NEW YORK — There was a knock at Neil Diamond’s door.
It was Richard Bennett, his faithful guitarist — on this night 40 years ago, and still today — clamoring outside Diamond’s hotel room. He had a new picking melody he said he needed to share.
Diamond wanted no part of the pitch; he was sitting on his bed, somewhere in the ’70s midwest, watching a cowboy movie and eating Cracker Jacks. No new music tonight.
But Bennett insisted.
“So I said, ‘Fine. Richard, sit. Play it, and then we’re gonna watch some movies.'”
On a raised platform Thursday night, Bennett began that evening’s tune — the opening riff to “Forever in Blue Jeans” — as a swell of cheers rose from the Madison Square Garden audience.
“How was I supposed to know it was gonna be a No. 1 record?” Diamond laughed over the crowd’s noise. “Thank goodness for Richard’s persistence.”
After all, persistence is was what got Diamond noticed in the first place; the Brooklyn native was a faceless songwriter in New York, working in the Brill Building and elsewhere for years before “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry” hit the airwaves under his own name, way back in 1966.
Diamond was 26 years old when he first broke through. And now, at a spry 76, the venerable music man is celebrating 50 years of silky adult contemporary on a spring anniversary tour, which trotted through New York Thursday and plays there again Saturday night.
Love chocolate? Discover what’s new at The Cocoa Exchange. SHOP NOW
Though increasingly gingered in his steps, Diamond remains a consummate stage commander, at once playful, gracious and solemn when the moment called for it before his tight 13-piece band, most of whom have been with him for decades.
The singer was quick to joke: “Do you feel like life has been unkind to you, that they actually charged you for these seats?” the singer jabbed at the folks in sections behind the stage. As he spent most of the night with only a microphone — multiple guitarists and keys players erased any need for another instrument — he and his rhinestone-seamed slacks made sure to amble back there a few times.
As one may expect of a Neil Diamond anniversary tour, the two-hours-plus performance focused wholly on the best-sellers of a career that has yielded more than 120 million records sold — better than Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder or the Beach Boys. “Love on the Rocks” was steely and firm, with cameras fading to create a noir-like setting around Diamond’s long, smoldering (yes, smoldering) gazes. His crystalline delivery and tone have held up well.
He sat and sang his 1968 story-teller “Brooklyn Roads” while childhood home videos played on a jewel-shaped screen above him, of little Neil getting a bath in a sink, playing baseball and swinging on a playground. The audience, many of whom have worshipped music’s “Jewish Elvis” all this time, were very appreciative of the glimpses backward and cheered warmly after the mellow segment was done.
And of course there were the lively moments: he rocked “I’m a Believer,” a tune he wrote but famously gave to The Monkees, and after the encompassing “bah, bah, bah’s” of the transcendent hit “Sweet Caroline” had ceased, the band kicked back in for an extra few choruses.
Question: how many times could Neil Diamond play the chorus to “Sweet Caroline” in succession before the crowd would give up and stop singing? My guess: at least 15 times.
Either way, it seems as though fans will have plenty more opportunities to see the entertainer, who appeared to be in good health and spirits Thursday, still clearly enjoying his work.
In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, when asked why he still tours, Diamond said, “I’m driven to get out and do my work, and performing is one of the things that I do. … It gives me a chance to vent a certain aspect of my psyche. There’s absolutely no reason to do this tour or any of the tours that I’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years. But it is exciting. And I think the excitement is one of the things that I’m seeking out.”
@neildiamond tonight taking over the garden ! [?] [?] Such a fun night to sing every word of his songs with him and an area filled with love for this legend of music [?] [?] [?] [?] [?] [?] [?] [?]#neildiamond
Neil Diamond’s set list
June 15, 2017 – Madison Square Garden, New York
- “Cherry, Cherry”
- “You Got to Me”
- “Solitary Man”
- “Love on the Rocks”
- “Play Me”
- “Song Sung Blue”
- “Beautiful Noise”
- “Dry Your Eyes”
- “If You Know What I Mean”
- “Forever in Blue Jeans”
- “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”
- “Red Red Wine”
- “I’m a Believer”
- “Brooklyn Roads”
- “Pretty Amazing Grace”
- “Lonely Looking Sky”
- “Jazz Time”
- “Crunchy Granola Suite”
- “Done Too Soon”
- “Holly Holy”
- “I Am … I Said”
- “Sweet Caroline”
- “Cracklin’ Rosie”