Yesterday started out great: I quit my job and almost like the universe was rewarding me, my friend Mike sent me a text asking if I wanted to see Neil Diamond at the Golden 1 Arena in downtown Sacramento.
A quick side note: After much reasonable protesting, Sacramento now has its very own, taxpayer funded, shiny new arena. I was ambivalent for many reasons, but I have to say that unlike other arenas, the acoustics are actually quite decent. The only other show I’ve been to at the Golden 1 Center was Electric Christmas, a hipster rock, millennials-only affair put on every winter by local radio station 94.7.
So the first thing we noticed last night was that every section in the stadium was open and the place was packed to the nosebleeds with avid fans.
When the band took the stage and the lights dropped, a giant 3D Diamond appeared, spinning and refracting images of Neil from the past. The diamond screen remained throughout the performance, lighting up and bouncing images that supported the songs.
The bandstand split with a walk down the center and when Neil emerged and started to come down front and center, Mike couldn’t resist saying, “Oh that’s nice, they gave him the old people ramp”.
Neil is 76, but he sings with the same voice as he did in 1976: his pipes are undiminished by time, his rich, sultry tone and phrasing as swoon-worthy as ever.
He launched into Solitary Man and this crowd that easily had 20-30 years on the previous show I’d seen, erupted with such glee, it was hard to believe.
Diamond had a bit of Elvis in him in the younger days, he borrowed some showmanship from the King for sure. But his brand of flash seems positively tame compared with younger, more modern performers. His charisma is so powerful that all he had to do was lift a hand beatifically and the audience would rise to their feet as though they were at a megachurch.
A couple songs in, he strolled to the right side of the stage and the far right section cheered so vehemently, Neil said, “these folks are the most lively in the building, so I’m going to stay over here for this one.” Then he sang the opening lines of Love on the Rocks. He continued to tease the other sections by pointing to the right and saying, “you going to beat these folks?”
His easy banter and playfulness cut up the often wistful themes of his ballads and he undulated between up tempo goodies like I’m a Believer and lonely I am, I Said. He is still songwriting and he managed to tuck some newer tunes into the set, one called Dry Your Eyes about the Manchester bombing.
One of my favorite moments was Brooklyn Roads, accompanied by diamond-shaped, grainy Super8 footage of his family. A line I deeply related to:
Mama’d come to school
And as I’d sit there softly crying
Teacher’d say, “He’s just not trying
He’s got a good head if he’d apply it”
But you know yourself
It’s always somewhere else
I built me a castle
With dragons and kings
And I’d ride off with them
As I stood by my window
And looked out on those
Diamond also did something I hadn’t seen a rock star of his caliber do before: to introduce the band, he let each one of his musicians play a short, solo song of their own choosing. His two back up singers are sisters, and his guitarist of 40 years, Richard Bennett, who helped write Forever in Blue Jeans, was on stage with his son, Nick, also on guitar. These little showcases gave him a chance to encourage and publically thank the folks that support him.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the entire auditorium stood and danced for Sweet Caroline, except maybe those in wheelchairs. If there was some way to gauge the energy in the room, this crown far exceeded the hipster extravaganza I mentioned. By a long shot.
The finale was, of course, Coming to America, a tune I used to see as a bit nationalistic, but again, he managed to strike the perfect tone; the diamond screen shone old black and white images of immigrants boarding boats, waving happily from the deck, hoping for a new life. As the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, it was a loving gesture, and a reminder of what actually makes America great.
Neil Diamond performed for over two hours, with such obvious relish, such candor and very little of the bravado that made him so famous. His voice was eclipsed only by the sheer poetic vulnerability of his lyrics and that spaghetti western style that has become his signature.
I had my doubts about the Golden 1 arena, but last night, I was so grateful for this massive, shiny venue because it was filled to the brim with eager fans who spent far less time on their phones and far more time cheering and dancing: daughters and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. And after 50 years of writing and performing, Neil Diamond deserves a golden arena.
Written by Neil Diamond • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group