For many, Neil Diamond is the cheeseball in the diamante cowboy shirt hamming up Sweet Caroline for pensioners in the front row — and he kind of is, up to a point. But shuffle around between his obvious hits, and Diamond is more than an easy listening in-joke, or a sing-song at a shite wedding.
Anyone who has time for a Neil Diamond reappraisal should watch The Last Waltz — Martin Scorsese’s epic film of The Band’s last ever concert in 1976, featuring the roots rockers and special guests including the biggest blues and rock stars in the world at the time.
The documentary was to celebrate The Band’s influences, as they journeyed from blues rockers, to Bob Dylan’s backing band, to one of the great rock’n’roll bands of the era. As well as usual suspects — Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Wood and more — Neil Diamond’s live version of Dry Your Eyes is one of the most assured, swaggering performances on the night. According to urban legend, he strolled offstage and said to Bob Dylan: “Top that!”
The Band wanted to cover all the bases, from rock, blues and folk, to Southern R&B, and Diamond was drafted in to represent the production line songwriters in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, who were responsible for most of the big hits in the decades previous.
After singing in his school choir — with Barbra Streisand ffs — Diamond’s first rock’n’roll venture was as a gun for hire in the legendary Brill Building, writing songs on a conveyor belt for 50 bucks a week. His early songs were recorded by Elvis, Lulu, Cliff Richard and Deep Purple, but his first success under his own name was Solitary Man in 1966 — a song later covered by Johnny Cash during his acclaimed American Recordings series with Rick Rubin. Rubin’s stripped-back approach with Cash led to a late career critical revival, and his collaboration on Diamond’s 2005 album 12 songs led to some of the veteran’s best reviews in years.
But let’s not kid ourselves here — there won’t be many in the 3Arena calling for Diamond to sing stripped-back confessionals, and I doubt any of those 12 Songs will be in the setlist. Instead, for this 50th Anniversary World Tour the cabaret element will be to the fore, with his most famous celebratory songs hitting the rafters – from Cherry Cherry, Cracklin’ Rosie and Forever In Blue Jeans, to the song he says he never gets sick of even after playing over 1,500 times, Sweet Caroline.
Then there are the songs you forgot he wrote: Red, Red Wine, I’m a Believer, and Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon – and Diamond’s twangy original is way more badass than the Urge Overkill version Tarantino used in Pulp Fiction.
Maybe you wouldn’t spend over a hundred quid on a hunch, but if you’re tagging along with someone you might just be quietly converted. He’ll still wear the stupid shiny shirt though.
- In Irish Daily Star, October 6, 2017