Best moment at last night's Neil Diamond show — as he strikes up "Red Red Wine," a fan in the front row rushes close to the stage. The bouncer tries to remove her. Neil turns. "Leave that lady alone. I like her. She has mischief in her eyes!" The bouncer retreats. The fan stays. The crowd roars. Neil pours a little kerosene on the already-flaming heartlights of an arena full of his hardcore fans. Just another night on the job for Neil Diamond, putting mischief in thousands of eyes with every move he makes. Oh, to be this man.
At 74, Neil is at the peak of his powers, putting on a high-energy two-hour show for the feisty ladies of Planet Diamond. It was his first show ever on his native turf of Brooklyn, beyond his surprise one-off gig last September at his alma mater, Erasmus High School in Flatbush — this was clearly a sentimental occasion for him. The whole night was a tour of his songbook, from "Solitary Man," the song that invented R.E.M. — play it back to back with "Driver 8" or "Texarkana" — to "America," the song that invented U2. As he told the Barclays Center hometown crowd, "You have no idea how good it feels to hear ladies screaming my name. It makes me feel almost 70 again. Keep doing it."
They did, obviously. The man's in amazing shape, on his feet and shaking his hips for nearly the whole set. Remember the tour a few years ago where he had a conveyor belt to scoot him around the stage? Guess Neil's not having that these days. Clad in black, he looked impossibly lithe and dapper — who the hell grows a beard for the first time at 74, after having already been a sex symbol for 50 years? That takes Neil levels of silver-fox confidence.
"You know I love to sing and play guitar," he announced. "There's something even more weird — I love to dance. I've loved to dance ever since I took lessons at Arthur Murray's Dance Studio, right here on the corner of Flatbush and Church Avenue. But I don't like to dance alone!" So he got everybody up for "Red Red Wine," doing the reggae arrangement UB40 made famous. He even offered his own version of the rap toast: "Red red wine, you make me feel so fine/I hear you on the radio all of the time/Even if the words get turned out wrong/I don't care because they're playing my song!" Well put, Mr. Diamond.
The set list emphasized his Sixties Bang hits — he did the 1967 nugget "You Got to Me" (his bluesiest moment) and the Pulp Fiction classic "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon." He almost skipped his excellent new album Melody Road — he did the best tune, "The Art of Love," but if he wants one that kills live, he should probably go for "Alone at the Ball" instead of "Nothing But a Heartache." After three new songs in a row, which might have been pushing it, he finally busted out "Forever in Blue Jeans." ("About time!" screamed the 70-something gal in the "Diamond Girl" T-shirt in front of me, who announced she'd driven 35 hours to get to this show.)
Neil was so emotional about being back on Brooklyn soil, he neglected to mention his grief about Zayn leaving One Direction, although I have to admit that's all I could think of during "Love on the Rocks." He sat on the stage in darkness for an immensely moving "Brooklyn Roads," brooding under a projection of the Brooklyn Bridge and a montage of home movies from his childhood. "I'd like to do something that is generally known as a love song," he said before "Play Me." "This song was written in 1969 or 1970, when I was eight years old. I still remember most of it."
Early in the tour, for just a few dates, Neil was doing "If You Know What I Mean," the most poetic of his big torch songs — it's the "Desolation Row" of shag-carpet Seventies sex ballads. That's been dropped, alas, along with the nearly-as-wondrous "Desiree," but Neil more than made up for it with the powerhouse Hot August Night segment: "Crunchy Granola Suite," "Holly Holy" and his best song ever, "I Am… I Said," along with the encore bonus of "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show." These are the songs that separate the true believers from the dilettantes — there's nothing like hearing a hometown crowd erupt to Neil belting the words, "L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home/New York's home, but it ain't mine no more!"
"Sweet Caroline" got the epic treatment, as expected — Neil led us through 18 "so good"'s and two "one last chorus, I promise"'s. (At this point, he's rebuilt "Sweet Caroline" around the "so good" chant from 1990s karaoke bars — the best example of the karaoke version of a song becoming the official version.) But he had a welcome surprise saved up for the end: "Heartlight," his 1983 hit inspired by the movie E.T., from a more innocent time when pop stars could write unauthorized musical fan-fic out of sheer enthusiasm, lawyers be damned. Neil ditched "Heartlight" from the set list decades ago, so the crowd was into it — even if he only sang one verse before the goodnight waves, those heartlights got turnt. He left out the line "Home's the most excellent place" — but tonight, Neil proved it's true.
"I'm a Believer"
"Thank the Lord For the Night Time"
"Love on the Rocks"
"Pretty Amazing Grace"
"You Got To Me"
"Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"
"Red Red Wine"
"Nothing But a Heartache"
"The Art of Love"
"Forever in Blue Jeans"
"Crunchy Granola Suite"
"I Am… I Said"
"Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"