YOU KNOW what you'll be sorry you missed? The impossibly cute little teddies on the concession stand in their "I heart Neil" T-shirts. There were other T-shirts, for adults, with prints of Neil looking mean'n'moody in the olden days, but not a lot of punters bought them, just as not a lot of punters had tattoos and nose studs. What we've got tonight is perms and nice dresses and a frisson of excitement that you could equate to a full house at a bingo hall; warming but not psychically disturbing.
Neil Diamond, after all, is Barry Manilow, he's Kenny Rogers; he's a nice guy. He wants his fans - if he's 58, then probably so are most of them, and he and they have come a long way, baby - to have a good time. So his show, expensively in the round, with a revolving stage, is consummately glitzy, chock-full of Vegas/supper-club razzmatazz, and Neil is in his sequined shirt and peddling a wholesome kind of love. "Despite the barriers that separate people, we're here to break down barriers of love," he cries, a sexier (nearly) version of Billy Graham. "So turn to the person on your right: give them a big, wet kiss!"
There is slightly awkward giggling; for most people, the person on the right is another middle-aged mum sucking boiled sweets. It's all the same to Neil. He punches the air and wiggles his black-clad hips. When Neil begins "Play Me", with its opening line about lying down beside him on the bed, there is hoarse screaming. It has to be said that he delivers all his hits just as they are on record, his voice raw and grainy, with a hint of urgency. A thoughtful, gracious person - he split all he owned with his wife on their divorce - he can also infuse rare dark moments such as "Solitary Man" and The Jazz Singer's "Love on the Rocks" with genuine meaning. "Cherry Cherry" and "I'm a Believer" rock mildly, sounding sweetly Sixties and still, somehow, fresh.
One of his eeriest pennings is "Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon" (remember Urge Overkill's version during Pulp Fiction's OD scene?) and it's with things like this - tonight, it shivers with Spanish guitar and marimba - that Neil could cross over to hipness. But he'd rather not. And why tamper, when the fans love things dull and comfy? Huge amounts of his canon - "Beautiful Noise", "Forever in Blue Jeans", the Jonathan Livingston Seagull sound-track - are miserably anodyne to start with; then his slick band hammers them into overblown cabaret.
Tracks from his newest waxing, a collection of movie tracks from "Unchained Melody" to "As Time Goes By", are, conversely, eviscerated, made into easy listening. Neil admitted recently that his workaholism means his personal life has gone down the toilet. Hmm. That suggests he likes this music the way it is, too...
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