Concert review: Neil Diamond at the Hartford Civic Center

There’s no easy way to say this: A & I went see Neil Diamond’s concert Thursday night. (Here’s the Courant’s review; the WFSB news producer liked the show.) It’s safe to say we differ on the Diamond: A has strong associations with his songs from her youth; I tend to loathe those songs. We both, though, have liked the Rick Rubin-produced efforts, especially the first such album, 12 Songs.

There’s no way to talk meaningfully about the concert without talking about the crowd. I’ve never knowingly been in the room with someone who thought that “Love on the Rocks” or “Forever in Blue Jeans” or “America” was a good song–but there were thousands of such people (not! A! I will defend her honor . . . !). The intense affection of the crowd toward such dreck–much less toward “Sweet Caroline,” which moved the crowd into arthritic raptures–was alarming.

It was also clear immediately that the crowd, by and large, didn’t know his Rick Rubin-produced material. Most of the audience chanted gleefully along to Diamond’s older material, but greeted the songs from the last two albums politely but without recognition. All the better for them, then, that Diamond stayed largely within the orbit of the 1970s and 1980s.

Diamond’s performance was solid enough, I guess, especially if you like the older songs. (A, for example, thought it was a fine show.) I will say that if you’re not Johnny Cash–that is, you’re not really looking to reinterpret your old songs–then Diamond has chosen the course of honor: Play the songs as if you believe them. (Rather than, for instance, smirking/winking your way through them.) And so Diamond sang his sentimental heart out. God bless him.

More interesting, perhaps, were the last two songs–“Man of God” and “Hell Yeah”–which together showed that Diamond didn’t learn a damn thing from Rubin, though perhaps he should’ve. On 12 Songs, “Man of God” is a solid enough Diamond song, largely because it’s producer-imposed restraint keeps it from collapsing into treacle. Live, Diamond plays it like a “Heartlight”-era song, full of brass and crazed backing vocals and other additions. It utterly ruined the song.

By contrast, for “Hell Yeah,” Diamond drops everything away and largely plays the song as recorded on the album. Hearing it at the end of the show, after all those ludicrous, bombastic arrangements, and especially after the wrecking of “Man of God,” however, the song plays as impossibly tragic: This is the singer/songwriter/performer I could have been, but still can’t trust myself to become. It was riveting.

(And then the first encore was “Cracklin Rosie,” which was fine . . . but then came “America.”)

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