Neil Diamond @ LG Arena, 28th June 2011

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Neil Diamond may be seventy, but he proved last night that he can still deliver a good show.
The audience were slow to arrive at the LG Arena and for a while I wondered if the arena had made a mistake in booking Diamond for two concerts. But suddenly the hall filled up and virtually every seat was filled.

Not that the seats were used all that much! Within minutes, most of the crowd were up on their feet, dancing and swaying. Many obviously knew every word of every song and sang along enthusiastically.

There was no support band, no interval and no spectacle — just two and a half hours of music. The backing musicians were excellent — mostly people that Diamond has worked with for years — two drummers, a brass section, keyboards, guitars, an accordion, a double bass and three female dancer/singers.

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He’s no longer quite the rocker he was in his youth — he moved a little stiffly and his dancing was rather restrained. But the voice is still there — and the fans have grown old along with him.

The show kicked off with ‘Soolaimon’, one of the African Trilogy songs dating back to Diamond’s experimental African-themed concept suite on the the 1970 Tap Root Manuscript album. ‘Soolaimon’ always stood out as one of the strongest songs on that album, and it worked effectively as a set-opener, drawing tumultuous applause from the dancing orchestra. A quick hello to the audience — “I want everyone to feel free to sing, to dance and to have a good time” and we were off, with a set list that moved from rocky to intimate and back to rock. Most of the show was composed of old hits — that’s what the fans came wanting, that’s what Diamond gave them. It wasn’t as flash a show as some I’ve seen recently, but it was a solid performance, old favourites sung to (and by!) devoted fans, and delivered with enthusiasm and passion.

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There were a few twists and new versions of old songs. ‘Red Red Wine’ was sung as a slow ballad, followed by thanks to Birmingham band UB40 — “I’m mighty obliged to UB40 for making my song a worldwide No. 1 hit” — and a reprise of the song in reggae version was fun. Similarly, ‘I’m a Believer’ stood out as a highlight. As with ‘Red Red Wine’, Diamond first sang it as a slow ballad, backed by a complex guitar arrangement, and I was knocked out by it. It was much more poignant than usual, an older man’s song — thoughtful, meditative, reflective. I’m very tempted to buy his new album, just for that track. But as with ‘Red Red Wine’, he then switched mood and we had the rock and roll version, much to the delight of the crowd, some of whom spilled into the aisles to jive.

Diamond chatted easily with the audience, teasing them, talking about the songs, reminiscing about the ’60s which he described as a “terrible time — we were fighting in Viet Nam and didn’t know why; we lost 50,000 men …. there was rioting in the streets … the older generation hung on to their power until they were torn from their seats by the people … we lost the four greatest American visionaries of our time, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X”. Interesting to watch the reactions of this older British audience — they were fine with clapping for King, but rather less easy about the inclusion of Malcolm X.

There were a couple of songs from his latest album which unusually is an album of covers of other people’s songs, including a nice arrangement of Bill Withers’ mournful ‘Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone’.

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It was a generous show — all of the instrumentalists and singers had a chance to perform substantial solos, picked up each time by the video screens and Diamond was happy at times to let the others take the limelight.

As the night moved on, I kept thinking that we had come to the last song — after a rousing three times through ‘Sweet Caroline’ I expected Diamond to disappear off-stage. But the songs kept coming — ‘Sweet Caroline’ was followed by ‘Hell Yeah’, a song about taking chances and believing in yourself, and then by ‘I Am … I Said’.

We then had the usual encore ritual — Diamond goes backstage, crowd claps and calls for more, Diamond waits, band encourages crowd to clap louder, Diamond finally appears. But instead of singing one encore song, the songs kept coming — in fact Diamond seemed reluctant to stop. ‘Coming to America’ was movingly introduced by memories of his grandmother emigrating from Russia, aged 12, for reasons of religious freedom, but was unfortunately illustrated on the large screens with pictures of flying bald eagles, the Statue of Liberty and the US and UK flags. That was a pity — it turned what would otherwise have been a sensitive song into schmaltz. But that was the only false note during what had otherwise been a very enjoyable evening.

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Set list
Beautiful Noise
Hello Again
Forever in Blue Jeans
Red, Red Wine (slow version)
Red, Red Wine (reggae version)
You Got to Me
Solitary Man
Cherry, Cherry
Glory Road
Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone (by Bill Withers)
I’m a Believer (ballad version)
I’m a Believer (rock version)
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
Holly Holy
Sweet Caroline
Hell Yeah
I Am … I Said
Crackling Rosie
Coming to America
Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
I’ve Been This Way Before

Review – Betty Hagglund
Photos – John Mason

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