ROCK / Diamond is a girl's best friend: Giles Smith on self-assertion, shouting and sentimentality with Neil Diamond at the Wembley Arena

BEFORE THE show, they piped some classical music through the PA, like they do on planes to calm you down before take-off. There was even something in the way of a reassuring pre-flight announcement. 'Mr Diamond will perform without intermission. Please note the exit nearest you and follow the directions of the stewards.' Not that these pieces of information were related in any way.

With a greatest hits compilation in the Top 10 and a string of dates at the Wembley Arena, Neil Diamond would appear to be one of this summer's most popular destinations. Certainly nobody was scrambling for the exits when Mozart was suddenly swallowed by a synthesiser fanfare, and the man charged on, heading directly up the ramp to the podium in the middle. You sensed he had put a lot of work into this entrance, hunching over slightly, like someone running out from under the blades of a helicopter, but gradually straightening up and timing it perfectly, so that when he hit centre stage, he was at full height and could freeze like a statue with his arms spread out.

Then he was off again, down the stairs to the outer rim to say some preliminary hellos, either holding his palms out, or pointing at people as if to say 'oh, you're here'. And only then, with lasers criss-crossing in the audience and lights turning the stage-floor into a kaleidoscope, did he snatch up the microphone and start singing. 'Check out the view from above,' he advised us; climb those 'mountains of love'.

The stage sat plumb in the middle of the arena and turned like a gentle carousel, bringing Neil nearer to us all. Every three minutes or so he passed right under your nose. But the added plus, for the real fans (mostly women - for Diamond is a girl's best friend - though a lot of men were on their feet too) was that, in a way a conventional setting never could, this arrangement granted everyone long periods in which to contemplate the Diamond backside.

To be frank, for considerable portions of the show it was debatable which was in better shape - the bum or the voice. Diamond regularly abandoned warmth in favour of a gravelly bark. He also tended, during some of the more popular choruses, to give up on the singing altogether and to shout the words instead. In 'Sweet Caroline', for instance: 'Hands touching hands - yeah - reaching out - yeah'.

The hits were piled high ('Beautiful Noise', 'Forever in Blue Jeans', 'Love on the Rocks'), while a couple of newer songs tried in vain to peep between them. After two hours, the show hit a trick climax with that unabashed piece of self-assertion 'I Am, I Said', but then lurched on again, at which point it was possible to feel that Diamond is indeed forever. Still, if 'Song Sung Blue' is the musical equivalent of a padded Valentine's card, don't forget its author also wrote 'I'm A Believer' for The Monkees and 'Red Red Wine', which UB40 had a hit with.

'I'm proud to do their reggae version,' said Diamond, which seemed big-hearted of him. The band went into a mild lope which made even UB40's neutered version of reggae sound threatening. But then we reached the toasting section of the song, and Diamond dug the barb in: 'even if the words weren't understood,' he chanted, 'everybody got to have some fun.' It was a charmless moment, and one which had you wondering whether you shouldn't perhaps summon a steward.

(Photograph omitted)

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