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Neil Diamond: A musical institution at work

It's Neil!

Among the incessant finger-pointing, the rippling eyebrows and the habit of delivering lyrics with ponderous melodrama, it’s so easy to find Neil Diamond insufferable.

 But as he’s aged – and at 71, he still cuts a striking figure, especially in his black and red sparkly shirt – the performance quirks that years ago made you wish he’d go to Vegas for career death (since that’s what used to happen in Vegas) now make you hope thgat he goes there for a triumphant residency at Caesars Palace.

 The Diamond of today can still milk a lyric like few others, whether growling through the tribal-by-way-of-Brooklyn “Soolaimon” or caressing the Dewar’s-smooth “Love on the Rocks.” But the jaunty clap-along tunes – “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Cherry, Cherry” – were delivered with a creased grin, while the introspective moments, such as 2005’s “Hell Yeah,” clearly came from a place of knowing wisdom.

Neil Diamond still cuts a striking figure at 71. Photos: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Neil Diamond still cuts a striking figure at 71. Photos: Hyosub Shin/AJC

 Yes, the Neil Diamond who performed a two-hour set for  about 13,000 fans Wednesday night at Philips Arena was, actually, pretty cool.

 It took Diamond and his ace 14-piece band – a unit that has been together, somewhat astonishingly, since 1976 – a few songs to get comfortable with the set. A combination of muddy sound and restrained energy dented the first handful of songs, something that can surely be fine-tuned since this was only the third date of a tour primed to continue all summer.

 But with the trio of “Rocks,” “Play Me” and “Hello Again,” which he introduced by recounting a performance at the Fox Theatre 30 years ago, Diamond hit his confidently raspy stride.

 Unsurprisingly, the majority of the crowd leaned toward his target demographic, and amusingly, the “come take me” line in “Play Me” had a cluster of mature ladies near the front of the stage squealing like mall rats at a One Direction concert.

 But a glance around the arena found plenty of generational variety. Even some middle-aged men seemed to want to be there – and not merely as obedient spouses.

 This is also the perfect tour for the casual fan who is most familiar with Diamond’s 37 Top 40 hits. Not that he played them all, but he did roll through the ‘60s (“Red Red Wine” – yes, kids, he’s the one responsible for that horrific UB40 song we suffered through in the ‘80s – “Holly Holy”), the ‘70s (“Crunchy Granola Suite,” “Cracklin’ Rosie”), the ‘80s (“America”) and today (the aforementioned “Hell Yeah”).

 One highlight came when he stripped “I’m a Believer,” his song made famous by The Monkees, into a ballad. It was a wonderful change-up, but Diamond knows his audience, so of course the song was repeated in its familiar uptempo shape.

 An intimate duet with backup singer Linda Press on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” shimmied with sensuality (those whippersnappers on “Duets” should take notes on this performance with Barbra Streisand to learn how to share a song and a stage).

 And, of course, “Sweet Caroline” continued its tradition of being the ultimate karaoke song. Almost everyone in the occasionally muted crowd stood to wave their hands (touching hands), punch the air for the “ba-ba-baaaaaa” segment and gleefully shout, “So good! So good! So good!” at Diamond’s barely needed command. A couple of reprises of that chorus – perhaps one too many – followed, and Diamond appeared genuinely thrilled at the reaction that he surely receives every time the song is performed.

 

Diamond performed songs from every decade in his 50-plus-year career.

Diamond performed songs from every decade in his 50-plus-year career.

Something that has always set Diamond apart from many of his peers is that he isn’t only a song interpreter, but, like Barry Manilow, a tremendous songwriter.

Is there a healthy layer of cheese coating “America”? Well, yeah.

 But after hearing Diamond dedicate it to his grandmother – “the inspiration for everything I’ve done in my life,” he said – it would be tough not to get a little misty-eyed listening to the lyrical picture he created with those familiar lines: “On the boats and on the planes…they’re never looking back again.”

 Sometimes, you just have to look past the posturing and respect a musical institution.

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By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene

Check out some more photos of Diamond here

40 comments Add your comment

Scott

June 7th, 2012
12:25 am

First. Great show, His voice is as good as it has ever been,

Melissa Ruggieri

June 7th, 2012
12:33 am

Man, you’re fast, Scott!

Betty

June 7th, 2012
12:47 am

Great show!! Loved every minute of it. Sweet Caroline is still a wonderful and fun song no matter how many times you hear it!! I hope to enjoy many more of hisconcerts

Debbie

June 7th, 2012
1:06 am

Neil Diamond – So Good!
So Good!
So Good!!!!!

Charlotte

June 7th, 2012
1:10 am

Fantastic performance!! I’ve seen him in concert several times and I still love every minute of every show!! I have been a fan for over 40 years and still love his voice, his music.

Michael

June 7th, 2012
1:15 am

Great show, I’ve seen him about 15 times ,nothing can be as good as the concerts I saw in New York in the late sixties and early seventies and one month after 9/11 but this came amazingly close. We had a fantastic evening my wife saw him for the it’s time and now we have tickets for his Las Vegas show sept 1st

Fred

June 7th, 2012
7:17 am

Thank you for a great tribute to a great artist/poet/writer/social commentator/performer. I have loved his poetry in song for 35+ years. I didn’t see the show but your article made it possible to enjoy it vicariously!

Jane Nellums

June 7th, 2012
7:21 am

Wonderful Show…..We first bought his record over 42 years ago and love his voice!
He still sounds Great! The evening went by too fast!
Great Times!
JN

OldSchoolGold

June 7th, 2012
8:00 am

The detractors out there will say his voice isn’t perfect and his delivery is kitsy, but there is no denying Neil’s passion and intensity in (1) his wrting and (2) his presentation style intended to please his fans, critics be damned. Ans such a marvelous band – many of whom have other great achievements in their careers – for which the term ‘back up band’ just does not seem to be appropriate.

Neil Diamon is head and shoulders above almost any other performer.

blkshepherd

June 7th, 2012
8:48 am

Melissa

Hmm..Suprised. You mean No “he didnt connect with the audience” no shout out to Atlanta? sounds like he did like most artists do when they come, Perform and get on to the next gig. You are so bias

Carla Marie

June 7th, 2012
8:48 am

my 2nd time seeing Neil live, but my Aunt Deborah who went with me, saw him live for the 56th time last night!

MoreOrLess

June 7th, 2012
9:23 am

I had no idea Neil Diamond was in concert until I heard about it on the radio on the way to work yesterday. I immediately went into action trying to procure tickets because it was our wedding aniversary that day.

I found some last minute tickets and we went to the concert. What a memorable way to spend our 31st wedding aniversary.

LaLa

June 7th, 2012
9:28 am

Melissa – as usual you are spot on. I thought it was me having hearing issues (no I am not old) during the first few songs… it took me a while to connect to Mr. Diamond and the band and the Band a while to connect with the majority of the crowd. Once connected – I was thrilled to be part of a concert with a legend. Very poetic – very talented and met every expectation.

Rocker

June 7th, 2012
9:30 am

Neil can still put on a great show. I especially like his really oldest stuff such as “I’m a Believer” (both ballad style and the rockin’ version, “Cherry, Cherry” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” I counted only an 11-piece band, three singers plus Neil, so not sure where the 14-piece band came from. Neil and the band were both great and I hope they continue entertaining for many years to come.

Lou

June 7th, 2012
10:10 am

I was also at the show last night and I have seen Neil over a dozen times starting in the early 80’s. I was on the floor about 30 rows back so to me there were no sound issues but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. First of all I love his music and the fact that I go to his shows so often backs that up but there is something about his shows that is a bit annoying. Melissa was right in pointing them out. If you have seem him a bunch and seen other acts to compare him with you will know what I mean. Although I got the feeling many of the people around me didn’t see a lot of shows based on their comments. I heard is there an intermission? What concert has an intermission? Anyway I will move on with my review. While I enjoyed the show and give it a “B” Neil is very Las Vegasy still! He moves like a robot and has for years so it isn’t his age and moves as if he is being positioned around electronically by someone else holding a gaming control system. His gestures when he finishes a song are always the same and again feel very scripted and corny; like he is saying Tah Dah! at the end. He always interjects some unneeded groan in a song too like in Cherry Cherry among others, it sounds odd. He did it all night. You don’t get the feeling from watching him that there is a real impulsiveness with the band. Every move seems totally scripted. Even the back up singers seemed as if they had every move decided ahead of time. I loved Sweet Caroline but again telling the audience “Last Chorus” and singing the song again when it had ended was all rehearsed. It wasn’t something special for Atlanta! He has done the same thing with that song for 20 years. It’s okay to not do that every show or every tour. Or do it without saying the same lines over and over. I will say I thought his voice was fantastic and while I did enjoy most songs,I did love Holly Holy, Hello Again and I am I said especially, I am sure someone will think I didn’t enjoy the show. I did. Sorry to nitpick but if you think back to the night, you would have to agree.

Freddie Mercury's spirit

June 7th, 2012
10:12 am

Neil is still the sweet tart, isn’t he?

Tildie Goldblatt

June 7th, 2012
10:15 am

An intermission would have been nice for those of us who can’t hold their bladders for over 2 hours !

Concert promoters should take notice !

Melissa Ruggieri

June 7th, 2012
10:42 am

Blkshepherd: Actually, as I mentioned, Neil told a charming story leading into “Hello Again” about when he and the band first played the Fox 30 years ago and how happy he was to be back in Atlanta. I’m sure it was “perform and get on to the next gig” as it is with most artists, but he spent plenty of time engaging with the crowd with singaglongs and stories about his band and family. Guess who also did that? Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin. Your accusation of bias makes zero sense. Facts are facts.

Cheers,
Melissa

Melissa Ruggieri

June 7th, 2012
10:57 am

Rocker: Back-up singers are technically part of the band, so….11 musicians and three back-up singers make a 14-piece band.

Cheers,
Melissa

Jennifer

June 7th, 2012
11:36 am

loved the show, missed september morn. No more pics should be taken from audience. flashes are a nuisance.
Neil was fabulous, any nitpickers should try that at 71. His voice was unbelievably smooth.
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers was stunning.

Jennifer

June 7th, 2012
11:38 am

oh, watching Neil’s face, made me smile, looks like he still enjoys himself as much as we enjoy listening to him. Surprised he didn’t mention Jazz Singer, band was exceptional. Just a great time all around.

Donna

June 7th, 2012
12:18 pm

Only problem I had with the concert were the two couples sitting behind me who thought it was ok to chat throughout the first half of the concert – until I finally turned around and told them to shut up and that there were people there who wanted to hear the music. The couple with the six year old son sitting next to me were great. The six year old knew all the words to the songs!!!
To those who are complaining about singing Sweet Caroline chorus more than once – you need to understand – that is his signature song and he will ALWAYS sing it at his concerts…

christy girl

June 7th, 2012
12:19 pm

man this guy is like sooo old i think he is older than my grandad,why would anybody want to pay to watch this ancient relic?

Tildie Goldblatt

June 7th, 2012
12:27 pm

There was a yenta in front of me who complained that my friend and I were chatting during the show. The nerve of some people!

Good thing I brought my own food from home to nosh on. Who could afford those prices at the concession stand, in this Obama economy? Oy vey !

Dave

June 7th, 2012
1:27 pm

Seeing him tomorrow in NY. Did he play Shilo?

DaGuvNa

June 7th, 2012
2:09 pm

Seeing him tomorrow in NY. Did he play Shilo?
Nope, but an excellent show, none the less.

DaGuvNa

June 7th, 2012
2:13 pm

christy girl:
man this guy is like sooo old i think he is older than my grandad,why would anybody want to pay to watch this ancient relic?

Obviously, a Lady Gaga concert would br more your speed.

MoreOrLess

June 7th, 2012
2:28 pm

Enjoyed the show. The worst part was the MARTA trip home. It was positively the worst MARTA experience I have ever had. It took 40 minutes for the first MARTA train to arrive. Apparently MARTA had been told that the concert wouldn’t be over until 11pm. So they ended had to summons MARTA to send a train. After 2/3rds of Philips Arena piled into the MARTA train, we set there for another 20 minutes waiting on the doors to close. It took a total of 90 minutes to get from the Phillips arena Marta station to the Dunwoody one. One gentleman became ill on the train and almost fainted (probably due to lack of oxygen). One lady that appeared to be a nurse thought he was having a heart attack.

It will be a long time before I take the MARTA again for an event downtown on a weeknight.

Tildie Goldblatt

June 7th, 2012
2:55 pm

Atlanta could learn a few things from NYC about mass transit.

MoreOrLess

June 7th, 2012
3:31 pm

Atlanta could learn a few things from NYC about mass transit.

You got that right.

Tildie Goldblatt

June 7th, 2012
3:38 pm

Atlanta could use a good pizza joint and kosher deli as well.

S. Stitt

June 7th, 2012
6:20 pm

Loved the concert in ATL last night! The music was terrific, missed a couple of the oldies, but still had an outstanding time. The video work was incredible! It was like watching an edited movie! A few crowd shots would have added some fun brevity – especially during the more rousing choruses.

JB

June 7th, 2012
6:32 pm

Lou
I have noticed that ever since Neil had his back surgery, he does perform looking stiff. He’s said he’s in constant pain still. Before his surgery, he was very playful with dance moves on stage. I would guess perhaps he could even be wearing some sort of brace to keep from injuring his back when he performs.

bigdawg1

June 7th, 2012
8:59 pm

Wow! I had no idea there are so many “Diamond-heads!” Let’s see, Deadheads drink microbrews. Parrotheads drink Margaritas. And Diamondheads drink Metamucal!

Tom

June 7th, 2012
9:08 pm

Have been a Neil Diamond fan for years. This was my 4th concert. I can handle loud music but the first series of songs seemed to be exceptionally loud. Maybe Philips Arena is the culprit (will not return for any shows there) The peformance last night seemed to be more scripted and predictable than previous ones I’ve attended. But I still admire his determinaton to continue his passion at 72. The “I’m a Believer” ballad was exceptional. “Sweet Caroline” went on a little too long. Sadly, you can see age beginning to be a factor…but no criticism….I hope I live to 72! Diamonds are forever!

Bobby

June 8th, 2012
12:00 pm

Great time with wonderful friends. Neil is timeless.

He looked happy.

LINDA

June 9th, 2012
11:34 am

TO TOM…NEIL IS NOT 72 , HE JUST TURNED 71 IN January…AND FOR ANYONE WHO COMPLAINS ABOUT HIM BEING OLD, DON’T WORRY –YOUR TIME IS A COMING. AND LETS SEE HOW YOU REACT AT HIS AGE. AND HE IS A GRANDFATHER 7 TIMES OVER. HE IS A WONDERFUL PERFORMER. AND WHY ALL OF THE TALK ABOUT SCRIPTED?? OF COURSE IT IS SCRIPTED, IT IS REHERSED TO PERFECTION, THE PERFORMERS ALL DO THAT….THEY HAVE A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF TIME TO DO A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF SONGS…SO IT IS SCRIPTED……. UNFORTUNATELY, I DID NOT SEE HIS SHOW AND WILL NOT SEE ANY THIS YEAR AND I AM SOOO SAD THAT I CANNOT…BUT, I HAVE SEEN MANY IN THE PAST AND THEY ARE WONDERFUL… I HOPE THAT THE CONTINUES TO BE ABLE TO PERFORM FOR MANY YEARS TO COME….LONG LIVE NEIL DIAMOND…….HE IS THE BEST PERFORMER ON EARTH……………….LUV YOU NEIL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Eric

June 11th, 2012
7:25 am

Great concert, would have loved to be longer, but 2 hours with no intermission is not bad for someone who is 71. Loved that he did Hell Yeah, Glory Road and Done Too Soon, not songs always done. Anyone notice he did not end with Brother Love Traveling Salvation Show, but with I’ve Been this Way Before, curious ending. Have seen him five times, he never disapoints.

Jackie

June 11th, 2012
11:36 am

So easy to find Neil Diamond insufferable? What a snobby way to start a review of said musical institution. Obviously, the people around the world who have packed arenas to see him perform for the last 40 years don’t find him insufferable. I saw him in Atlanta at the Fox Theater 36 years ago and it was a wonderful, memorable concert event. June 6 at Phillips Arena I was there when an American Icon put on a musical party for 13,000 or so. My only regret is that it was ‘done too soon’.

Don

June 12th, 2012
8:58 pm

Insufferable my _______. The review could be described as insufferable.