After more than 50 years in the business, with over 100 million albums sold and a slew of hits that are heard everywhere from bars to weddings to ballparks, Neil Diamond decided it was finally time to play a concert in his native Brooklyn. And rather than perform at one of the borough’s many excellent venues, he decided to make it a true homecoming and play the chapel of his high school, Erasmus Hall, which boasts Barbra Streisand and Clive Davis among its many notable alums.
The 73-year-old took the stage and soaked in the loud applause while bouncing a pink rubber ball, then asked who the real Brooklynites were in the crowd. Those with the proper street cred knew it was a “Spaldeen,” the go-to source of entertainment old-school city children, one which Diamond called “better than an iPhone for any kid.” Though we couldn’t see him at that moment, we’re sure that the other celebrity in the room, Brooklyn’s own Giraldo Rivera, agreed.
Before he got into the music, the admittedly overwhelmed Diamond took time to reminisce about Erasmus and the impact it had on his life, noting that it was in this very hall that, during an hour-long stint in detention, he heard a classmate practicing the piano, and decided to take up the instrument. “This is a meaningful places,” he said. “My mind changed in this place.”
More importantly, it was in this room, adorned with stained-glass windows and, now, portraits of Streisand and famous graduates like late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, where Diamond joined the chorus. His motivation? “I thought it was a great place to meet girls.”
A couple stories later, it was finally time to get to the music. Strapping a black acoustic guitar over his gray blazer, Diamond and his six-piece band kicked into “I’m a Believer,” with blaring organs augmenting his still-powerful vocals, a great reminder that this is still Neil’s song despite being a Monkees hit. The crowd — a mix of young and old with a fair share of aggressive, probably inebriated request-yellers — was up on its feet as soon as Diamond yelled, “Come on!” near the end of the song.
“Kentucky Woman” brought more cheers while Neil took a break to share more Brooklyn nostalgia. “The memories are flooding in tonight, ” he said, with a touch of longing. “I used to shine shoes in that subway station. It’s a great gig. No future in it, but it’s a great gig for a kid.”
That led into “Brooklyn Roads,” his 1970 track about living in the family apartment while dreaming of something much bigger. It hit home with many of the attendees, some of whom Diamond recognized. “I saw a few familiar faces and wondered, are those people still going here? It’s 50 years! You have to buckle down and study,” he joked earlier.
“Love on the Rocks” followed, and by this time fans scattered throughout the chapel were — completely independent from each other — bowing in worship of Diamond. As soon as any of them sat down, it was time for an exultant “Forever in Blue Jeans” straight into “Cracklin’ Rosie,” with the somewhat reserved (and who can blame a 73-year-old for that) entertainer getting even bigger cheers when he roared the lyrics, “Girl, if it lasts for an hour, that’s all right/We got all night/To set the world right.”
Of course, the homecoming show was ostensibly so Diamond could promote his new album Melody Road, due out Oct. 21 via Capitol. But rather than sell it heavily, Neil eased the fans into this unfamiliar material with a bit of disarming banter. “I love doing something you know,” he said, “but I really love doing songs you’ve never heard before — because I can sing them alone.”
That prefaced the stripped-back “Nothing but a Heartache,” a ballad that plays down the fanfare and lets Diamond’s butterscotch voice take front and center. If anything, it brings to mind some of Tom Waits’ best, like “Jersey Girl” or “Downtown Train,” but without a big chorus. He followed that with “Something Blue,” another new track that has a tender, low-key country feel and, like all the preceding songs, he delivered it with vigor and sincerity.
“I need you for this one,” he said as the crowd rose in unison when the familiar intro riff to “Sweet Caroline” played. With only keyboards and guitars backing him, Diamond urged the crowd into screaming the “bom-bom-bom” horn part, then went in just as hard for the “so good!” portion of the refrain.
As the song ended and the Diamondhards frantically clapped and wrapped their heads around the fact that they just saw Neil performing his greatest hit in his high school, while he stood onstage basking in the adoration, he turned and told his band that he thought the crowd wanted a little bit more. But it wasn’t another song he called for — it was just another “Caroline” chorus, which allowed him one more chance to pump up the Brooklyn pride. “I saw two people who weren’t singing. They’re obviously not a student or Brooklynites. Staten Island, I’m sorry — there’s the exit.”
The sing-along was louder for the brief reprise, and after a few more rounds, Diamond thanked the audience and the school for a special night, and invited everyone to come back and see him this Spring at the Barclays Center, the borough’s fancy two-year-old arena. By then, Diamond will be 74, with plenty more time to tell some old Brooklyn tales, and a lot more surfaces to bounce that old Spaldeen off of.