Four decades after his career-defining live album Hot August Night, Neil Diamond returned to the Greek Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday to begin another series of sold-out concerts. “It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since we first played this place,” Diamond told the crowd, marking the album’s anniversary. “It still feels like home to me.”
It’s essentially where superstardom began for the singer-songwriter, who returns to the Greek on August 16th, 18th, 23rd and 25th as part of his ongoing U.S. tour. “It made my day, made my year, it made my professional life,” he said of the 1972 double album, recorded on the opening night of a 10-date engagement at the venue. The album – with its cover capturing Diamond in beaded denim, flowing hair and an inexplicable expression of lust – was just reissued in an expanded anniversary edition.
There was no opening act on Saturday, as the open-air concert began with temperatures well above 80 degrees. The Greek’s red curtains parted to reveal a smoky scene of flashing lights, his 12-man band, the tribal pounding of percussionist King Errisson and a trio of backup singers cooing an excited “Soolaimon.” Diamond stood center stage in elegant black, singing with a honey-coated baritone still strong and velvety at 71.
“We’re going to make some beautiful noises tonight,” Diamond promised, carrying a black acoustic guitar, and he soon began unfurling radio hits and fan favorites. The night was entirely about looking back, as he performed nothing from the two acclaimed albums recently produced by Rick Rubin, including 2008’s Home Before Dark, his only No. 1-charting album in the U.S.
The setlist stretched back to his days as a Brill Building pop songsmith (with two versions of “I’m A Believer”) and up through his later years as a breathless, unapologetic romantic (a seething “Love on the Rocks”), with the singer adding dramatic flourishes with sweeping hand gestures and the tilt of his brow. Cutting deepest were the earliest songs: the delicate acoustic guitar on “Play Me,” the classic Sixties pop of “Cherry Cherry,” as Diamond strummed bright, catchy riffs, plus the dreamy folk-pop hooks of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.”
“I used to sing that song to 15-year-olds,” Diamond joked of the last one, a Top 10 hit in 1967. “I think most of them have grown up by now. I told you you’d be a woman soon. Now deal with it.”
He sat down to perform an achingly romantic “I’m a Believer,” which the Monkees recorded in 1966, becoming the first Diamond composition to hit Number 1. He dedicated the song to his new wife (and co-manager), Katie McNeil. “I’d like very much to tell Katie that I wrote the song for her,” he said, “but the truth is, when I wrote the song she wasn’t born yet.”
The night’s performance of “Red, Red Wine” was not Diamond’s original folk-rock version but something closer to the 1984 reggae-flavored cover by UB40. Representing his schmaltziest years, 1978’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” was performed with backup singer Linda Press (ably stepping in for the original’s Barbra Streisand) and a huge string section, and you could feel the crowd swoon.
At the end of two hours came Diamond’s biggest signature songs, including a stretched-out “Sweet Caroline,” which brought the crowd to its feet. “I Am I Said,” his most eccentric and distinctive hit, had fans singing along and sometimes a step ahead, anxiously anticipating the next lyric. He put a hand over his heart for the lines “I am lost and I can’t even say why/ Leaving me lonely still . . .”
He was hardly alone at the Greek, sharing the old amphitheater and its surrounding forest of tall trees with nearly 6,000 fans. There were gray heads and much younger faces among them. And when Diamond finally waved goodbye with a victory lap around the stage (and a final blast of “Sweet Caroline” from the brass section), many in the cheering crowd didn’t look quite ready to leave him there.