What is it about Neil Diamond that gives his work such endurance? For much of his career he’s been the subject of both devotion and ridicule. Some find his earnest, emotive style charming while others find it disingenuous, or just plain goofy.
The Brooklyn-raised singer never gained the kind of critical praise afforded to a con-temporary like Paul Simon – who was born the same year over in New Jersey – but you can’t make it through a night of karaoke without hearing a drunken group scream-along to Sweet Caroline.
Diamond pulled in a crowd for Saturday night’s show at Rogers Arena.
It was largely a devoted bunch – fans that went way back. As we waited for the show, people around me bantered about how many times they’d seen Diamond over the years.
This tour marks the 40th anniversary of Diamond’s live album Hot August Night, the album that made a place for Diamond in the hearts of a generation.
Diamond and his legion of background performers took the stage Saturday night to the pounding drums of the African-inspired song Soolaimon. A moment later, Diamond appeared dressed all in black, toting an acoustic guitar. His appearance drew the audience to its feet and he finished the song with arms wide open as if in benediction, accompanied by explosions of light.
The set list touched all the required bases. It included Diamond’s best-known work like Forever in Blue Jeans and Shilo. He even played Red Red Wine, which was so memorably covered by UB40 that it’s weird to hear it without a reggae beat. Background singer Linda Press took Barbara Streisand’s part in a theatrical performance of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.
The night hit a high point with Cherry, Cherry, which benefited from a stripped-down arrangement compared to most of the other songs.
Unfortunately, the song was halted half way through so that Diamond could introduce every single member of his band. Most of them got solos, including a particularly enthusiastic one from the horn section and a strange metal-infused romp from guitarist Hadley Hockensmith.
The second last song of the set was the obligatory Sweet Caroline. The audience jumped to their feet to sing through the instrumental and, just as in karaoke, the entire audience missed the final chord change.
“May we move on,” he asked at the end of the third run. Honestly, the crowd would have let him move on after the first time.
And that was emblematic of Diamond’s entire show – so well planned that it had no sense of spontaneity or genuine connection with the audience.
But no moment in the show said Neil Diamond more than when he finished a big performance of I Am – I Said.
His enthusiastic band remained onstage, cajoling the audience to cheer for the inevitable encore.
The audience obliged cheer-fully, still in love with him after all these years.