Groban Brings Musical Comfort Food to Paramount
San Francisco Chronicle
January 30, 2004
It isn't hard to understand why people like Josh Groban, the tousle- haired young crooner who brought his "Closer" tour to Oakland's Paramount Theatre on Wednesday night. He's got nice pipes, a handsome demeanor and a charmingly low-key stage presence.

The question, as the writer Kingsley Amis once asked in a different context, is why they like him so much. At 22, the sweetly soulful Angeleno has become the latest poster child for the vocal crossover set, with a career buoyed by a handful of television appearances and best-selling CDs. He's carved out a distinctive niche in the musical world, one that applies the kind of solid but undistinguished vocal technique learned in high school choir to a slew of arty pop ballads.

In the process, Groban has attracted a die-hard claque of enthusiasts, an astonishingly diverse and impassioned cross-section of young children, teenagers, middle-aged folks and seniors.

The Grobaniacs (they prefer Grobanites, but that sounds too much like a Midwestern missionary sect) were out in force on Wednesday, applauding every song and every brief ad lib in the two-hour show. And to Groban's credit, he gave them exactly what they came for.

The typical Groban number -- and there seems to be no other kind -- is a slow, sentimental power ballad marked by soaring melodic phrases and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism. A string section, led by a first-rate young violinist named Lucia Micarelli, provided the requisite schmaltz.

Nearly half of his repertoire, for reasons that aren't easily explicable, is in Italian, though he also sang a Celine Dion number, "Just Walk Away," in Spanish translation, as "Alejate." One other cover, Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)," showed up in a steroidal version that contrasted oddly with the light-footed tenderness of the original. But there's an appealing honesty to Groban's activities, a kind of truth- in-packaging that is a marked contrast to some of the other matinee idols of the vocal crossover scene.

Unlike Andrea Bocelli, for instance, he isn't offering cut-rate renditions of operatic standards to listeners who don't know any better, and he isn't simply slumming for money like the Three Appalling Tenors.

At the same time, Groban's frank, unvarnished musicianship sets him apart from the high-end karaoke of "American Idol," where singers try to distinguish themselves from the pack by lavishing ever more baroque ornamentation on standard pop tunes that everyone already knows.

Groban doesn't play that. The Europop he sings isn't very challenging or exciting, but he gives it his all, and he has a simple communicative gift that goes well with his alluringly smooth baritone.

What his music is most reminiscent of, in the end, is a good grilled cheese sandwich.

Most of us like a grilled cheese sandwich now and again, and to encounter a tasty and substantial one -- on real bread with real cheese, rather than processed American cheese food on Wonder bread -- is a genuine pleasure.

But imagine finding yourself in a room full of people who insist that that sandwich is the pinnacle of their culinary experience to date: "I've never tasted anything so sublime! I could live on nothing but this sandwich for the rest of my life!"

You hate to burst their bubble, but it does bear pointing out that although Don's Diner may make a terrific grilled cheese sandwich, Tad's Diner probably does too -- and that any of a thousand other earnest, moderately talented young singers could just as easily have been snatched up by the music industry's star-making apparatus with similar results.

What I liked best about Groban was that he seemed almost as surprised and perplexed by his stardom as I was, if understandably more pleased.

This was his first concert tour, he told the audience, and he seemed slightly nervous and a little relieved that people had actually shown up. When his spoken intros were repeatedly punctuated by cries of "I love you, Josh!" he barely broke stride; he was obviously gratified but just as obviously didn't take the adulation too seriously.

He came off, in short, like what he was: a young man with a sweet voice who was lucky enough to have been in just the right place at just the right time. Who knows how long it will last?

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