August 24, 1972 was a seminal moment in American pop music. That was the night that Neil Diamond recorded a concert at the Greek Theatre, appearing there for the first time, which, in his words, “changed his life and his career.” Up until then he had been a relatively popular singer, just starting out. After that album came out, he was a star.
I like to think that I was there that night, but I wasn’t. I was there four years later, when he returned triumphantly to the Greek for a series of sold-out concerts reprising what he sang four years prior. That was the most magical concert I’ve ever attended (until I attended my next Neil Diamond concert).
On August 11, Diamond returned to the Greek for the first time in 26 years. He outgrew the Greek Theatre’s comfy confines that presently contain only 5,900 seats, and that was after it was expanded in 1983. On “Hot August Night” in 1972, it only seated 4,880. Diamond returned to the Greek several times, the last in 1986 when he set the Greek Theatre attendance record to date for his 14-night stand of 84,672. I’ve seen him every time he’s appeared since my first time in 1976.
This August Diamond has returned to the Greek for a 40th Anniversary concert. I was there opening night, August 11.
Unlike his recent concerts, this is a tribute to the past. He sang almost every song he sang on August 24, 1972 and added some he’s written since.
He started with a rousing rendition of Crunchy Granola Suite (“Deedelee deet deet deet deet deet deet deedledee do”) that brought the audience to its feet even before it had settled in. While interspersing his familiar upbeat songs with some ballads (“Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Solitary Man”), he included some stories and remembrances, alluding to his wife who was in the audience. He told that he wrote a song he didn’t think much of and gave it to The Monkees. According to his patter, in their hands it became the only song he wrote that reached No. 1 on the charts, “I’m a Believer.” He sang his version, a ballad. I told my friend, “I like The Monkees’ version better.” He must have heard me because then he sang The Monkees’ version and it brought down the house.
But the best was yet to come. His standard, “Sweet Caroline,” was so well received he had to do several encores, the audience constantly calling for more. Who wouldn’t want to hear more “Sweet Caroline” with its inventive arrangement that is probably as popular as the melody and lyrics with the audience singing along?
The wonderful thing about a Neil Diamond concert that plays his old standards is that the songs keep getting better. After “Sweet Caroline” came the hand clapping “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “I Am, I Said,” “Holly Holy,” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” and all the other favorites from the Hot August Night album.
But he did add some of his newer songs, and the one that took the cake was “America” that he wrote for The Jazz Singer in 1980. I’m not making any kind of a judgment here, but this could be Diamond’s best concert song. The crowd was electric and demanded that he sing several more encores.
While Diamond played his guitar for many of his songs, his band backing him up looked as if it had been with him for years and never missed a beat on the high tempo songs. Each member was introduced individually and each played a riff.
Much of the audience also looked as if they had been Diamond fans for as many decades as I, and proved that it’s not just 20 somethings who can dance to each song in a concert that lasts several hours.
Neil Diamond is 71 years old but his voice is still strong, his rhythm impeccable, and he can still light up an audience. He was onstage for over two hours and the audience still wanted more when it ended.
The intimate atmosphere of the Greek Theatre makes this a concert experience one doesn’t get at a huge venue with tens of thousands of people. This could be the last chance to experience one of the great singing stars of the age in his best environment. With so few seats at the Greek Theatre, I feel truly blessed to live in Los Angeles and have the access and opportunity to have been able to see this brilliant entertainer one more time in his best venue.