It’s an American success story.
Neil Diamond’s 50th anniversary tour stop at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday began with the 76-year-old indefatigable entertainer making an entrance as a montage of photos telling his life story was shown on a diamond-shaped video screen.
A news clip was heard about helicopters being shot down during the Vietnam War, young Neil grew into old Neil before our eyes, and we even got to see Mr. “Forever In Blue Jeans” in a tux, dancing with Princess Diana. Get ready baby boomers, it’s going to be a Neil Diamond concert!
Fifty is a nice round number, but Diamond has actually been around even longer. Both “Cherry Cherry,” which he opened with, and “Solitary Man,” which followed shortly, were hits in 1966, and before then the man who attended New York University on a fencing scholarship and would become the “Jewish Elvis,” started recording in 1962 as one half of an Everly Brothers-ish duo called “Neil and Jack.”
Along with penning sure-fire pop hits such as “I’m A Believer” for the Monkees — a highlight that got the crowd up and bopping — Diamond has recorded plenty of schmaltz in his career. That was epitomized on Tuesday by a three-song medley (“Be,” “Lonely Looking Sky,” and “Skybird”) from the soundtrack to the 1973 film of Richard Bach’s flighty novella Jonathan Living Seagull.
But latter-day Diamond has also enjoyed a renaissance as an entertainment institution appreciated both with a nod and a wink, and also as a belt-it-out singer who has continued to deliver his songs with gusto well past retirement age.
He’s had more than his share of cultural moments in the last few decades. Uma Thurman grooving to Urge Overkill’s version of Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Diamond playing himself in the 2001 comedy Saving Silverman. Career-reviving producer Rick Rubin giving Diamond the Johnny Cash treatment on two ’00s albums. And all those Boston Red Sox fans singing “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park.
Did all that result in Diamond drawing a young audience to the Wells Fargo? No. The crowd in South Philly was multigenerational. But while U2 two nights before brought out middle-aged rock fans and their children, Diamond’s fan base is middle-aged couples and their parents.
Diamond tours with an impressive band of 11 musicians, plus back up singing sisters Julia and Maxine Waters. If you haven’t been with him for 40 plus years, you’re a short-timer. The ensemble got its own extended show case in “Jazz Time.” Each member also received a fond introduction, and solo spotlight, with the trumpeter rousing the crowd with the “Gonna Fly Now,” theme from Rocky. That Neil Diamond: He’s a mensch.
With the band on a four-tiered riser, casino-showroom style, Diamond worked the front of the stage, moving more carefully than on previous tours. His voice is in excellent shape, and rarely faltered. For most of the show, he just handled the mic, though he strummed an acoustic guitar down the stretch on songs such as “Crunchy Granola Suite” and “Holly Holy,” culled from his 1972 live album Hot August Night.
During “Red, Red Wine,” he sat cross-legged while making nice with ardent admirers at the lip of the stage, then joked “I don’t know if I can get up.” “Dry Your Eyes,” performed by Diamond with the Band during The Last Waltz, was done here as a tribute to terror victims in Manchester and London, and nicely turned. The show’s high point was “Brooklyn Roads,” a tenderly rendered nostalgic reverie, complete with Diamond family home movies.
Two hours and fifteen minutes in, the show closed with “America,” delivering a message of inclusion with the patriotic song from 1980s The Jazz Singer soundtrack also prominently featured in Cheech Marin’s 1987 comedy Born In East L.A. Diamond dedicated it to members of the military and his grandparents, lured to the U.S. by the promise of “freedom of speech and freedom of religion.” The stage turned red, white, and blue as the screens showed generations of immigrants arriving in pursuit of the American dream, as embodied by the star of your show, Mr. Neil Diamond.