When I mentioned to a lifelong friend recently that I went to see Neil Diamond perform in concert the previous week, his response was simple:
The convenient answer was “so I could blog about it.” After all, this is a music blog site and legendary artists of Diamond’s stature certainly deserve space in it, right?
Or maybe it was so I could be there to witness the chorus of 30,000 people shouting “So good! So good! So good!” at the right points during the refrain of his millennium-exalted hit, “Sweet Caroline” – you know the one that’s been co-opted into several sports teams’ anthems and made into a bar-room singalong that drives people crazy when they hear it; all the while with me knowing that this particular Neil Diamond song actually has the exact opposite effect on me when it comes on.
Put frankly, “Sweet Caroline,” is one of my least favorite Diamond songs, primarily because of its misrepresentation as a rollicking party anthem during the 2010s, when in fact it’s just a simple love song about a girl named Caroline from the 1960s.
But getting back to the question, neither of those two reasons for my going to see Diamond would be completely accurate. The correct answer to why I – a relatively young-ish black man with soul and hip-hop music roots – would be caught alive at a Neil Diamond concert is simple…
I really like Neil Diamond, particularly his music.
In fact, I’ve been a fan ever since I remember hearing my first Neil Diamond record. That earliest memory would be “Cracklin’ Rosie,” his first Number One tune and a fun, upbeat song about red wine (not about a woman like the title might suggest, and like that “Caroline” song actually is). BTW, he wrote another song about red wine that I’ll mention momentarily.
To give you an idea of how far back my Diamond fandom goes, “Cracklin’ Rosie” was popular when I was four years old.
And if that doesn’t give you a clue about how long I’ve mined Diamond’s gold, here’s another hint: my current age has a five in front of it.
Okay, so maybe I stretched the truth earlier with that “young-ish” note, but, hey, it’s all about how one feels, right?
And if that’s the real barometer of one’s youthfulness, then Neil Diamond, who turned 76 in January, must be feeling pretty young these days, especially given the way he moved around on the stage at this show.
So I went to see the legendary pop singer bring some of that 76-year-young Brooklyn, NY vibe to the United Center in Chicago where he played the May 28th stop of his current 50-year anniversary celebration tour. I got to see him and his band knock out classics like “Cherry, Cherry,” “Song Sung Blue,” “I Am, I Said,” “Love on the Rocks,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and “Forever in Blue Jeans.”
He also did tunes made famous by others like the Monkees (“I’m A Believer”) and UB40 (“Red, Red Wine”). Those are songs that belong to Diamond because, well, he wrote them, which – despite their popularity with other artists – made them worthy of inclusion in Diamond’s golden anniversary set list.
He did those songs and more – 28 tunes in all – many of which were big chart hits. On stage, Diamond stood stoically during some gems when they warranted it, but surprisingly danced and pranced during others. In fact, I couldn’t help but comment to my concert companion that Diamond’s perfect, soul-brotherish rhythm seemed better than most people his age, and dare I say…better than most non-soul brothers of any age.
His moves were particularly noticeable on the song “Beautiful Noise,” where he swayed from side to side, each foot keeping perfect time with the song’s beat and with a fluidity usually reserved for artists with a more soulful background.
It helped that Diamond’s backing musicians were rooted in the same soul that Diamond exuded on this night.
The two sisters that sang backup for Diamond were truly that: sisters. Maxine and Joanne Warner provided a virtual sideshow with all the animated hand and arm gesturing they did, rarely missing a beat or an opportunity to grab our collective attention.
On the No. 1 song “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the original hit version of which was a duet between Diamond and fellow Brooklyn native Barbra Streisand after each superstar had famously recorded solo versions, was done as a duet with Larry, the saxophone player. Larry didn’t sing Streisand’s parts. Instead, he followed Neil’s verses with a sax solo that added even more elegance to this heartbreaking gem about a relationship in need of some spice.
Being at this particular Neil Diamond show was great, but there were some awkward moments too, not necessarily with anything Neil was doing, but with those who sat near me.
On one occasion, a much older (and drunker) white woman seated behind me mistook my acknowledgement of her accidentally bumping me as a green light to give me a quick shoulder massage. That must have been while Neil was playing “Jungletime.”
At another point during the hit ballad “Love On The Rocks” from “The Jazz Singer,” the guy seated next to me attempted humor by replacing the line that follows “pour me a drink” with “bring me some rice.” I wanted to “tell him some lies” like “man, you were funny” or “wow, I can’t wait to hear what you’ll do with the next song.” But I didn’t want to risk enduring anymore such moments on his behalf.
Notwithstanding the antics of those around me, Diamond continued pouring out the hits. For every famously depressing ballad like “Love On The Rocks,” “…Flowers,” “Done Too Soon” and “Dry Your Eyes,” the latter dedicated to the victims of the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England a week earlier, there were equal shots of Diamond’s uplifting pop ditties.
There was “Desiree,” another song about a woman – not wine – after which Diamond remarked that he had performed in Chicago 43 times over the years.
There was also “Cherry, Cherry” about a woman named Cherry (do you get the sense that this man had been around the block a few times when he first recorded all these odes to women?) and “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” (um, I rest my case).
Songs like “Holly Holy” had enough double entendres to evoke feelings of both womanly and spiritual love, while the set’s closer, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” itself originally criticized for its take on organized religion, proved to be the dubious choice for ending what had been a great concert.
Perhaps the last song (there was no encore…Diamond performed all 28 tunes straight through) should have been “America,” his third top-ten single from the 1980 movie “The Jazz Singer,” where he both starred and provided the soundtrack. Like most Diamond songs, its chorus seeps into your ear like a worm even if the verses don’t (though I proudly sang along to “America” in its entirety, it’s been my second-favorite Diamond song – behind the Streisand duet – for ages).
The song “America,” with its innocent messages about welcoming immigrants to the land of the free, has had some high-profile setbacks over the years, most notably in the wake of 9/11, and more recently as U.S. citizens have become even more polarized on the issue of immigration. The unintentionally controversial song was likely made more palatable at this show by the large American flag that was brilliantly displayed in the diamond-shaped screen that hung over the stage as the song played.
It was a reminder that “America,” the song, was intended to celebrate the values of America, the country. After all, this was once a country whose motto was “bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
As it was, “America” turned out to be the crowd pleaser that songs like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Sweet Caroline” were. People stood, danced and sang along to the song’s triumphant lyrics: “they come into America!”
But as highly anticipated songs went, none were more so than “Sweet Caroline.” In fact, Diamond and his band were apparently so enamored with the crowd’s reaction to it, that they added yet another chorus after the song had seemingly ended, just to hear the audience chant once more the now-famous call-and-response line: “So good! So good! So good!”
Come to think of it, “Sweet Caroline” – not “America” or “Brother Love’s…Show” – would have been the night’s perfect closer. Not because I think it’s a great song, but because nearly everyone else does.
No one there could’ve imagined Neil Diamond performing the show without it. Heck, even I understand the song’s relevance to 21st-century American culture and its newfound status as his most well-known hit, even if I’m not the tune’s biggest fan.
But for me, I was glad to hear the other 27 songs even more. For it is his collective body of work that made me want to see Mr. Neil Diamond in concert in the first place.
And, like any true fan, I’m glad I did!
Neil Diamond’s Chicago Set List:
- “In My Lifetime”
- “Cherry Cherry”
- “Love On The Rocks”
- “Play Me”
- “Song Sung Blue”
- “Beautiful Noise”
- “Dry Your Eyes”
- “If You Know What I Mean”
- “Forever In Blue Jeans”
- “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (w/ sax solo by Larry from city of Chicago)
- “Red Red Wine”
- “I’m a Believer”
- “Brooklyn Roads”
- “Solitary Man”
- “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”
- “Done Too Soon”
- “Holly Holy”
- “I Am I Said”
- “Sweet Caroline”
- “Crackling Rosie”
- “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”