Neil Diamond, O2 Arena, London
Thursday 14 July 2011
A Union Jack and Stars and Stripes flutter on screen together at the close of "America", Neil Diamond's idealistic love letter to his homeland. So in one deft move he rebuilds the special relationship in London. You instantly sense how this trouper in his 71st year strives to make every crowd from Cape Town to Glasgow feel a personal connection. Yet for much of the two-hour set, Neil Diamond remains impossible to resist.
Gifted both as vocalist and writer, Diamond has gained some kudos through the intimate feel of recent covers LP Dreams. That was the precursor to him joining earlier this year, late in the day, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Tonight, Diamond's outfit glitters in places, yet is still dark enough to reflect the occasionally brooding presence of this avowed solitary man.
A wide-ranging set covers the whole of his US melting-pot style, veering from Nashville balladry to pre-Motown soul, even African sounds on "Soolaimon". His hands thrust out to conduct song-endings, but Diamond controls the stage with an economy of movement and a rich, rolling voice made for leaping across arenas. The cracks in that voice's veneer only magnify its scope. Occasional wrong turns appear: a "reggae" version of "Red, Red, Wine" that makes UB40 sound like The Wailers, while a grating, slowed-down "I'm A Believer" from Dreams is rapidly curtailed in favour of a more upbeat take, giving the current Monkees a run for their money.
Much more compelling is a tender reading from the same disc of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine". Diamond even remains imperious while seated, despite a long-winded speech that takes us back to the end of the sixties, with a people divided by an unpopular war, "cutting down the visionaries we needed then," a select group that includes Malcolm X. Could he be hedging against the patriotism to come? This monologue introduces comparative rarity "Glory Road", his affecting take on country-period Dylan.
A duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with one of three backing singers could have been overblown (thankfully Streisand couldn't make it), but reveals a vulnerable, careworn core. In paying respects to his gifts as writer and performer, Diamond gets the balance between showbiz and subtlety just right.
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