I fell in love with Neil Diamond the way most twentysomething ladies do these days, in college at the Delta Chi keggers. The mostly East Coast–bred boys knew Neil had a way with the ladies. Hand a girl a beer, play “Forever in Bluejeans,” and watch them melt. It worked, on me at least, because I’ve seen Diamond in concert a few times since, and while the man is getting old, the show never does.
Which made me wonder last night in the Xcel, as Diamond played his second sold-out show (he played two sold-out shows at the Target Center in 2005), performing to a mix of twenty- to forty-something couples, groups of ladies out for a night, and even a few dudes traveling in packs, chugging beer, and yelling things like, “My mom LOVES you man!”—what keeps these crowds coming back for a show that never really changes?
Diamond’s always been an entertainer, letting his sequin shirts, catchy sing-along songs, and smarmy smiles cover the fact that he’s never really broken much musical ground during his forty-plus-year career, instead quietly turning out hit after hit. His songs and his sound have stayed the same for most of those decades, yet the crowd still got to its feet and cheered as a pre-show announcement let us know that Diamond would be the sole performer that night, and he would be performing without an intermission.
This is going to be a short show, I thought. And as he made his way out to the stage, opening with a few new, slower songs off his recent number one album, Home Before Dark, it was apparent he had lost a step or two since that Target Center show three years ago. His voice cracked a few more times, it took him a little longer to sashay his way across the stage, and he could muster, at most, two upbeat songs in a row, taking a little longer to catch his breath before breaking into longer slow sets. He’s traded in his sequins for a black shirt with a muted sheen, and his guitar lays on his sixty-seven-year-old belly as he lovingly extends his hands out to the crowd. But as the twenty-ish dude behind me said to his girlfriend when Diamond started singing the opening lines of “You Don’t Send Me Flowers,” to a backup singer: “Dude is still a fucking player.”
Which, of course, is why the crowds keep coming back. Neil knows how to tease a crowd, how to keep them interested and anticipating. He didn’t come out of the gates with his old favorites, he made us sit through the new stuff, reminding us how much we are loved and appreciated with blown kisses and smarmy smiles. “I’m so glad you’re here tonight,” he crooned after the third unfamiliar song, “Because it’s terribly lonely up here without you.” The crowd swooned, and he continued. “We’re here to make love tonight, in a manner of speaking.” Oh,dear. “We’re going to make beautiful noises before we go, and leave our hearts on the stage—for you.” He broke into “Love on the Rocks,” and the crowd was his. The theme carried on for the rest of the night as he made us wait through five down-tempo songs before proclaiming “It’s time to dance,” and breaking into “Cherry, Cherry,” followed by “Thank the Lord for the Nighttime,” while the crowd rocked along with every strum of the guitar. When Neil moved, we moved. When Neil cocked his hip, we swooned. He slowed things down again for more new material, (including the great “Pretty Amazing Grace,” the only piece of new material to get a full standing ovation), for a full set before rewarding us with “Solitary Man” and “Forever in Bluejeans.” The back-and-forth continued for two hours and twenty songs, before he abruptly left the stage after a low-key solo performance of “Hell Yeah” off 2005’s 12 Songs.
It was the ultimate tease. But we knew Neil wouldn’t send us out into the hot summer night without hearing a few of the favorites he forgot—without satisfying our need to dance one more time. He, after all, loves us too much. And he didn’t make us wait long, as the band struck up “Cracklin’ Rose,” and we stayed on our feet through “America” and his traditional closer “Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show.” And once again, Diamond didn’t disappoint.