BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
The benefit of a 50th anniversary show is a set list designed to tap as many highlights of a five-decade career as possible.
The downside? There is absolutely no way to please everyone with that set list.
Neil Diamond spent two hours Sunday night at Philips Arena – no opening act and no intermission – strolling the stage in his violet and black shirt and pants and absorbing the adoration of the sold-out crowd as he rolled through nearly 30 songs.
There was no “Shilo” or “Song Sung Blue” or “Hello Again.” Instead, along with many of his comfortable adult contemporary radio smashes, came nods to 1976’s “Beautiful Noise” album, a recollection of his Brooklyn roots with “Jungletime” – the 1977 B-side to “Stargazer” spiced with electric guitar – and a trilogy medley from his 1973 soundtrack to “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (“Be,” “Lonely Looking Sky” and “Skybird”).
At times the song selection equated to an inconsistently paced show. Fans leapt to clap along with “Forever in Blue Jeans” and then immediately plopped down for the timeless “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” with saxophonist Larry Klimas playing the Barbra Streisand role on his instrument.
But Diamond fans are a patient, loyal group and they were primed to relish every moment of what is likely the 76-year-old musician’s final major tour (he last played Atlanta in 2012).
After all of these years, he’s still a likeable cat. He might have the patter of a practiced showman, but he clearly respects and appreciates his fans, evidenced by the frequent kisses blown and hand placed over heart in gratitude.
Indeed, a Diamond concert is a reliably polished exhibition of song craft that barely exists anymore.
Sunday’s concert wrapped the first month of his tour, and at this point, Diamond’s voice remains hearty, with the prominent grit that has always given it character and texture.
His superlative band – including the great Ron Tutt, 79, still anchoring the crew on his drum kit – overpowered him a few times (“September Morn” and “If You Know What I Mean,” in particular), but for the majority of the show, Diamond commanded the mic.
His distinctive speak-sung delivery, employed primarily on ballads including “Love on the Rocks” and the set-closing “I Am…I Said,” is an effective approach that makes for an intimate exchange between a performer and his audience members. When he’s gesturing with a hand, eyes twinkling above his neatly trimmed gray beard, it feels as if Diamond is telling a story to every individual audience member, whether it’s during the sweetly nostalgic “Brooklyn Roads” (paired with home video footage of young Neil and family) or the musically layered “Crunchy Granola Suite.”
Of course, Diamond wouldn’t be allowed out of a venue without performing “Sweet Caroline,” which effectively launched a four-song encore and was greeted with expected fervency (“So good! So good! So good!”). Adhering to a give-the-people-what-they-want approach, Diamond and the band offered a couple of chorus reprises to appease the crowd before moving on to “Cracklin’ Rosie.”
It’s fair to wonder, as Diamond winds down his stellar career, who will be standing in their places 30 years from now?
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