Near the end of his show at the TD Garden Saturday night, Neil Diamond referenced perhaps his most famous album. “Hot August Night,” from 1972, was a live recording that captured him at the peak of his powers. Even the cover photo showed him in a state of ecstasy, suggesting the spirit of the music had possessed him.
Forty years later, not much has changed for Diamond as a live performer. He turned 71 in January, though he looks and sings like he’s a decade younger. He’s still a consummate showman supremely aware of what his audience expects from him.
It’s rare to see an entertainer so in thrall to his reputation. His face and hands froze in just the right pose at the end of each song, as if his photo were about to be taken. The knees remained slightly bent so that he could swivel and survey the crowd, which, at nearly 14,100 people, had sold out the Garden.
At two hours, the show was a reminder of how vast Diamond’s career has been as both a performer and songwriter. There were tearjerkers (“Love on the Rocks”), anthems (”Cracklin’ Rosie”), underrated gems (”Glory Road”), originals made famous by other artists (“Red Red Wine”), hymns (“Holly Holy”), and songs that have hardly aged (“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”).
And, of course, there was bombast. Lots and lots of Vegas-worthy bombast, gamely delivered by a full band that included four horn players but often relied too heavily on its synthesizers. The three female back-up singers imbued the songs with soul and gospel fervor, particularly on “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.” Longtime vocalist Linda Press assumed Barbra Streisand’s role on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Even when the material didn’t call for it, Diamond punctuated it with exclamation points.
“One more time for the people over here!”
“Let’s modulate up a key!”
That last instruction was for the fourth and final run-through of “Sweet Caroline,” an endearing acknowledgement of how beloved the song is in Boston, where it’s sung at full volume at Red Sox games.
At times it was fascinating to witness Diamond’s inner dialog at play. He said he had wanted to perform “I’m a Believer” as a ballad. He wrote it, but the Monkees took it to the top of the pop charts in 1966, right around the time Diamond had a hit of his own with “Cherry, Cherry.”
He eased into “I’m a Believer,” backed by acoustic guitar, revealing new shades of both the song and its singer. Then he explained it should be played as a rock song and revamped it just the way the audience had wanted to hear it all along.
That moment was Diamond in a snapshot: a troubadour with a heart of gold and an outsize persona indebted to the glitz.