Showtime was over at the Hollywood Bowl, and Neil Diamond wasted no time making his exit. He stepped offstage and right into the passenger seat of a waiting SUV, twisting open a water bottle as the car glided downhill and out of the parking lot under police escort, motorcycle lights flashing. A fan saw him roll past and yelled an excited hello, but he was already gone.
"That's one way to get through traffic," said Diamond with a grin, still wearing a sparking black shirt, his dark hair streaked with gray, as the SUV turned toward Sunset Boulevard. First stop: In-N-Out Burger.
Friday night was the second of two sold-out shows at the 17,000-capacity Bowl. His last time playing the venue was in 1966, singing "Cherry Chery" as part of a rock & roll revue that included Sonny & Cher and the Beach Boys. Now it's just another stop on one of the summer's most successful tours, and tonight his friend Cher was standing in the front rows.
Diamond has been a dependably successful live act since the '70s, and his U.S. tour is on schedule to continue through early 2009. It's also his first tour since scoring his first number one album with this year's Rick Rubin-produced Home Before Dark. "It makes it a little extra fun, but I'm always a little amazed when we do one of these tours and they sell out," Diamond said. "I don't know where these people come from. I don't understand any of it."
His SUV rolls up to the burger drive-thru line and Diamond turns to his driver. "Kenny, I hope you have money because I don't have a penny on me. I don't carry money onstage."
In a few minutes, the SUV would be back on the road and heading to Diamond's hotel while he ate. "God, these burgers are good." He lives in Los Angeles, but still chooses to stay at the hotel with his band. Many of them have been with him for decades. "We have the longest ongoing poker game in rock & roll," Diamond said between bites. "It's been going since 1977."
Onstage together at the Bowl, Diamond and his band performed nearly two hours of hits ("Sweet Caroline," "I Am...I Said," "Solitary Man") and his newer, contemplative songs, making the transition by telling fans soothingly, "That was then, this is now," and strumming the acoustic opening chords from the title song from Home Before Dark. Other songs from that album and 2005's 12 Songs were rearranged to accommodate Diamond's big band, in some cases moving them away from the raw, stripped down flavor of the recordings, but maybe a little more towards his core following. "The subject matter is definitely different. It's more sophisticated these days," he said. "But the simplicity of the songs, and the grooves definitely, can be a harking back to the early days. It feels very natural to be back there again."
Diamond hopes to work with Rubin again on his next album: "He does have a very good sense of what an artist is about and what he should be doing and what he should not be doing. It's very important from an artist's point of view to have someone who understands and has a vision."
As for his fans accepting of the new material, Diamond said, "You can only hope that the audience will accept the new songs. You can't force it on them. I like them just to lay back, take it in, absorb it. They don't have to sing along, they don't have to clap, they don't have to dance. They don't have to do anything. Sit back and let me do it. It's one of my favorite moments in the show."