If you grew up on the East Coast in the 1970s there’s a pretty solid chance you heard the soft crackle and hiss of a Neil Diamond album playing on a turntable in your parents’ living room, songs off of “Touching You, Touching Me” and “Hot August Night” providing the pop-rock soundtrack to neighborhood social mixers where martinis, Virginia Slims and avocado green shag carpeting flourished in abundance.
Tuesday night’s sold-out Neil Diamond concert at the Hollywood Bowl was a harkening back to those golden days of music listening, with a crowd made up mostly of silver-haired vinyl enthusiasts nostalgic for the past — special shout-out to the shlubby dude in the “Neil F**kin’ Diamond” T-shirt who flaunted his fandom in the most wantonly unapologetic way possible — their slightly younger counterparts (fortysomethings in yarmulkes and carpool moms with graying roots) and, naturally, because this is L.A., after all, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and their tween son, Pax, who, in all likelihood, was the youngest ticket-holder in the historic 18,000-seat amphitheater.
Diamond — or just plain “Neil” as he’s known to ardent fans; one-third of the Barbra (Streisand)-Barry (Manilow)-Neil triumvirate — knows what his fans want, and he gives it to them, joyfully and appreciably and with just the right light touch of dry, self-deprecation to underscore the fact that, at 74 years old, he’s not quite the sex symbol he once was (“Women screaming my name … makes me feel like I’m 70 again,” he joked), but if he’s old then we’re old, and we’re all still rocking out. So there. The stage, affixed with Diamond’s name in neon red lettering and a diamond-shaped hologram that changed color according to each tune, felt like an appropriate Las Vegas-esque homage to Diamond’s cheeky legacy as the “Jewish Elvis.”
Dressed in his signature cowboy-style shirt and black blazer, Diamond opened the show with a peppy karaoke-ready iteration of “I’m a Believer,” the 1966 No. 1 hit he penned for the Monkees, before launching into a string of popular crowd-pleasers ranging from baritone ballads “Love on the Rocks” and “Hello Again” (off “The Jazz Singer”) to “Kentucky Women” and “Girl, You’ll be a Women Soon,” which first appeared on Diamond’s 1976 album, “Just for You” and experienced a second coming when it was covered by alternative punk band Urge Overkill in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Oscar-winning crime drama “Pulp Fiction.” At one point in the song, Diamond knelt down on the stage and slow-danced with a swooning female fan in the front row.
‘Thank you, darling, what a pleasure it was to sing to you. We’ll have to do it again sometime,” he teased. “We’re here on Saturday I think.” And then, struggling to stand: “If I can get up.”
Everybody laughed — not at Neil, but with him — his iconic words and music a unifying force.
Diamond did sing one track off his latest album, “Melody Road,” but kept mostly to audience favorites —“Cherry, Cherry,” “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “I am … I said.” And while there were moments where some of the verses sounded more spoken word than sung (“Red, Red Wine” possessed something of a cruise-ship-talent-show quality, more akin to the UB40 cover than Diamond’s original), for the most part, Diamond’s voice has maintained its rich, gravely luster over the years, far better than most crooners his age, and his voice only opened up as the night wore on. By the time he got to “Play Me,” a romantic tune that typically elicits girlish screams out of grown women, if you closed your eyes and swayed back and forth with a Bic lighter in hand — which one or two in the crowd did — you could swear you were back in 1972.
Diamond’s backup band-cum-orchestra deserves special credit for its spirited, up-tempo instrumentals throughout the performance, from King Errisson on percussion to Ron Tutt on drums and sister singers Maxine and Julia Walters, who brought the house down with their soulful vocals and groovy, hip-hop-inspired dance moves.
There were tender moments in the night as well, namely Diamond’s introduction to the autobiographical ballad “Brooklyn Roads,” which recalls Diamond’s youth in New York, the son of working-class eastern European Jewish immigrants. “If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my mother, callin’, ‘Neil go find your brother,’ ” Diamond sang, as home movies shot on his father’s keystone camera played onscreen — footage of Diamond rolling in the snow with his younger brother Harvey, clips of shooting hoops after school.
“I was in love with music from the beginning and here I am at the Hollywood Bowl,” said Diamond wistfully. “This is big time.”
Diamond’s rousing encore consisted of his most beloved chart-topping tunes: “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which brought the crowd to its feet and kept it there; “Sweet Caroline,” which is generally a favorite of anyone who’s from Boston, roots for the Red Sox or has a special affinity for anything Kennedy-related (the catchy love song was inspired by a photograph of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg as a young girl); and the powerful patriotic anthem “Coming to America,” which, accompanied by shots of the American flag and a grainy montage of wide-eyed immigrants landing at Ellis Island, was perhaps the most emotional moment of the entire night and, no doubt, one of the most ‘Jew-ish” songs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Squint, and you could see your parents or grandparents somewhere in that footage on one of those boats. Diamond closed the show with “Heartlight,” a tearjerker inspired by the now-classic film “E.T.” which is also, at its core, the story of someone who comes from another planet and discovers a home in America.
Neil Diamond will play a second show May 23 at the Hollywood Bowl.