When he gets on stage anywhere in the world, he’s Nearly Neil. But when he gets back home to Gambier Island, he’s all Bobby.
Neil Diamond tribute artist Bobby Bruce and wife and manager Leanne Bruce have made Gambier home for 15 years, but about 90 times a year they foray out to anywhere from Gibsons and Sechelt to Amsterdam and Australia to perform Nearly Neil music shows.
“Gambier really provides the balance to my life that I need. And I didn’t know I needed it until I was here for a while,” Bruce said in a telephone interview from his Howe Sound island home. “There are no paved roads here, no street signs, it’s quiet, with dark skies at night. It’s so unlike the lifestyle of travelling, staying in hotels and all that. It’s the calm I need to counterbalance it all.”
Raised in Port Coquitlam, Bruce has been a performer since he was 10 years old, when as an actor he co-starred in a 1980 episode of The Beachcombers. The plot had star Bruno Gerussi, as lead character Nick Adonidas, trying in vain to pursue a love interest while having to keep an eye on a youngster, played by Bruce. “Bruno had to babysit me through the entire episode,” Bruce said.
The singing aspect of performing came a few years later, after his parents signed up Bruce to study in Vancouver with émigré Russian voice maestro Nikolai Kolesnikov. “Those singing lessons made all the difference in the world for me and made all this possible,” Bruce said.
He recalls that he was working in dinner theatre in Port Coquitlam in the early 1990s when in a casual rehearsal with the cast, he spontaneously sang part of the chorus from Diamond’s Sweet Caroline – and suddenly everything stopped. “The cast members all looked at each other, then looked at me and said, ‘You should be doing him!’”
More than 20 years later, Bruce is still “doing him,” although he stresses that while he sports a vintage Diamond hairstyle and wears some flashy stage outfits, it’s not an impersonation of the great singer-songwriter, but a tribute to him. “I just tell the audience, ‘I grew up with these songs and I’m celebrating this music with you tonight. I’m hosting this Neil Diamond party for you.’”
Bruce’s solo shows and those with his backup group, Solitary Band – who are with him for as many has half of his performances – generally consist of about 30 of Diamond’s hundreds of tunes. He doesn’t do set song-lists. “I’d rather go with my gut and an energy that I’m feeling than being locked into what worked before,” said Bruce. “It keeps it really fresh and alive and makes it feel more like it’s the first time I’m doing it and the first time everyone’s hearing it.”
Bruce also varies the shows according to the locale: “Each country has a different set of favourites,” he said. “I go to Malaysia, they like Longfellow Serenade; I go to Holland and it’s Beautiful Noise and anything with a polka. Australia has a whole different set of favourites based on the Hot August Night album.”
Bruce said he tours Australia again this summer, and after he returns, he will bring the band along to play at the bandshell in Winegarden Park in Gibsons during Music in the Landing in August.