The first album I ever bought with my own money was Neil Diamond Gold. I was 7 and found it on a flea market table for $2.
When I saw those blurred images of Neil on the cover, burning up the mic like a flickering flame, I was drawn to it. (Plus, Sweet Caroline was on there. So it had to be good.)
I rushed home to put it on the turntable, and that’s when I discovered the real gold beneath the flashy record jacket.
This was a live album, recorded at the Troubadour in LA in 1970, and Neil Diamond’s rich, raw vocals jumped off the vinyl, particularly on hard-driving songs like Holly Holy and Cherry, Cherry. As Thank the Lord for the Nighttime and Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show blared out of the speakers in my basement, I imagined my 7-year-old self at one of Neil’s rock ‘n’ roll revivals.
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In the 40-plus years since, I’ve never seen him perform live. Never really felt the need. It would be hard to top Gold.
But when our vacationing music critic asked me, the resident middle-aged guy, if I wanted to review Thursday’s show in Dallas, I couldn’t resist the temptation to be in the presence of the 74-year-old version of Neil -- the icon who has sold 125 million albums, but who has also become an undeserving punchline for rock snobs and hipsters who don’t know any better.
Funny how time and pointless snark try to tear down your heroes.
But the 2015 edition of Neil Diamond, I am happy to report, delivers on all the promises of yesteryear. His vocals are pure and powerful, as if they’d been cryogenically preserved. His stage presence is warm, charismatic and comfortable. There were times Thursday it felt as if he’d invited 18,000 of his closest friends into his living room.
He joked about how performing made him “feel 70 again,” proudly stroking his beard streaked with silver. And in between songs, he’d pause and reach out toward the audience, trying to touch the kind of adulation only a 74-year-old rock star could truly appreciate.
Now, I must admit, that before Neil strutted onto the stage for his tight, two-hour set at American Airlines Center, there were a few warning signs that the shmaltz factor could be high. A neon Neil “diamond” backdrop screamed Vegas revue, and so did the fans in gold and blue sequined shirts. The overture of his hits didn’t help, either, but when Diamond, looking 65 at most, launched into a sharp-edged version of I’m a Believer, it was a quick reminder that his roots are as a rock ’n’ roller and a songwriter. Many of his first songs were recorded by high-profile acts like The Monkees until he broke through as a performer.
And throughout the night, he showcased his varied writing styles -- from rock (Kentucky Woman) to gospel (Holly Holy) to calypso (Pretty Amazing Grace) to ballads and beyond.
Backed by a bravura 13-piece band, which included several proud Texans and former Elvis Presley drummer Ronnie Tutt from Dallas, Diamond gave his baritone an early workout with the aching ballads Love on the Rocks and Hello Again. Play Me was another poignant heartbreaker. And when he took a seat on stage to introduce some of his father’s home movies as a minidoc on his golden years growing up on Brooklyn Roads, the pathos was piling up.
But the master showmen never let the mood swing too far in one direction, always spicing in upbeat tunes like You Got to Me and Red, Red Wine (yes, he wrote that one, too.) Or the randy Forever in Blue Jeans.
When he ramped things up further with the barnburning Cherry, Cherry, the Baby Boomers were out of their seats, swaying to the beat. He closed with rousing renditions of Holly Holy and I Am, I Said, and we couldn’t help but sing along. Diamond punctuated each open space with his signature, raspy “Yeahhhh,” and it felt like 1972 again.
His encore lineup was like chum to a school of hungry sharks: crowd pleasers Cracklin' Rosie, Heartlight and Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show were punctuated by the anthemic Sweet Caroline and America.
No matter how many times I hear those songs, in baseball stadiums or on TV commercials, it doesn’t really diminish their quality. I know not everyone agrees with that notion, but there’s a reason these songs have stood the test of time, and brought people together in times of joy and sorrow. They are pure gold.
The same can still be said of Neil Diamond.