If you saw Neil Diamond at Spectrum Center on Friday evening, there’s a high probability that when you climbed into bed at the end of the night, you still had the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” firmly affixed to the inside of your skull.
Sure, the 76-year-old (that’s right, 76, can you believe it?) songwriting genius/king of cornball performed more than two dozen other classics during his two-hour “50th Anniversary” concert. But it was the 1969 soft-rock anthem – a singalong staple, for better or worse, at everything from weddings to frat parties to Red Sox games – that got stuck on repeat toward the end of the show.
Now, personally, I think erring on the side of over-celebrating “Sweet Caroline” is actually appropriate in this town. For one, it’s a welcome sound at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte during football season, since it helps signal that a Panthers’ win is imminent. On top of that, the fact that the name “Caroline” sounds like the word “Carolina” I think makes people around here feel more invested in the song, even though the track is as much about North Carolina as “Forever in Blue Jeans” is about khakis.
Then again, I walked away from the arena with friends who thought that fake-ending the song twice, and then having Diamond shout “I think they want it one more time!” – twice (both times without asking if his fans actually did) – felt excessive. That running through the chorus eight times felt obscene. That 10 minutes of “Sweet Caroline” is about six and a half too many.
You could also argue that when you super-size one song, you squeeze out others; the singer packed his set list with nearly 30 songs, but couldn’t find a spot for megahits like “Stones,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Longfellow Serenade,” “Hello Again” or “Heartlight.”
Anyway, we could debate the decision to hyper-extend “Sweet Caroline” all night. But there’s plenty of other stuff to talk about.
For instance, does Diamond’s voice still sound good? I think yes. I think that even after five decades of use, it’s a pretty fair replica of the one he had half a lifetime ago. And while he easily could have tried to snow us – if it had deteriorated – by hiding behind his 11-piece band and two backup singers, his throaty, grizzled baritone came through loudly, clearly and beautifully on ballads like “September Morn” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the latter a luscious version that subbed in Larry Klimas’s saxophone for Barbra Streisand’s voice.
As for Diamond’s physicality, he’s certainly not as spry as he used to be. But he’s also far from decrepit despite being closer to 80 than 70: The singer made good use of the full stage, roaming from one end to the other, stutter-stepping and swiveling his hips to the beat during uptempo songs like “Cherry Cherry,” “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “Holly Holy.”
If I have a complaint, it’s that his banter came off as rather wooden. In my eyes, every time he introduced a song, it felt like he was doing an infomercial for it off a script.
Before “Jungletime,” for instance, Diamond said: “You know, I was born and raised in a place called Brooklyn, New York. It was a mighty fine place to grow up, but if you weren’t careful, you might get hurt if you weren’t careful out on those streets. In fact” – cue cheese – “it was like a jungle out there.”
In setting up “America,” he said, intoning dramatically: “Over a hundred years ago, my parents were born in this country. The children of freedom-seekers and dreamers. They came, they worked, they conquered. This song is dedicated to them.” I don’t want to take away from the sentiment, which is a great one, but ... I don’t know... the way he said it felt like he was kind of just going through theatrical motions (although the song itself was extraordinarily rousing, as set to the backdrop of black-and-white photos and videos of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island).
In some cases, the script for his banter didn’t fully make sense. At one point, he showed a video of a New Zealand rugby team’s traditional haka (i.e. war cry/war dance), intended to make “opponents fear for their own lives”; then he said, “Tonight we’d like to do our own haka,” before launching into “Soolaimon” – an African homage that is as scary as “I’m a Believer” is pessimistic.
All this said, it did feel like he was making a personal connection with the near-sold-out crowd all night. He did it by looking individual fans directly in the eye while singing, smiling, blowing kisses, taking bows. But he also did it simply by showing a heart-melting montage of old home videos of him, his brother Harvey, his mom Rose and his dad Akiva on the diamond-shaped (of course) screen during “Brooklyn Roads.”
This crowd, for the record, gave Diamond a 50-second ovation after “Sweet Caroline’s” first ending, then a 45-second ovation after its second ending, then a 30-second ovation after its third.
It wasn’t officially his last song of the night – he rounded out his encore with “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “America” and “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.” But after the singer gave a final wave and the band followed him off the stage, “Sweet Caroline” came back for one more curtain call in the form of a pre-recorded uptempo version of the song that wafted over the sound system as fans filed toward the exits.
And as it played, they chanted their two-word review of the show (which in the end means much more than mine) over and over again, one last – er, maybe two last – er, maybe three last times:
“So good! So good! So good!”
Neil Diamond’s Charlotte set list
1. “In My Lifetime” (intro music)
2. “Cherry, Cherry”
3. “You Got to Me”
4. “Kentucky Woman”
5. “September Morn”
6. “Love on the Rocks”
7. “Play Me”
8. “Beautiful Noise”
10. “If You Know What I Mean”
11. “Dry Your Eyes”
12. “Forever in Blue Jeans”
13. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”
14. “I’m a Believer”
15. “Brooklyn Roads”
16. “Pretty Amazing Grace”
18. “Lonely Looking Sky”
20. “Jazz Time” (band introductions)
22. “Crunchy Granola Suite”
23. “Done Too Soon”
24. “Holly Holy”
25. “I Am ... I Said”
26. “Sweet Caroline”
27. “Cracklin’ Rosie”
29. “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”