Watching Neil Diamond pick and choose songs from his widely varying career brings to mind another Neil: Neil Young. Granted, Neil Diamond is no Neil Young—critically speaking, at least. Nevertheless, the two share one significant trait: a sincere need to constantly evolve.
Diamond may not be as restless as he used to be but the momentum he generated in the early part of his career has kept him in constant—albeit continually slower—motion. It’s also given him a superior catalogue of songs to choose from.
Okay. Let’s get the worst period of Diamond’s career out of the way first. Although he’s best known for his schmaltzy love songs (you know, the stuff housewives cry to while dusting off the furniture or pushing the Hoover), the performance of these sorts of tunes finds him sleepwalking. You’d probably do the snore-walk too, if you had to recite such clichéd lyrics while blubbering through soppy melodic sentiments.
The most dreaded example of Diamond’s bland ballad work—and believe me, there are examples aplenty—is “Heartlight”, which was inspired by a freakin’ sci-fi movie. Thankfully, Diamond chose not to flick on the old heartlight tonight, God bless him. Still, he did dredge up the soap opera-esque “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”. But instead of trading lines with Babs, as he did on the old single, he cried out the desperate words to one of his flowerless backup singers. One other work from the stale food section, “Love on the Rocks”, was also served, ice cold. To be fair though, Diamond did keep a tight rein on the Mannilow-isms this time out.
An almost equally dark spot on Diamond’s career credits is his early stint as a hack songwriter. Few even realize that UB40’s hit, “Red, Red Wine”, was one of his golden oldies. But then again, UB40 disguised the tune in a reggae beat. Diamond reprised the twice-popular song tonight: first, he performed it in its original form, then he reworked it UB40/Jamaican style. He also performed “I’m a Believer”, which was a smash hit for The Monkees well before Shrek brought it back to life. Although much of this older material is trite, to say the least, “You Got Me”. “Cherry, Cherry”, and “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” all made for generally upbeat concert fare, nonetheless.
Between his days as a songwriter-for-hire and his current, more slowed-down MOR presentation, Diamond desperately tried to fit in with other, serious, ‘70s singer/songwriter types - namely the James Taylors and Bob Dylans of the world. His fans may have taken him deadly seriously during these sobering days, but most critics and casual fans didn’t buy into his whole heavy lyrical trip. But no matter what side you take on this debate, many of the songs birthed from this period stand up particularly well.
Live, Diamond’s serious side was best exemplified by “Glory Road”, which found him sitting down to perform, accompanied by only his acoustic guitar. Diamond sprinkled other key soul-searching songs throughout his set such as the pseudo-spiritual “Holly Holy”, and the overtly holistic “Crunchy Granola Sweet”, the later serving as his concert opener. Although its bi-coastal confusion is a little dated, “I Am… I Said” also came off passably sincere. Nevertheless, I’ll take Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, instead, when I ‘m looking for art that discusses the cultural differences between NY and LA.
It was strange to watch the middle-aged (and beyond) crowd’s reactions to Diamond’s passionate songs. Responding to him onstage, fans in the stands physically mirrored his excitement. It’s not unusual to sit with concert-goers that appear bored and uninspired—especially when the performer is, shall we say, a seasoned one. Not so here; Diamond fans exhibit more youthful enthusiasm than one has right to expect. Diamond’s writings must have spoken to them in a special manner way back when, and those songs are clearly still speaking to them now. Holly holy, Batman, indeed!
On a more personal note, many of the songs performed tonight were great just for nostalgia’s sake. My childhood next-door neighbors, you see, were huge Neil Diamond fans. Car trips to the store with them were some of the first times that I ever heard the man’s music. That’s why “Shilo” brought such vivid memories. I can still hear my neighbor’s dad screaming at us kids in the back seat, in some vain hope of quieting us just long enough to hear that song play on an old eight-track—fat chance that that ever happened! Now with kids of my own, I realize what unrealistic expectations they had.
Not everything in Diamond’s set can be broken into nice, neat categories. Some of his tunes are just great love songs—there are probably too many of these to count. One of my personal favorites, “Solitary Man”, was skipped altogether, and “Song Sung Blue” (probably not one of his greatest lyrical achievements) also got a pass. But “Kentucky Woman” has a melody that sticks to your ribs like KFC, and its propulsive rhythm never fails to get me going. Similarly, “Sweet Caroline” became an enthusiastic audience sing-along. So much so, in fact, these longtime fans even hummed along with the horn refrain during the chorus.
Moving forward, word has it that Rick Rubin is working with Diamond these days on a new album. If Rubin can do for Diamond what he previously did for Johnny Cash, we might all be in for a whole new era of Neil. Just consider the way Rubin connected Cash with modern songwriting talent, and then just let the Man In Black do the songs in his own inimitable style.
But Rubin doesn’t necessarily need to hook Diamond up with new blood; rather, if he can spark Diamond to write about a few darker emotions and a few less heartlight scenarios again, he might become Diamond’s new best friend. Of course, this isn’t the first time Diamond has worked with a highly respected rock figure. Way back in 1976, Diamond recorded Beautiful Noise with Robbie Robertson of The Band. This was, to paraphrase from its title, one beautiful noise of an album. Diamond sang its title cut tonight.
On an instrumental level, Diamond was backed by a relatively large band—one which included four horn players, three backing singers, and two keyboardists. But strangely, it was a relatively quiet group. I’m not sure if this was due to the fact that Staples Center’s girth swallowed up all the sound or just the intentional subdued nature of this unit. Whatever the case, the roof was never in any danger of being blown off, that’s for darn sure.
The show came to a close with Diamond blowing through “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, as if he were a camp meeting preacher. His rendition sounded much the way it used to during hot August nights of yesteryear. The only noticeable modification was when Diamond—in his best holy roller voice—shouted out some love to the gay community, right along with the song’s other charitable exclamations. But other than that, it exploded just like a fiery Sunday service.
Neil Diamond occupies a strange middle ground: one somewhere between rock, which has never completely accepted him as one of their own, and the oldies circuit, which he’s just too proud (and popular) to join. And if fate is kind to old Neil, perhaps Mr. Rubin can make him cool—and not just in a kitschy way—once again.