Music tribute acts get a bad rap. Like a bearded lady at the circus they can pull a crowd, but more often than not it's of the point and snigger variety. Actors, on the other hand, can win Oscars for portraying other people – the more uncanny the performance, the greater the chance they'll walk away with the gold statuette. They aren't subject to ridicule for the perception they are riding on someone else's coat tails. So, why the double standard? Around the world there are something like 85,000 Elvis impersonators working today – surely that number couldn't be sustained on pointing and sniggering alone?
Tonight, as we rocked up to Norths, the league's club that seemingly time (and the NRL) forgot, I had probably come to snigger. It's true. But Bobby Bruce, alias Nearly Neil and his "Aussie Band", had other ideas. A good impersonator has an aura about them. There's a definite art to it. They can't just whack on a toupee, strap on a guitar, slip into some flares and pretend to be Neil Diamond, that won't wash. In a sense, they have to be Neil Diamond in order for us to "believe", or at least, they have to nearly be him.
We are seated on plastic chairs beneath the stage at table one (pole position, nostril hair territory), on what must have once been a pumping dance floor. A vibe of hushed excitement ripples through the crowd as they gather their jugs of VB and bottles of chardy from the bar. It's nearly time! Judging by the faces here they've been waiting quite a while – some of them a good forty-odd years – for an opportunity like this one. And then quite suddenly he is here. A vision in a sparkling sequined shirt and black tuxedo trousers (complete with cummerbund) bursts onto the stage. It's Nearly Neil – I mean Bobby Bruce – and his hair seems possessed by its own permanent wind machine. We are held captive – and not in a tied-to-our-chairs-can't-get-away sense; nor in a pointing, sniggering kind of way. Here is a star, a true showman.
Born in British Columbia, Canada, 43-year-old Bobby Bruce first discovered the delights of Neil Diamond as a boy listening to his parent's 8-track while on summer holiday road trips. The choice to become Neil wasn't at that point an imperative, however in 1994 magic happened. Bobby was spotted on the tribute circuit in Las Vegas doing some Neil Diamond covers by an eagle-eyed Elvis impersonator who immediately saw his potential. Thus, a legend was born, or rather Bobby joined the other impersonator legends in the world-famous Legends In Concert line-up. The point being, Bobby has been playing Neil for almost 20 years now, that's an awfully long time to polish up an act and it shows.
It's only song number two, everybody's favourite, Sweet Caroline, and already the audience is pushing their chairs aside to reclaim the dance floor. Those who aren't on their feet are giving it all they've got with a good bit of chair dancing and hand waving. Next up is Forever In Blue Jeans. "This is Canada's favourite," he tells us inexplicably. Is that because they wear a lot of denim? Never mind, with all those syncopated head movements and hip swivelling there's plenty to distract us from pondering much for long. Of course, there's that voice. That throaty, husky, whispering purr; it's uncanny. He has the swagger, the laidback charisma, the sheer essence of Diamond – and his sideburns, too. What's not to love?
Together with his merry band of consummate musicians, Bobby rocks the Norths Showroom with the kind of panache it hasn't seen in probably a good couple of decades as he whips through a smorgasbord of Neil Diamond's greatest. Notable highlights include Cherry Cherry, Song Sung Blue – where a couple of star-struck audience members get a chance to croon along with him – I'm a Believer, that became a smash hit for The Monkees, and a funky new arrangement of Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon.
His female backup singer steals the limelight for a fraction of a second with her Barbra Streisand-esque rendition of the duet You Don't Bring Me Flowers, but then Bobby takes it back just in time for a big finale of I Am...I Said and another encore of Sweet Caroline – of course.
After the show Bobby and wife/manager Leanne are sitting at a table and he's signing his own CDs. I nearly buy one, but then I don't, because I don't want to risk spoiling the memories I'll have looking back on this night. And it's that sense of nostalgia, that once in a lifetime flashback to another place and another time that gives a great live tribute act like Nearly Neil its power. Bring on the Oscars for impersonators I say, and give one to Neil, I mean Bobby, because he deserves one.
Nearly Neil is currently touring Australia. Visit www.nearlyneil.com for details.
Nearly Neil and his Aussie Band
Venue: North Sydney Leagues Club | Sydney, NSW
Date: Friday, June 29, 2012
Tour Dates: visit www.nearlyneil.com