I have to admit an odd fascination with Neil Diamond, an artist I both love and loathe, depending on the material. Here's someone who is arguably among the very best songwriters and also the most appalling at times. He's been willing to embrace the shlockiest parts of showbiz, taking over from Elvis in the glittery suit spectacles. At the same time, there's a reason for his huge popularity, and why Boston Red Sox fans sing Sweet Caroline in the tens of thousands; he's written wonderfully catchy pop and folk-rock songs.
I'm not alone in my semi-fandom. Both Robbie Robertson and Rick Rubin have tried (and pretty much failed) to make Diamond more appealing for hip audiences. But as late as 2008, he wrote an tremendous track, Pretty Amazing Grace, giving some hope for a late-career bloom. Then he followed that up with A Cherry Cherry Christmas, where he covered Adam Sandler's The Chanukah Song.
Diamond was known as a hit songwriter and singles artist until 1972, when the original Hot August Night album became a massive success. He had lots of other big albums after that, but that live set was a personal favourite for him, and he's celebrated it a few times. Hot August Night 2 came out in 1987, then there was a Hot August Night/NYC DVD. Back in 2012, he returned to the original venue, L.A.'s Greek Theater, to celebrate the 40th anniversary, and it's just now getting issued. That's quite possibly due to his unforeseen retirement from performing earlier this year after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
You can't fault his cheerfulness on this anniversary gig, reliving some of the songs from the original Hot August Night (Crunchy Granola Suite, I Am ... I Said), and stuffing the rest of the night with hit after hit. On stage, Diamond is all polish and no edge, which softens the show too much. Songs such as Solitary Man, Kentucky Woman and Cracklin' Rosie are played too slick, September Morn and You Don't Bring Me Flowers are painful, and the whole Sweet Caroline singalong wrecks the song. But then you get Holly Holy retaining some mystique, and that Pretty Amazing Grace quietly steals the show, a then-current song most of his fans wouldn't even know.