Of all the gigs I have/had lined up for this summer, this was probably the one I was anticipating the least. This had nothing to do with the artist in question (the first album I ever owned was a Neil Diamond compilation, which I received for my 4th birthday, so I’m pretty sure that qualifies me as a lifelong fan!), but with the venue, and my position within it - I was about as high up as it’s possible to get in the 02, and I fully expected the sound up there to be terrible - my previous 02 experience with Rush had the worst sound of any gig I’ve been to in years. Luckily there were no such issues, the sound was crisp and clear throughout, and the performances every bit as polished as you’d expect from a man who positively epitomises the term ‘consummate showman’. As a result it became a strong contender for 'gig of the season'.
Soolaimon kicked things off in suitably dramatic style, and hit after hit followed, pleasingly including a healthy dose of his earliest recordings – Shilo, Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon, You Got to Me, Red Red Wine, the last of which we were given the option of hearing in ballad form or in uptempro reggae mode. The audience overwhelmingly voted for the latter (sadly no glowsticks were involved in the voting process!).
His massive band (featuring drums, percussion, multiple keyboards and guitars, double bass, a trio of back-up singers and a horn section…and possibly one or two more) weren’t introduced; instead they each got a moment to show off during a wonderfully extended Cherry Cherry, but I certainly recognised Tom Hensley and Alan Lindgren on keyboards (both of whom have been in Diamond’s band since the 70s) and Elvis’ old drummer, Ron Tutt (who I expect is never able to play Christmas Eve gigs, as presumably he is too busy delivering toys to all the good girls and boys…).
Despite a critical and commercial renaissance in recent years, only the excellent Hell Yeah was present in the set to represent his Rick Rubin-produced albums - surprisingly not a thing was played from 2008’s Home Before Dark, despite that album being his first-ever worldwide #1 (and one that spent a full two months in the UK top 5) - which was in stark contrast with the previous time I’d seen Diamond live, some 15 years earlier, where he played far too many songs in a row from his then-current country-flavoured release, Tennessee Moon. We did get a couple of tracks from last year’s covers album Dreams, namely Ain’t No Sunshine, which suits his voice surprisingly well, and his own I’m a Believer which he delivered both in Dreams-dirge style and the original uptempo arrangement – the audience was happy to sing along to both versions, but the latter proved the old maxim, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
If there was a mis-step during the course of the night it would be the weird lesson on 60s history that formed the spoken intro to Glory Road – I’m pretty sure anyone at a Neil Diamond gig would be familiar with the key events of the sixties, so this came across as slightly odd. This odd tangent aside though, there were no unexpected diversions, and while he used the excuse of Hot August Night’s 40th anniversary (which isn’t until next year anyway, but never mind!) to play a couple of album cuts from that era, for the most part things were kept on familiar territory for all – but while I Am I Said and especially Sweet Caroline received the most applause, there wasn’t a single song that wasn’t met with a highly favourable reaction from the crowd.
While Diamond never had the greatest range as a singer, and that range has decreased in recent years, he knows how to work within his own vocal limitations to great effect, the net result is that he actually sounds like he’s singing better than ever – there’s an added emotional quality he’s found, possibly since working with Rubin, that makes him sound like he means every word, and that, combined with his enormous stage presence and star quality, make him a living legend fully deserving of the adoration he receives. Certainly his ability to work a crowd remains undiminished, and as the old review that was quoted on the back of the Hot August Night album cover all those (39) years ago said, ‘the audience falls…like plums at his feet’. Some things never change, and frankly who'd want them to? (10/10)