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Review: Neil Diamond in concert

At 67, the seasoned singer-songwriter gave a performance last night in Hartford that rivals, perhaps even tops, any live show he’s done in the past 25 years. That something special was in store was evident the moment he appeared on stage – not rising out of the floor as in past shows, not donning a brightly sequined shirt as is his custom – simply striding confidently from backstage to front and center in a tasteful and dapper black suit, looking distinguished and legendary.

Even his opening number, a truncated version of Holly Holy that is usually saved for later in the show, was highly unusual. This was followed by two solid hours of non-stop, heartfelt performances of his biggest hits, as well as well-received new material from “Home After Dark,” his highly-acclaimed new album, and amazingly the only one to ever hit number one on the Billboard chart. He may finally be getting the mainstream respect he has long deserved, and he is wearing it well.

Diamond was like a man with a new lease on life, rendering versions of his songs that seemed energized with new meaning, a tall order for material that is so well-known by the audience and so often performed by Diamond. The feeling he conveyed on biographical pieces such as Brooklyn Roads (complete with home video of his youth), I am, I Said (with a revealing new emphasis on the word “still”) and Solitary Man could only come from a man who has found his emotional center and is in a very secure, connected place. Everything he did tonight radiated from that core, trumping the need for the flashiness and shtick that was often featured in past shows. In essence, his live concert is now as pared down as his new albums, and it works on both fronts.

A beautiful rendition of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers was delivered with the help of long-time vocalist Linda Press. While Diamond has often done this in concert before, the newly added touches of a table adorned with a lone flower and wine glass and a tender slow-dance between the pseudo-lovers gave it a whole new melancholy. Somehow the words of the song leapt out in a brand new way, as if you’d never really heard them before.

The stage itself was also the epitome of simplicity and function. It was spartan, slightly sloped and contained six raised platform-pedestals serving as individual bases for the vocalists, drummer, keyboardists, percussionist, horn section and guitarists. Diamond himself often sang from a wedge attached to the front of the stage which traveled from left to right like a giant slice of pie. The band platforms also moved during the show like huge chess pieces positioning themselves for maximum advantage. The lighting was tasteful and subdued, as was the burnt sienna, almost Southwestern appearance of the stage itself.

Diamond sang some rare treats, numbers he seldom performs in concert any more. These ranged from Crunchy Granola Suite and Done Too Soon from the seminal Hot August Night album, to Love on the Rocks and Song Sung Blue. Perhaps his best numbers of the evening were the crowd-pleasing Sweet Caroline, a band-showcasing Cherry, Cherry and a rendition of America that rivaled his classic performance in the final scene of The Jazz Singer over two decades ago.

Diamond alluded to one possible source of his centeredness, expressing gratitude to the Almighty for giving him his talent and his loyal audience and feeling that he has a concomitant responsibility as an instrument of goodwill. While the spiritual is often invoked in his music (Brother Love, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Soolaimon) and has been referenced by him, perhaps the relatively new song Man of God, which he made a point of performing last night, says it all:

I’m thanking you, Lord, for givin’ me song
For makin’ me strong and for takin’ my hand
I’ll go up to Heaven when I reach the end
But up until then gonna do what I can

Amen to that.

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