the right amount of gravitas to “I Am, I Said” and sent the schlock meter into the red on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” In the same measured tones that spawned Ferrell’s parody, Diamond spoke of his Brooklyn roots and serenaded the back of the arena with “Love On The Rocks.” The night’s best moments came when Diamond brought the swing and bounce of the late 50s/early 60s, the Garden perfectly suited for the slow build of “Holly Holy,” the Buddy Holly shuffle of “Cherry, Cherry” and the revival tent fervor of the night’s final song, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” “Sweet Caroline” got the arena up on their feet and singing along. Diamond stretched out the all-to-familiar chorus and even revved the song up again after it had finished. Diamond’s one surefire anthem would have been better suited as the final song of the evening as the joyous communal atmosphere it created couldn’t be and wasn’t duplicated for the rest of the evening.
During an impassioned version of “America,” the time warp in which Diamond exists became crystal clear. As much as any of his other songs, “America” embodies Diamond’s optimistic ethos of being able to create your own destiny and his Jazz Singer ode captures the euphoric feeling of the foreigners seeking to change their fortunes in the U.S. While Diamond sang the song, the video screens depicted black and white photos depicting stereotypical scenes of the immigrant’s first visions of the Statue of Liberty and the American mainland. In many ways, the open shores and welcoming land described by Diamond no longer exists. In today’s climate, “America” is an anachronism. So is Neil Diamond.