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I Am . . . I Said: Diamond at the Pepsi Arena. Photo by Martin Benjamin.

Soul Revival
By Erik Hage

Neil Diamond
Pepsi Arena, Sept. 21

Neil Diamond is square- shouldered and taller than you think. At the Pepsi Arena, resplendent in a black shirt with glass beads, he often walked with his chest thrust out like a bantam rooster. Curiously, at one point, he was actually laying down on the stage, his hand draped elegantly over the edge. He feigned rapture and looked as if he were playing Hamlet at the Old Vic. He lay there for a pregnant pause—every eye in the Pepsi Arena upon him. Maybe, reclined in those seconds of contemplation, his eyes swung up to the nosebleeds, to the highest packed rafter. Maybe he was thinking about that furthest person in the furthest row. Then then there was a sharp intake of breath; Neil breathed in and the whole arena breathed with him. “Wow,” he said, and the audience exploded.

What landed Neil on his stomach wasn’t the magnitude of the audience; he’s accustomed to filling venues. (Just last year, he did two nights at Madison Square Garden.) No, Diamond eventually reached the prone position while serenading an attractive blonde woman in the front row, who, as if on cue, stepped bravely forward and extended her hand as the singer wrapped his burnished croon around “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” Neil took her hand and collapsed in stages, first on bended knee. The woman, in black tights, wiggled her butt with joy toward the audience as Diamond stroked her hair. Then, the remnants of the fourth wall seemed to collapse altogether in the closing moments of the song as Diamond leaned down and laid a long kiss upon her. After the “Wow,” Diamond peered down at the woman’s date for a second. “Did she come with you?” he asked. To the affirmative, Neil informed the man that she was really not with him anymore. The 61-year-old Diamond is one badass entertainer.

One doesn’t have to size up a Neil Diamond show too long to figure out why he’s among the limited ranks of singers who fill ample venues from coast to coast. True, a night with Diamond walks a tightrope of Vegas schmaltz, religious fervor and sappiness. But bubbling just under the surface is, well, sexuality. And not just the middle-age corny kind, as when a woman down front presented Diamond with a garment, which he wiped across his sweaty brow and inside the front of his shirt before returning it. Prior to the show, Pearl Street seemed to flow with women, from teenagers to middle-age and older. Women, it seems, love Neil Diamond.

And it’s hard not to be drawn into Diamond’s world. He’s an unbelievably attentive performer, constantly moving about the edges of his expansive stage and playing to pockets of screaming people. But beyond the showier elements is an incredible assemblage of songs. Diamond is one of pop music’s great composers, and the glorious tunes seemed to come in waves. One of the finer sequences emerged when he strapped on an acoustic and visited his early years with gems such as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry” and “I’m a Believer.” Then there was the unanimity of celebration during “Sweet Caroline” as the house lights shone and the audience roared the backing vocals. “Beautiful Noise,” meanwhile, landed like a revival meeting, the crowd standing and clapping and Diamond sidestepping, shimmying and squeezing his fists with ecstasy.

The summit, however, came late in the set, with a triumphant and burning “I Am . . . I Said” that saw Neil floating about the stage with outstretched arms and basking in the approval of his people. And in retrospect, that’s what it amounted to, a celebration. A celebration of sex, schmaltz and songs.

Smells Like Mosh Spirit

Hatebreed, Six Feet Under, Mastodon, Death Threat, Bleeding Through
Saratoga Winners, Sept. 20

Man, these hardcore shows are getting longer and longer. Anything more than six hours and I need vending, dammit, but curses, I’m foiled again, resigned to eating a stale handful of Mike & Ike’s that I quite possibly washed in last week’s laundry. You learn to take the good with the bad.

Similarly, sold-out shows have their ups and downs. The nice thing is that you can study the indigenous beasts in their natural habitat, but at the price of having shirtless, sweaty bruisers rubbing their moist filth directly on you as they squeeze by toward the general direction of the circle pit. Saratoga Winners was packed to the roadhouse rafters Friday night with tattooed heavies and young gazelles with strategic piercings, who smoked cigarettes and laughed and bounced to the two-four like it was their last day on earth, unconcerned about my study or my distaste for questionable personal hygiene. This particular jaunt, billed as “The Rise of Brutality Tour,” is indeed brutal for these bands from a scheduling standpoint: They play their asses off almost every night for months. It’s awe-inspiring when you see them rage so hard for so long, knowing that they’re gonna do it again tomorrow.

Unlisted openers Bleeding Through wasted no time in upholding this ethic with very intentional gothic, synth-infused metal. Lifting a collective crunch of power chords into something at once ethereal and curious, they delivered songs that came across as well- conceived, despite the fact that more and more bands are experimenting with this sound.

There was nothing experimental about Connecticut’s Death Threat, who proved to be a pleasant surprise, muscling through with some absolutely ruinous old-school East Coast hardcore. No bullshit banter, just wave upon wave of classic, gut-level music from the streets. I was instantly transported back to the days of shows at the V.F.W. Post No. 481 on Washington Avenue in Albany, where a black eye was just as good as a black boot, or a Black Flag for that matter. Not much else to say there.

The scraggly denizens of Mastodon then gave us our tech fix beneath a swirling, pounding dirge. The Rochester band’s good work had a dynamic, incendiary quality that raised the crowd up by the shorthairs not only via genital-shrinking guitar work, but also by the ability to intricately weave haunting harmonies through such an onslaught.

By then, we were three hours into the bill. One would expect the collective constitution of the assembled masses to falter, but that was when the flesh-pecked carrion of yesterday’s death-metal hierarchy (and I mean that in a good way) roared back in all its autopsy glory with the inimitable Six Feet Under. I stood agape whilst former Cannibal Corpse frontman Chris Barnes shrieked and “oomphed” his way through a blistering set of tunes about decapitation, drinking blood and bullets to the brain with his trademark Cookie Monster vocals. I can’t believe the guy has been doing that to his voice for well over a decade. The almost military cadence of the drums, mimicked by rib-rattling basswork, put out the lights on Winners’ gargantuan chandelier one by one, despite a rather austere lead guitar that sounded more like a Pterodactyl than a Jackson “V.” Refreshed, the pit champs morphed into a swollen, breathing pulse of testosterone that you could almost taste. The jury is still out on whether that aspect is actually a good thing.

When Hatebreed finally bum-rushed the stage, it was like you were watching ESPN’s freakin’ X-Games. You cannot deny the gale-force might of this band. They are flawless and intrinsically attuned to the precise art of timing and delivery that gets lads and ladies alike trading punches on the floor. Covering the entire war-torn terrain of their career, the angst-ridden rowdies pummeled the people with goodies like “Empty Promises,” “You’re Never Alone” and the death-dealing “Smash Your Enemies.” These blokes are the bastard sons of straightedge, but they thankfully infuse a walloping dose of longhair buckshot to keep the Hessians happy too.

The elbows flew all the way out the side doors as tireless leader Jamey Jasta and company, curiously one guitar short that evening, delivered much of the material from their most recent CD, Perseverance, consisting predominately of either stump speeches for positive living (the title track, for example) or Clockwork Orange-style ultraviolence (“A Call for Blood”). The only problem I have with this band is that, regardless of how mighty, how inspirational, how successful, they still come across as just a wee bit too pissed off. While I’m sure many will fill my hate-mail bin with spittle-laden missives in protest, I’m not quite convinced that the proverbial “walk” has preceded the very stark “talk” in this instance. Does this matter all that much? Probably not, and to be fair, they’re only in their junior year. Time will tell if they’re sincere.

—Bill Ketzer

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