Neil Diamond At Madison Square Garden, Thursday, June 15th, 2017, Reviewed
This is Neil Diamond’s 50th Anniversary? Not in the music business, in 1960 at the age of 20 he signed as a songwriter with Sunbeam Music so this is more like his 56th year in the biz. But it is 51 years since he came out as a solo singer songwriter under his own name, and saw “Solitary Man” -the third song he performed last night at Madison Square Garden, reach # 55. Neil opened with “Cherry Cherry,” also from 1966, but this time he went all the way to #5 in the charts. There must be a certain satisfaction for Diamond, his fourth and fifth releases ever and both so strong in he can play them to open a set and it feels like a greatest hits package.
Which it is and it isn’t. Diamond has been playing to sold out arenas all year long with a package that has an identity crises. There are enough hits to constitute a hits hit the road, and there is enough structure to suggest a recherches du temp perdu that while not chronological, are still filled with parenthetic moments: The Jazz Singer, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Hot August Nights, are all given their own segments as Diamond shifts from Brill Building wannabe, to singer songwriter, to sex symbol superstar, to MOR star, then a song in “Pulp Fiction” made him fan icon and arena superstar, and finally serious artist contender and current pop avatar of the 60s at 76 years of age.
It is an impressive career and one where no one can deny his skills as a pugnacious but callow superstar. On stage last night he doesn’t reconcile all these elements but merges them with a shallow but powerful disregard, indifference, to what he really was. For Diamond, there is no difference between “Brooklyn Roads” and “America” -the latter such an intelligent and aware take on childhood you can hear it echo throughout pop music (you can hear it in Bruce’s “No Surrender”) and the bombastic, overwrought “America”. It’s all one, and Neil walks every corner of the stage and he sells them completely. And he sells them as completely as his bafflingly inclusion of three songs from “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” which, while it is true it won him three Grammys, is a real stop the show dead in its tracks tracks. And if he was gonna do that, why did we get nothing from that run of albums, Tennessee Moon, Three Chord Opera, and 12 Songs -a late career resurrection which didn’t really break big.
What we did get was maybe 20 to 30 minutes of misplaced moment in a two hour concert, the JLS, was followed by endless band introductions and a band instrumental take on “Jazz Time”. A mistake which meant that a very good set of hits and an occasional obscurity, all played with complete energy and skill by Diamond, sagged for a chunk of change for no reason. Over the years Diamond has toned his glam heartthrob to a quiet buzz and the set is crisp and linear, a great real estate at MSG for him to wander, to reach out to the audience, the sides, behind the stage, he sings a verse or two very close, as close as he can, then moves away. “I follow the noise,” he claims. It’s all show biz yet there is something intense and personal about it, something the Diamond of the 1980s, seeped in ego and overblown songs and melodies, didn’t approach. He is old, he seems old, he moves carefully, but he moves constantly. He gives you everything he has and while everything he has isn’t necessary everything you want him to, as he mines Hot August Nights towards the end of the evening, “Crunchy Granola Suite,” “Done Too Soon,” “Holly Holly,” and “I Am… I Said,” you don’t want for much more.
“I Am… I Said” works as a bookend with “Brooklyn Roads,” as a now and then (where now is 1972 and then is 1950). There is nothing self-serving about either, “Brooklyn Roads” finds the young boy running up two flights of stairs with his brother, into the open arms of his father. “Where’s it gone? Oh, where’s it gone?”. Good question. As strong as the also rhetorical “Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein’ a king and then became one? Well except for the names and a few other changes if you talk about me the story’s the same one”. His self-awareness, here, and elsewhere, are so great his vision of Brooklyn, which coincides exactly with Barbra Streisand, is the truer of the two. This is the road not taken.
The road taken was all over last night, the hits were relentless. “If You Know What I Mean,” “Forever In Blue Dreams,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” “Red Red Wine,” “I’m A Believer”… ONE AFTER ANOTHER. Just a constant push on your pleasure button, forget artistic value (but really? “Red Red Wine”? How much artistic value is enough?), this is pop as hedonism, all the pleasure is in the pleasure . And Diamond is all well groomed and aged friendliness, working up the audience in his Semitic memoried in his DNA of Russia and Poland, the Jewish avatar of gentile hopes and entertainment Al Jolson in the 21st Century. He overplays his hand a little but with a firm grip on his surroundings, he can be schlock but his schlock is better than yours. His earliest songs (not represented) were Tin Pan Alley pop tunes (look up Donald Fagen discussing the teenage Diamond), as he wrote more he delved deeper into his psyche and became an early version of a Geffen star before they existed, which as he got steadier he built into a huge pop rock scored heavily orchestrated glam sound, and then, more into pop for adults, which he maintained for 20 years before delving into country music which lead him to a Johnny Cash American recordings rebuilding and where he is now. All of these sounds are performed by an excellent band, drummer Ronnie Tutt was once Presley’s drummer, guitarist Richard Bennett was on Hot August Night, and Richard’s son Nick Bennett is now second guitar with the band. These guys are masters of the sound, good times never seemed so good good good…
Which leads me to “Sweet Caroline”… Diamond’s songs have been around for 50 years, however, how many will live on? “Sweet Caroline” will live forever, an impeccable singalong, a song that respects everybody’s intelligence. It is such a magnificent beast of a song that it overpowers a career literally filled to overflowing with hits and is also almost simple though it isn’t simple at all. The entire audience overtake it, embrace the good times that makes America great, though, long past its release Neil claims he had written it for the child Caroline Kennedy -which also makes it a historic recovery song. Before his last song, Diamond discusses his immigrant parents coming to the US in search of opportunity but 50 years later, what the pursuit of is personified not by opportunity but another dream, which the stifling religious orthodoxy, extremism, world jealousy, political malfeasance, wants to tear away from the fabric of our greatness. Rock and roll, hip hop, EDM, pop, these things are what makes America America, not opportunity but good times that never ever seemed so good.