December 9, 2021
Feb. 13, 1970
Brother Neil’s Traveling Entertainment Show: Amen
By Dave Schreiner
It started slow.
In fact, it started a half hour late. And when the show did start, a comedian–whose sole purpose was to “warm up” the crowd–was a dismal failure.
So at the end of one hour–at 9 p.m.–the Neil Diamond concert seemed doomed. The audience of 1,000–mostly young people who had shucked out as much as $5 for the privilege of a seat in Plymouth auditorium–was restless.
After comedian Al Brooks muddled through his various acts, the audience looked around at each other and in quite audible tones asked each other why they’d paid five bucks for this.
After a five-minute break during which everybody continued to complain the house lights went down again.
The curtain drew back and there was a slight, thin man dressed in tight black pants and a pink and black homespun shirt.
Neil Diamond faced his audience–hostile, irritated and five dollars poorer–and mad them think it was worth it after all.
Before, the audience had faced the money problem and a restriction on cameras: “No flash cameras allowed.”
But when the 26-year old troubadour began singing, it was all forgotten.
He showed he was a performer, a musician and a singer. Especially a singer.
Many rock performers, confronted with a live audience and no echo chambers, over-dubs, 20-piece orchestra and another 20 voices going over the rough spots, choke. They can’t sing and sound lousy because they have nothing to lean on.
But with three people backing him up, Neil Diamond came across. All the energy, the heart and dynamism present in most of his songs was there.
In his recording sessions, Diamond does occasionally use string sections and other voices to help him along. But somehow, the three people playing with him conveyed the whole thing that Diamond says he always tries to provide: entertainment with an emotional appeal.
The backup group was led by possibly the best female rock guitarist in the business. Carol Hunter, playing lead, also helped with vocals. Randy Sterling, who Diamond said was best described as resembling a “very old baby,” played bass, and Eddie Ruben moved it all along on drums.
Diamond opened with “Man-Child” an early song lost on one of his early albums. He sang a lot of half-forgotten songs: “Solitary Man,” “Brooklyn Roads,” and a half-humorous, half-country and western “You’re So Sweet, Horseflies Keep Buzzing Round Your Face.”
And he delivered the hits: “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Cherry Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Holly Holy” and the show stopping climax: “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”
At first, the songs were accepted politely, and Diamond just mumbled “thank you” after each. He started slow and started to build. Finally, he went into “Holly Holy,” his current hit, and the song was interrupted by applause.
It was the first indication to Diamond that the audience was coming around.
So, Diamond the performer started to work.
He talked to the audience and apologized for being late.
He did a rousing version of “Kentucky Woman” which built and built and finally was strained and stretched for over two minutes at its peak.
He got the audience to participate in “Cherry Cherry,” asking them to clap along. “The song will sound lousy if you don’t,” he said.
The audience obliged, reluctantly at first, but they finally were with him.
Before, a group was playing on a stage and 15 feet away a hermetically sealed plastic audience was sitting, and everything was polished and practiced and very dull. Suddenly there was electricity and magic.
The audience was with him and he was with the audience. He had almost literally reached out and grabbed the audience by their collective ties and yanked them up on stage and involved them.
From that point, the show was on an upswing that never let down.
The lights dimmed, and Diamond sat on a stool and soloed “Brooklyn Roads,” one of his favorite songs recounting his youth. It’s a quiet, low-pitched song, lasting five minutes–and the audience stayed with him all the way. There wasn’t a sound, just this little guy up on stage singing about his boyhood, a boyhood which he told the audience, is probably a universal experience of youth.
Then came the climax, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” The song is about a revival meeting Diamond visited in Mississippi when he was in college.
He told them about it, how he thought he could show these people something, and how the revival preacher got to the dirt-poor farmers and offered them something.
“I had nothing to give,” he said. “I was stupid. I realized that.”
And the song is a revival meeting, starting slow and low and reaching a crescendo where the audience is almost blasted out of their seats. When he delivered the preacher’s message in monologue, he almost ate the mike. It was loud, raucous, carried a personal message–and was met by thunderous applause.
Diamond’s concert had made it despite its initial handicaps.
Downstairs, after the show, he sat quietly on a bench. He was polite and tired and ready to go to Flint, Mich., for another performance. He didn’t know where he was going after that, because it was hard to keep up.
“But I like tours,” he said. “You can get your message across a lot better when there’s an audience. There’s continuity and there’s a better chance to get an emotional feeling from the songs.”
“Yeah, this was a pretty good audience. I liked it. You know, when you stink, your audience is bad so you think the audience stinks. But I liked this.”
He reiterated that most of his songs are personal statements about what he’s seen in his 26 years, and he took a shot at minute analysis of songs.
“In my type of music–in most types of music–you should get an emotional feeling. You either like it or you don’t. Music shouldn’t be given a big critique, picking it apart piece by piece. When you do that, there isn’t any excitement any more,” he said.
When he started, Neil Diamond was classified as “bubble gum” and Top 40, and most said his songs weren’t worth the ink it took to write them.
In answer to a question, he agreed that “there’s a lot of snobbery in the underground. But I guess they’re starting to accept the songs for what they are. Music should be like that. You can’t analyze it to death. It shouldn’t be torn apart. Music should give emotion, and I guess the underground is beginning to learn that.”
He started in 1966 by pedaling “I’m a Believer” to the Monkees. He said that he doesn’t particularly like the song, and was surprised at its success. The song sold nearly six million copies.
His own favorites are “Brooklyn Roads,” “Brother Love,” and “parts of Solitary Man.”
“There are few songs that I wouldn’t change again if I had the chance,” he said. “You hear them again, and wow, was that presumptuous.”
The talk turned to “Pot Smokers Song,” a thing he did 1 ½ years ago. Interspersed between light, airy verses of “Pot, pot, give me some pot…” are three interviews with kids recovering from drugs at a rehabilitation center Diamond visited.
“Most critics missed the point of the song. It doesn’t only hit pot, it hits a lot of things. If you listen, you hear that all the kids had real involved family troubles. But people who listen apparently can’t accept that part of the song. They won’t admit to the presence of an outside trouble that might lead to drug use.
“But I guess it is an involvement song, and I don’t know how successful it is. People will do what they want to anyway, just like they’ll make their own interpretation to any song,” he said.
His road manager came in and looked at his watch. The interview was over.
Diamond changed clothes downstairs in the auditorium. Upstairs a group of girls had been waiting patiently for him for over an hour.
The rumors flew back and forth during that time. He was going out the back way, and wouldn’t come this way at all. But he promised he’d come. And back and forth.
But he did arrive. The band preceded him to a bus. Then came Diamond, and again he was polite. He signed autograph books, record covers, and even a girl’s hand.
The road manager came back and looked at his watch again.
Neil Diamond and his Traveling Entertainment Show headed toward Flint.
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