Neil Diamond - 50th Anniversary Tour
Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tennessee
April 19, 2017
Review by Lee Zimmerman. Photo by Cherry Alisa
Granted, it’s been a season of half century anniversaries of late. It seemingly began with the Stones, continued with the Who, and has now descended upon the class of ’67, as Sgt. Pepper, the Summer of Love and the birth of the psychedelia have all been invited to take part in the celebration.
Not surprisingly then, Neil Diamond finds himself caught up in these commemorations, although in all honesty, any declaration of a 50th anniversary sells him short. He was writing songs for others and establishing a tentative recording career in the early ‘60s, although admittedly his real success came midway through the decade. That’s when he penned a string of hits for the Monkees (“I’m a Believer” being among the most notable) and began his own recording career for Bang Records where he scored hits with “Cherry, Cherry,” “Solitary Man” and “Kentucky Woman,” songs that still remain an indelible part of his canon.
Returning to Nashville, a city he first played some 45 years ago, Diamond performed most if not all his hallowed hits -- the one major exception being “Kentucky Woman,” which, given Tennessee’s proximity to its northern neighbor, might have made sense -- before a spellbound crowd at the cavernous Bridgestone Arena. If the performance wasn’t quite sold out, the obvious enthusiasm of those that were there more than made up for a few empty seats. Diamond, of course, was the quintessential showman, sharing himself equally with those flanking either side of the stage, playing to the left and right as much as to the center. At age 76, he still cuts a dashing figure, clad all in black with jacket and trousers showing off the obligatory sparkles, and if he seems to move a bit stiffly, at least he shuffled with the rhythm.
Even before he took the stage, Diamond’s presence was already established courtesy of a twelve piece band that included such veterans as longtime guitarist and cowriter Richard Bennett and famed backing singers Maxine and Julia Waters. The four piece horn section was also exceptional, adding extra intensity to the familiar melodies and executing some well rehearsed choreography when they weren’t tending to their instruments. A guitar rested center stage, bathed in a spotlight, obviously intended for the star himself, who promptly took the stage as the band played the first of the more than 30 songs in the set, an appropriate rendition of “In My Lifetime.”
Once Diamond arrived front and center, the roll call of hits and occasional deep cuts never faltered, continuing through two plus hours without any break for intermission, and only the briefest lapse prior to a four song encore (where inevitably, the world’s foremost singalong song “Sweet Caroline,” took its place in the set list). An opening volley of “Cherry, Cherry,” “You Got To Me,” “September Morn,” “Longfellow Serenade,” “Love on the Rocks” and “Play Me” mustered up an ample collection of both uptempo anthems and downbeat ballads, each delivered with his trademark throaty vocal, which, notably, sounded as vibrant as ever.
It was only natural that Diamond should acknowledge the setting in Music City, which he referred to as “the musical heart of America,” before admitting, “I just made that up, but it sounds good.” The crowd laughed appreciatively, but in truth, it was his ability to still wring emotion from such familiar standbys as “Beautiful Noise,” “Song Sung Blue” and “Solitary Man” that genuinely won the rapt crowd’s admiration. A giant screen behind the stage added an impressive visual backdrop, no more so than when, during a version of “Brooklyn Roads,” it showed snapshots and home movies of Diamond’s childhood, with his father, mother and brother, all sharing joyful scenes reflecting his Brooklyn upbringing. A video of the young singer walking through the old neighborhood brought audible gasps from some female members of the audience as well as a well defined contrast between Diamond’s younger and current selves. His shout-outs to New York City also received a surprisingly appreciative response, considering the fact that this was a city with a vibrant heritage of its own.
For all the years that have transpired, Diamond still cuts a suave and sophisticated presence, and when he sat on the edge of the stage riser and sang his trademark hit “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” substituting sax solos for Barbra Streisand’s former paired vocal, few in the crowd remained unmoved. Likewise, a powerful take on “America,” delivered during the encore, reverberated with special meaning, given the anti-immigrant tenor of our current times. Visuals of European refugees arriving at Ellis Island served as a stark reminder that it those that crossed an ocean to find freedom established the bedrock of the nation in the early 20th century.
Mainly though, the concert served as a reminder of just how powerful his own legacy was, and still remains. One of his signature songs was particularly appropriate, and indeed, the triumphant words of “I Am...I Said” ultimately said it all.