“There’s only one rule,” Neil Diamond announces, in that diamond-hard, late Neil Diamond voice of his, that croak you could sharpen knives against.
“There are no rules,” he continued.
Crowd goes nuts.
“Except that I follow the noise.”
Crowd goes nutser. Especially my side, stage left, so Neil Diamond smiles big and heads toward us, much to the chagrin of the people sitting center stage, or stage right, or stage-band’s-asses, who all redoubled their appreciation. Suddenly, I understood. “I follow the noise” is Neil Diamond, that showman who sings in self-actualizing thesis statements: I’m a Believer. I Am I Said. I’m a Man of God.
“I follow the noise”: the belief so powerful it crushed Neil Coal or whoever into Neil Diamond, the sparkliest jewel in the great rock-and-roll related musical entertainment showcase, and brought him, some 40 years later, when most other easy-listening stars of the 70s have sunk to Branson or worse, to a Sprint Center so packed a couple hundred people paid hard cash to stare at the back of his band all night. He follows the noise. It’s grandiose. Declarative. It seems to be saying something grand about life and music but also seems to be the chintziest, smartest promise: he’ll go where his people clap the hardest. He’ll give those people what they like . . . and, for the last decades, what they like is the unlikely self he hauled himself into.
(What follows is more think-y wankery about Neil Diamond. For thoughts on the show — which was awesome if you love Neil, solid if you don’t get him, and a trial if you were the husband accompanying the woman sitting next to me, — please skip down two paragraphs.)
I can think of no artist, major or cult-y, who commands such a multitude of “normal” people despite singing so frequently about his own strangeness. By “strangeness,” I mean something akin to “alien” or “outsider.” An impossibly successful outsider adored by millions. He’s the “Solitary Man”backed by a band of fifteen, a Jew with two Christmas records, a no-jazz Jazz Singer, a Brill Building songwriter too often distracted by the easy and sentimental, a slick performer whose patriotic show stopper is gung ho for immigrants and whose gospel finale – complete, this time, with a pop sermon steeped in African-American vernacular but also boasting a call for acceptance of homosexuals – is not about Brother Love or Jesus himself but instead about this Neil Diamond character coming across Brother Love one hot August night and being saved not by the savior and maybe not even by the music. He’s saved by the showbiz.
Glitz to Neil Diamond is to what rock-and-roll is to Springsteen, the holy river in which the better self is baptized. Makes sense that this is the same guy who kicks off “Done Too Soon” by rhyming Jesus Christ with Fanny Brice, which is kinda sorta his whole career right there. Showbiz is religion, which means he always means it, which is why those intimate thoughts he sings fill hearts and stadiums.
Inspired by Johnny Cash, who reminded the world that shiny Neil Diamond wrote the brooding and powerful “Solitary Man,” Diamond has lately been doing the late-career-back-to-roots thing, with encouraging results. He’s recorded two spartan records with Rick Rubin, both built around his classic declarative statements (Hell yeah, he did! He saw it all! He walked the line!) and slow-building “Send in the Clowns” progressions. The gravity of these new songs hugs his Traveling Non-Denominational Salvation Show much closer to earth than I expected. In a set stringing together lengthy, joyous, professional versions of “Cherry, Cherry” and “Sweet Caroline,” and affecting (half-talked) revivals of “I Am, I Said” and the gorgeous “Play Me,” it was “Hell, Yeah” and “Home Before Dark” that hit me the hardest. Even before an audience as eager as Diamond’s, the new songs have to work twice as hard as the old ones we’ve already accepted. Since Diamond follows the noise, and lives for it, he’s not about to half-ass it when giving us new stuff. Instead, he has to do it so well we make noise enough for him to keep following.
In a slightly spangled black suit more Cash than Liberace, Diamond looked good: trim, energetic, happy to be there. Gently haggard, but still handsome with his eyeless smile and beefy black evebrows, he looks something like what Sam Donaldson has been trying for.
Diamond played occasional rhythm guitar, but mostly let the band take over, and you couldn’t much hear guitar anyway beneath the two drummers and two keyboard players — a shame on riff songs like “I’m a Believer.” With a 12-piece band and three back-up singers, there was bound to be some excess. (“Beautiful Noise” needs a piccolo?) Diamond calls his back-up “the greatest band in the land,” and if he qualified it with “musical theater” he might have a point. Most of the players have been with the man for three decades, and they’re adept at puffing up pop songs into the production numbers their boss favors. They shined on the Latin-tinged “Pretty Amazing Grace,” and Diamond graciously gave almost all of them a brief solo showcase. Also, when it comes to beaming, dancing and clapping when not playing, they’re world-class. Their enthusiasm, cresting off the swell of good feeling in the arena, inspired in me a minor epiphany: “Sweet Caroline” is better sober, and without irony, than it is at any karaoke night.
Generally, the most bombastic moments came from Diamond himself: He belted “I Am, I Said” but he also brought a fine, light touch to the nostalgic “Brooklyn Roads” and “Home Before Dark.” He wasn’t all hairshirted integrity, of course – he still sipped wine at a restaurant table on a movable riser while complaining in song that duet partner Linda Press doesn’t bring him flowers anymore. As the riser hauled him across the stage, the noise followed him.
Love on the Rocks
Home Before Dark
Don’t Go There
Pretty Amazing Grace
Crunchy Granola Suite
Done Too Soon
I Am, I Said
Forever in Blue Jeans
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
I’m a Believer
Man of God
Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show