Neil Diamond brings sparkling concert to new Stockton Arena as gala opener

If you didn’t know something special was going on in downtown Stockton on Sunday night, the lack of parking spaces, throngs of people and four circulating spotlights in the sky over the Stockton Arena might have given it away.

Decked out in black with just a touch of red sequins, Neil Diamond appeared almost magically at 8:30 on the dot after his band, piece by piece, and back-up singers rose from under the stage. He went on to belt out more than 25 hits to a sold-out crowd.

Legendary singer-songwriter Neil Diamond belts out a song in front of nearly 10,000 people Sunday night at the Stockton Arena. (Jerry R. Tyson/News-Sentinel)After a trio of songs without even a breather, the artist, always the showman, slowed down to thank his guests.

“Just remember, we played here before anyone else,” he said, with a wave of his hand.

Diamond was secured just a month ago for the arena’s gala opener. Although it is home to three sports teams, venue officials hope to draw future concerts. The 10,000-seat arena is a third of the city’s waterfront redevelopment efforts; the Bob Hope Theatre and Stockton Ballpark have already drawn thousands.

The thousands that attended Diamond’s show Sunday were full of energy, jumping in and out of their seats when the genre of music dictated it — from the families in formals at tables set up on the floor to the teen-agers in blue jeans and nose rings.

One group held up a yellow sign decorated in blue glitter with the words “Happy Birthday.” (I’m sure Diamond saw it!)

After the opening set, the singer, whose career began 40 years ago this year, donned an acoustic guitar and fancy footwork for a short rendition of “Kentucky Woman.”

By that time, the audience was out of their seats for good. Diamond rewarded the group by proclaiming them a “noisy audience.” He danced with an invisible partner during “Play Me” before revving it up again with “(Coming to) America,” during which the two screens that graced the stage showed footage of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. And, of course, the stage lights turned to red, white and blue.

You almost had to pinch yourself to remember you were inside an arena that one night earlier was a hockey rink. The ice had been covered with a 1/4 inch synthetic material, the sideline advertisements draped in black cloth and huge scoreboard tucked neatly into the ceiling.

Neil Diamond, far left, and his band entertain a crowd of nearly 10,000 people Sunday night at the Stockton Arena. (Jerry R. Tyson/News-Sentinel)Bob Melrose and his wife, Rosie, attended Saturday’s hockey game but were more anxious to see Diamond, who turns 65 later this month.

While snacking on a bag of popcorn pre-show, however, Bob Melrose said he was impressed he could take the family to a sporting event and be home in 10 minutes. They live in Stockton.

Another couple, from Acampo, were excited as well; they usually drive north to Arco Arena in Sacramento for concerts.

“I always wanted to see Neil Diamond, and he was going to be so close,” said Wanda Dillon, of Lodi. “I heard people came from Modesto, Manteca.”

When the show started, Dillon and her husband, Richard, were eye level with the man made famous for his signature sideburns and sequins.

Half-way into the show, Diamond shared the duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” not with Barbra Streisand but with his not-so-young back-up singer. (Women nearly swooned when they shared a soft kiss at the end.)

He’s been with his fellow musicians for more than 30 years.

Neil Diamond: At a glance
Born: Neil Leslie Diamond on Jan. 24, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York

Background: Diamond’s love for music started at age 16 when he received a guitar as a birthday present. He later attended NYU as a pre-med student on a fencing scholarship, but songwriting remained his first love. He left college six months before graduating to accept a songwriting position with a publishing company for $50 a week, according to his biography.

Personal: He attended school and sung in the choir with Barbra Streisand. Diamond has been married twice and has four children.

First single: “Cherry, Cherry” (1966)

First no. 1 hit: The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” (1966), which Diamond authored.

Other famous songs: “Sweet Caroline” (1974), “(Coming to) America” (1981), “Solitary Man” (1966), “Song Sung Blue” (1972), and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (1978). His “Red, Red Wine” became a top-hit for U.K. group UB40.

Career highlights: He won a Grammy in 1973 for best original score for “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and 20 years later he was recognized as one of the top five earning tours for the period September 2001-December 2002. The shows drew nearly 2 million attendees over the course of 117 shows in 89 cities.

Latest album: “12 Songs,” released in late 2005 and produced by Rick Rubin.

— News-Sentinel staffAnd, more than an hour into the event, they finally let him sit down — on a stool to strum some more guitar.

About that time, the ice became more alive, sending an obvious chill into the masses, many of which reached for their jackets. (Those who have been to a Thunder game know what I mean.)

Again, you had to remind yourself that the same main spotlight illuminating Diamond is the one used during hockey intermission — but what did it matter? People were there to watch a multi-platinum singer-songwriter.

Sunday’s show, however, did not come without scrutiny.

The city refused originally to disclose the amount paid to bring Diamond to Stockton, although the venue was paid for with public money.

Ultimately, after media pressure, officials announced it cost $1 million; they paid half in December and the remaining $500,000 earlier this month.

Before Diamond, the city had attempted to bring American Idol star Kelly Clarkson or Paul McCartney to the arena, according to published reports.

“I know there were some questions about the payment, but let’s enjoy the show and sort that out later,” Melrose said.

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