Neil Diamond Spreads Love the Brooklyn Way

Local boy makes good: Singer returns to his high school stomping ground for an unforgettable night

Neil Diamond performs a special concert at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, New York, where he attended school over 50 years ago, on September 29th, 2014. Credit: Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images

It's hard to believe Neil Diamond had never played a show on his native soil of Brooklyn before last night. But he returned to the old neighborhood for a surprise secret gig at his alma mater Erasmus Hall High School, deep in the heart of Flatbush. It was an emotional homecoming on a (surprisingly) hot September night. Seeing Neil Diamond sing "Brooklyn Roads" at his first-ever Brooklyn gig was as hardcore as seeing the Beastie Boys do "Hello Brooklyn" at their first show in the borough, back at McCarren Pool in 2007.

Neil was clearly in sentimental mode, telling stories about the old days and busting his arena-size moves in the high-school chapel where he used to get sent for detention. "The memories are flooding in tonight," he said before playing "Brooklyn Roads." "I drive people crazy when I come back here because I remember every building. I used to shine shoes at that subway station. It was a great gig — no future in it, but a great gig for a kid."

Well, as the gangsters say, he don't shine shoes no more. Looking dapper in a dark suit and his new silver-fox beard, the Jewish Elvis put on a mega-energy 10-song show for a few hundred lucky fans — most of whom had waited in line all day in hopes of getting in — with the stained-glass window behind him turning the place into his personal shrine. And he crackled every Rosie in the room.

Diamond has always celebrated his Flatbush roots — during previous New York stops, he's been spotted walking the streets by day, riding the subway incognito, just a solitary man and his memories. (At Madison Square Garden a few years ago, he boasted, "I was from Brooklyn before it was hip.") "It was in this chapel I decided to take piano lessons," he told the crowd last night. "I sang in the chorus for two years. Why? Because I thought it was a great place to meet girls." He also pointed out the balcony where he sat for the Adlai Stevenson rally in 1956.

Erasmus Hall has other famous alumni whose portraits hang in the chapel, like Donny Most '70 (he played Ralph Malph on Happy Days) and Barbra Streisand '59. (Her framed yearbook photo was on the wall right next to me, which made me feel like her prom date. How lucky can you get?) Some fans had wild hopes she'd show up for "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" — but she was there in spirit, when he gave a shout-out to "my friend Barbra Streisand" as a fellow chorus alum.

As always with a Neil Diamond show, the crowd was out for blood — it was a wildly enthusiastic mix of Erasmus Hall students and silver-haired Neil fanatics. I met a lady who drove two hours from Hyde Park as soon as the news about this gig broke — she told me proudly she hasn't missed a Neil show on the East Coast since he played Long Island in 1973. "I jumped in the car and left the sink full of dishes," she said, twirling her cane. Before the show even began, these fans were up dancing to the pre-show loop of Neil hits. (How bad-ass is it to blast "Forever in Blue Jeans" over the speakers right before you come out to sing it? Very.)

The man's voice was in studly shape, like the rest of him. Backed by a stripped-down version of his arena band, he went hard on classics like "Solitary Man" and "Love on the Rocks." (He did not do "Play Me," possibly because memories of his old English teachers made him reluctant to utter the lines, "Songs she sang to me/Songs she brang to me.") This is still the man whose classic live album Hot August Night had this liner note from the artist: "The stage, she is the God-damnedest woman you ever saw."

He debuted a pair of choice cuts from his forthcoming Melody Road. "I love doing songs you know," he told the crowd. "But I really love doing the songs you haven't heard before — because those are the ones I get to sing alone." (You have to admit — that's a brilliant way to break the delicate news you're trying out unfamiliar material.) And the new songs are top notch: "Nothing But a Heartache" is a bluesy stomp, while "Something Blue" has a lighter country lilt that evokes another Neil song with "blue" in the title. Both went over big — when the fans are clapping on the beat by the second chorus, your new tune is officially a success.

Neil ended it all with an epic "Sweet Caroline," repeating chorus after chorus after chorus. Rough "so good" count: 33. (It was definitely strange to hear Brooklyn's finest perform "Sweet Caroline" here two days after Derek Jeter played his final game in Fenway Park.) Even the cops had their phones out. At one point, Neil accused some audience members of not singing. "You can't be students or Brooklynites," he said. "Are you from Staten Island? Sorry — there's the exit."

The show was over, but there were some touching moments still ahead, as fans began to notice the Streisand yearbook photo on the wall, crowding around to kvell and take selfies with it. Seeing Kyp Malone from the band TV on the Radio get out his phone for a shot of Barbra's high-school smile seemed to connect about six generations of Brooklyn rockness. It was a moment that only the love of Neil could make happen.

Set List:
"I'm a Believer"
"Solitary Man"
"Kentucky Woman"
"Brooklyn Roads"
"Love on the Rocks"
"Forever in Blue Jeans"
"Cracklin' Rosie"
"Nothing But a Heartache"
"Something Blue"
"Sweet Caroline"