Neil Diamond dazzled the Toyota Center; his fans, not so much
We expect a lot from our touring pop stars.
We want them to be on time when they schedule dates in our town. We demand that they play the songs we anticipate hearing. We will not settle for anything less than perfection - in terms of musical marksmanship and charisma - but we want it to feel just reckless enough to fool us into thinking it’s unrehearsed.
And we demand a rousing encore featuring the songs we’ve been chanting for all evening. The knowing tease is what makes it so memorable.
Neil Diamond understands all this. The man who could convince a monk sworn to silence to sing along to the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” has been touring and making music for five decades. He knows the “rules” and at age 76 he still delivers the goods, with a voice that is a rare bit of preservation - sweet and soulful, with that familiar rasp which hasn’t overtaken his delivery, unlike many of his musical peers.
But in this exchange of musical energy and emotion that we call a concert, there’s a two-way contract at work. While the artist must deliver his part of the bargain, the audience also has an obligation to shower the stage with energy and excitement and help the artists sustain their 90-minute stand onstage.
Sunday night, at the Toyota Center, Diamond’s fans failed him.
It’s a bit weird to suggest that a nearly full house of people wearing bedazzled “Neil Diamond” shirts was lackluster, but it was. The fans would stand and cheer at the start of an accepted favorite, like “Cherry Cherry” early in the set, but they would sit down by the time Diamond wandered into the song’s second verse. There was little energy. Little expressed excitement. In truth, it was one of the quietest shows an arena could hold - one where you could talk comfortably throughout the night, and not leave with a voice that sounds shredded and defeated by volume.
And it affected the performance. Not necessarily in how Diamond and his longtime backing band played the songs, but in the energy they put out.
Listen to Diamond’s classic recordings and they’re marked by an inextinguishable fire, a passion that crackles through songs with cheesy lyrics in such a way that you really don’t mind the cheese.
Sunday night, that passion was dull and flat.
Now, some of this could be the result of a 76-year-old performer maneuvering through a set list that hasn’t changed during this 50th anniversary tour. But to say he’s going through the motions is an insult because there’s still sincerity to every note Diamond sings. “Solitary Man” can still stun you with contemplative melancholy. And “Song Sung Blue” still feels like uplifting communion when Diamond gets into the chorus.
But there is a perfunctory nature to his performance. You get the sense Diamond could wake up at 2 a.m. and burp out a damn good version of “Forever in Blue Jeans.” Which means the thing that separates a concert from late-night crooning is that symbiosis of artist and fan. The audience has to participate. And Sunday night, they really didn’t, or not until three-fourths of the set was completed.
Sure, there were moments of exuberance during “Cherry Cherry” and “Blues Jeans,” but the venue didn’t feel alive until that familiar intro to “I’m a Believer.” The dancing keys and stuttering guitar lick finally compelled the audience to jump up and dance and sing along as an act of necessity, rather than a dragging responsibility.
For a few moments, Diamond was more than a memory, he was the man who cultivated cult-like following with an earnest song book and honest emotional palate. Then, Diamond’s set list wrecked the mood.
There are times as a performer you need to deviate from the set list, moments when you read the room and follow the energy and expectation. Bruce Springsteen is an expert at this, veering into the perfect song for the given moment. Diamond didn’t heed the room’s vibe, he exited the awakening effect of “Believer” with the subdued “Brooklyn Roads” and a string of songs that gave the audience every excuse to sit down and chill.
That’s on Neil.
He didn’t rebound and the crowd didn’t respond until “Holly Holy” and “I am ... I Said” closed out the set with Diamond playing the latter by himself with an acoustic guitar. It was the best move of the night, bringing out the soft homesickness that’s built from the loneliness of chasing your dreams. Standing there, backlit by the stage lights, holding his guitar in the air, with the song’s chorus melody still swirling about the room, he looked like a legend cast in starlight before the room went dark for the pre-encore break.
When Diamond and his band returned, the crowd finally woke up, singing along to “Sweet Caroline” like they were rejuvenated adolescents and keeping the energy alive during “Cracklin’ Rosie” and assuming the expected pride that came during the night’s closer “America.”
It didn’t really matter that a 50th anniversary Neil Diamond show didn’t include “Kentucky Woman,” “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” or the building majesty of “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” In those final moments of the night, with the energy at its climax, the night felt as it was supposed to be, a beautiful exchange of life, love and hope, even if Diamond deserved it from the start.