On Saturday night, when Neil Diamond walked onto the Greek Theatre stage where he recorded his classic live double album “Hot August Nights” forty years ago, he seemed the living definition of his lyric “good times never seemed so good.” The day before, Diamond had received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, four months ago he married his manager Katie McNeil and last year he was inducted by Paul Simon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now he’s returned to the open-air Greek for the first of five sold-out concerts.
“Hot August Nights,” which has just been re-released with bonus tracks, was perhaps the album that elevated the Brooklyn-raised singer to superstar status. (What it did for the Greek Theatre, which has been renovated since Diamond’s original ten night “August” adventure, was to make it a must-play venue.) The setting, heat included, was perfect for Diamond to recreate and expand the set that had set the bar extremely high for this energetic performer.
Diamond loyalists appeared surprised to see a black acoustic guitar resting on a stand onstage pre-show, perhaps signifying a set of ballads to be performed by Diamond alone. When the curtain came up to reveal his large veteran band, Diamond seemed to pop up in a swirl of smoke leaving the audience pleasantly baffled. Dressed in a black suit with a blue collar, Diamond reminded the audience that it had been 25 years since he played the Greek, then proceeded to perform hit after hit from one of the great American song books.
With early renditions of “Hello Again,” “Cherry Cherry” and “Solitary Man,” Diamond revved the crowd with fan favorites. These were followed by poignant performances of ballads like the underrated “Play Me,” the personal saga of “Love on the Rocks,” the gospel-inspired “Holly Holy,” the mysterious “Shilo” and perhaps his most haunting composition, “Glory Road,” from the little seen Paul Newman-starrer “WUSA.”
From early on, Diamond impressed with his ability to structure a storytelling songlist that took his audience where he wanted them to go, rather than following what they expected. In the process Diamond snuck in crowdpleasers “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Beautiful Noise” and “Red Red Wine.” Behind the stage curtain was a full orchestra, which would appear and re-appear throughout the two hour, intermission-less show, and was at its best backing Diamond’s superb duet with Linda Press on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
As always, Diamond kept his stage patter short and slightly personal, explaining his love affair with the Greek and reading from audience members’ Tweets. Introducing “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” he got a laugh by saying: “This is a song I wrote for you 15-year-old girls that have become women. Now deal with it.”
Then like a cool, confident gambler Diamond proceeded to play his aces: “Sweet Caroline,” “I Am…I Said” and “Cracklin’ Rosie.” With a touching history of his mother’s trek to this country, Diamond unleashed the instantly uplifting “America.” Minus the fireworks that he’s often used previously performing the tune, the singer let his still powerful voice (and exceptional lyrics) work its magic with the excited crowd before revisiting his “Hot August Nights” encore song “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”
To the surprise of the crowd, who had heard the song several times closing many Diamond shows, he stayed onstage to sing the bittersweet ballad “I’ve Been This Way Before” from his oft forgotten 1974 album “Serenade.” It was a fitting finale to a great musical career that now offers few new challenges. Of those good times that never seemed so good, perhaps Diamond might reassess his lyric: “I’d be inclined to believe they never would.”
Diamond returns to the Greek on Aug. 16, 18, 23 and 25 with a further reprise at Anaheim’s Honda Center on Aug. 21.