Judge Erich Asperschlager is...he said.
"We're here tonight to bring you beautiful music. That's why we came and that's what we're going to do tonight."
In 1972, pop superstar Neil Diamond decided to take a break from performing, an announcement which came as a shock to fans who had followed the prolific songwriter's first six years of success with hit singles like "Solitary Man," "Sweet Caroline," and "I Am…I Said." When the superstar returned to the stage a full three years later, the first stops on his tour were New Zealand and Australia. The singer set records everywhere he played. Shows sold out before dates were even announced. And by the time the three-week tour wrapped up in Sydney on March 9, Diamond had played to more than 150,000 fans. The tour was so popular, in fact, his final Sydney concert was broadcast live on Australian television, as a gesture of thanks to everyone who had supported him and for those who had been unable to attend the shows. The concert was called The Thank You Australia Concert, and it is available for the first time on DVD courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment.
I'll admit it: I'm a Neil Diamond fan. When I was about 12, I started borrowing my dad's cassettes, listening to them with a kind of obsession made possible by not being quite old enough to realize how lame that was. I remember sitting in the back of our station wagon with my Walkman, on the way home from a family vacation, playing the live album Hot August Nights over and over. I couldn't get enough. These days, I'm more tempered in my appreciation of the so-called "Jewish Elvis." Sure, I'll defend him to my dying breath, but even I can't listen to "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" with a perfectly straight face. Despite his cheesy moments, though, Diamond is the real deal. Look past the sequins, synthesizers, and threatened E.T.-related litigation, ye cynical hipsters, and accept the truth: Neil Diamond is one of the best pop songwriters this country has ever produced. Don't believe me? Ask Australia.
When Diamond's tour went down under in 1976, one in every four Australian households owned a copy of Hot August Nights. One in every four! That's a lot of fans ready to fall into a state of Neil-induced hysteria, and it explains why the Thank You Australia Concert—which lasts about an hour and 45 minutes, not the three hours advertised on the back of the case—exists at all.
Dressed in a canary yellow sequined shirt and leather bell bottoms, Diamond conducts a frenzied crowd through a first half set of "greatest hits"—a whirlwind tour of his early career that includes "Missa," "Soolaimon," "Play Me," "Solitary Man," "Cherry Cherry," "Sweet Caroline," "The Last Picasso," "Cracklin' Rosie," "Holly Holy," and "I Am…I Said." In between songs, he chats it up with the audience, sharing origin stories for some of his best-known songs: How "Longfellow Serenade" came out of a childhood fascination with fencing and Cyrano de Bergerac, for instance, or how Mozart's "Piano Concerto 21" inspired the fluffy "Song Sung Blue." The second part of the concert is a 20-minute medley of songs from Diamond's 1973 concept album soundtrack to the film flop Jonathan Livingston Seagull. "Anthem," "Be," "Dear Father," "Skybird," "Lonely Looking Sky," "Anthem (Reprise)," and "Be (Reprise)" intermingled with the concert's one big special effect: a crudely computer-animated gull silhouette flying over a sunset seascape. The show ends with two encores, a spirited rendition of "Brother Love" followed by "I've Been This Way Before"—sung as a farewell to a continent of rabid (yet polite) fans.
With this DVD release, Eagle Rock gives fans old and new a look back at not only a classic performance, but a musical moment in Australian history. For those of us who weren't there, the bonus features do an impressive job of setting the scene—from David Frost's introduction to the original telecast, building up a crowd electric with anticipation, to the photo and essay booklet and folded reproduction of a promotional poster that ran in Sydney's Sunday Independent newspaper, included in the tight-fitting slip case. There's also chuckle-inducing bonus footage from the broadcast, of a vaguely subversive Diamond reading advertisement handed to him during the show by sponsors Cadbury's and Pioneer, so they wouldn't have to cut away from the show for commercials.
By far the best bonus feature is a 50-minute one-on-one interview with Diamond on the Aussie program A Current Affair—the reclusive singer's first ever televised interview. It's a fascinating peek into young Diamond's life and thought process. The interviewer asks some personal questions—about vices, religion, politics, and money—which the singer answers with surprising candor.
The downside of this DVD's being a historical document is that the concert looks and feels like the aging TV broadcast it is. The picture is only slightly better than '70s live TV quality, and the Dolby stereo sound—with a persistent background hiss and a mix that favors the high end—is decent at best. It's not bad enough to keep me from recommending the disc to Diamond fans, but if you're going to add this concert DVD to your collection, you should know what to expect.
Who knows whether this DVD would be hitting shelves at all if not for the significant uptick in Diamond's visibility in a year that includes an appearance on Fox cash cow American Idol and the release of the critically acclaimed album Home Before Dark. Does it matter when the result is this good? The 35-year-old Neil Diamond of The Thank You Australia Concert might seem a far cry from the elder statesman of his recent Rick Rubin-produced records, but it's hard to argue with such an impressive career. No matter where or when he hits the stage, every ear in the place is on him—and hopefully will be for many years to come.
Neil Diamond is not guilty, and free to play it now, play it now, play it now!
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