Stages reviewed in GOLDMINE

From the new issue of Goldmine Issue # 622 May 29,2004

Stages:Performances 1970-2002
Columbia (C5K 90540)(Five CD, one DVD)

You know you’ve become a pop-music icon when your record label for 30 years-in the case of Neil Diamond-issues the largest single collection of previously unreleased live material by any artist in history.Stages:Performances 1970-2002 holds up to its billing,scattering 83 songs across more than five hours on five CDs.Of these 42 have never been released as live versions,and five (including covers of Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”) had never ever been recorded until now.

The first two CDs capture Diamond with his 17-piece band–of which some members have been a part since 1971–in Las Vegas Dec. 27,2002,while another pair of discs,titled Many Stages,follows the chronological evolution of Diamond’s stage act at venues around the world,from “Lordy” recorded in Los Angeles in 1970 (and this box’s only previously released track) to “I Believe In Happy Endings” recorded at a 2001 Vegas sow.A fifth disc consists solely of holiday songs recorded in various cities.A DVD,featuring a 52-minute live performance from from 2002 at an outdoor venue in Dublin, Ireland,and a 50-minute documentary about Diamond’s current road show,rounds out this exhaustive package.It’s probably all a bit too much for the casual Diamond fan,who might be better served with The Essential Neil Diamond from 2001, 1996’s In My Lifetime box set or any of the number of other compilations.Instead, Stages likely will appeal to mostly hard-core fans who always wondered when Diamond would officially release a live medley of songs from The Beatles’ Abbey Road.

Granted,thanks to a voice that could move the earth,Diamond remains one of the most recognized male singers of all time.and timeless tunes such as “Beautiful Noise”, “Sweet Caroline”, “Cracklin’ Rosie”, “I’m A Believer” and “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” deserves to be heard for generations to come.But the problems with a box set such as this,given its sequencing strategy,is that listeners can gradually hear Diamond segue from cool singer/songwriter to suave pop star to square showman.The Vegas recordings here crackle with saccharine applause and laughter from an audience that gobbles up Diamond’s cheesy stories and no doubt swoons each time the frontman exuberantly declares “Beautifully done” after completing any one of several songs.His voice sounds a bit slower,tougher and more deliberate, and he sometimes speaks lyrics rather that sings them. To his credit,though– Diamond shifts directions on select songs,countrifying the first half of “Red Red Wine” and giving the chorus of “Soolaimon” a mariachi-band vibe.It’s easy to conjure an image of present day Diamond playing to adoring fans even without the DVD,which includes a brief make-out session at the edge of the stage between Diamond and a middle-aged woman plucked from the crowd during “Girl,You’ll Be A Woman Soon.”

Even cheesier is the disc of a dozen holiday tunes.To witiamond introduces “Winter Wonderland” with this ditty:”Who knows? We might even be able to make it snow here tonight!” Of course,by the end of the sing-along song,as confetti or tinsel no doubt begins falling on stage,band and fans,Diamond exclaims,”I think I feel some snow! Oh,my goodness,it is snowing!” Still,most of the renditions are more exciting than the ones from Diamond’s two studio albums of carols,especially when he uses effective backing vocals on “Silent Night” and “O Come Emmanuel” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” highlights the band,as many musicians each take playing solos of the chorus.

Amid all this kitsch is the sets middle two discs,which showcase a more enthusiastic and experimental Diamond.By including many of his lesser-known songs here,Diamond avoids repeating material from other live sets.But choosing to feature cover songs–besides the aforementioned tunes,he also does Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and The Righteous Brothers “Unchained Melody”–diminishes the impact of Diamond’s own material and begs to be questioned.

The accompanying 52-page book offers little in the way of insight,unless you consider insightful such unintended Diamond-penned braggadocio as “These days,I am welcomed in my hotel rooms by overflowing bowls of fruit,vases of flowers and handwritten notes fro hotel managers expressing their pleasure at having me and my entourage stay at their establishments.”But the booklet does present dozens of previously unpublished photographs called from four decades o the road.The accompanying DVD would have been more effective had it taken a cue from the book and included vintage film of Diamond performing,in addition to the recent Ireland footage.

Despite it quirks,Stages proves that Diamond has remained a consummate performer for nearly forty years.Few artists,outside form the ones he oddly chooses to cover here,can make the same claim

__Michel Popk

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