Neil Diamond's success as a stage performer has been documented on a series of live albums dating back to 1970's Neil Diamond/Gold and including the Top Ten hits Hot August Night (1972) and Love at the Greek (1977). But since Diamond's last concert album, Live in America (1994), was a disappointing seller, you can understand why Sony, his record label, farmed this package to Reader's Digest through its Special Products division. (Not to mention that Sony had just released Diamond's In My Lifetime, a three-disc box set retrospective.) It is the most comprehensive Diamond live album ever, drawn from shows covering the years 1977 to 1996, containing 63 tracks, and sprawling across three CDs with a total running time of three hours and 45 minutes. That might make it, as annotator James Gavin claims, the "ultimate concert," if, as co-producer Sam Cole claims, these were really the best live performances of Diamond's songs. Cole refers to 1,000 shows from which he implies he culled these performances, and they do come from many different concerts. But 25 had been released previously, six from 1987's Hot August Night II and 19 from Live in America. It is those last repeats that really drag the set down, as Diamond's voice reveals a shocking deterioration in the '90s shows, coming out as a grating croak made all the more noticeable by the abandon with which he sings. His fans have gotten used to the vocal gravel in recent years the same way Elvis Presley's fans got used to his fat, basically by ignoring it, but it's amazing that Diamond would put out one, much less two, live albums that expose it so painfully. The collection has relatively little organization, though there are occasional mini-sets devoted to the early hits and to the albums Beautiful Noise, The Jazz Singer, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. All of Diamond's biggest hits are included, of course, along with many songs from his albums, and though the result is as uneven as any of his studio albums, he sings everything with equal conviction. That makes Live in Concert a complement to the In My Lifetime box and a specialty recording for Diamond's more fervent fans, though more casual ones may find it puzzling.
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