Groban Charms an Audience Mostly of His Elders
Minneapolis Star Tribune
February 11, 2004
Michael Anthony
Shyness, vulnerability and a big voice: Those qualities may not seem like a formula for success, but they have certainly contributed to the rapid rise of 22-year-old Josh Groban.

Groban played Minneapolis for the first time Monday night, performing for an adoring capacity crowd at the Historic Orpheum Theatre.

The concert sold out in less than a day, and outside the theater Monday night fans held up homemade signs saying "I need tickets Please!"

Meanwhile, inside the theater, an audience of mainly middle-aged and older people roared their approval as the tall, slim, curly-haired Groban, backed by strings and a versatile rhythm section, delivered intensely romantic songs in several languages from his two big-selling studio albums, including most of the songs from his latest, "Closer." For the final number before the encores, the inspirational "You Raise Me Up," the singer was joined onstage by members of the Highland Park High School chorus.

Groban's success puzzles many people in the music business. Rock fans think he's corny, while many opera enthusiasts probably don't know who he is. Record stores don't know how to categorize him. (Cheapo puts him in both Pop and Crossover.) Writers compare him to Andrea Bocelli, which is absurd. Bocelli has a seriously flawed tenor voice and tries to sing opera. Groban has a high baritone with a light rather than ringing top, although, because he's so young, he could develop into a tenor. (He calls himself a "tenor in training.")

What Groban has is a theater voice, the kind of wide-ranging voice that goes back to operetta and continued with Broadway singers like John Raitt. He's certainly no crossover. (What is he crossing over from?) The voice has its flaws: he's a little fluttery in his lower register. But he sounds more in control with each record. And he's mining a vein of romantic, soaring sentiment and melody that has just about disappeared from American popular song, but that never went away in Italy, Spain and France, the sources of so much of Groban's repertoire.

Moreover, what Groban lacks onstage in charisma and polish surely accounts for a good deal of his appeal. He's sweet and vulnerable: every mother's ideal son. Spread out over two hours, his songs show a certain sameness, but the presentation -- fluid, using different levels of the stage, with a different instrumental backing for each number -- kept things lively.

The second half gained momentum effortlessly, and the hologram effect during "Remember When It Rained" -- a live TV image projected onto a scrim -- was a nice, spooky touch. The duet with violinist Lucia Micarelli, "Mi Mancherai" (which Joshua Bell does on the record), was a highlight of the first half. Later, when Micarelli quickly fixed a broken string on her violin, the audience gave her a standing ovation. It was that kind of night.

It was an impressive debut for Groban, who is making his first U.S. tour. Let's hope his voice holds out. He's an unlikely, but likable, star. He could be a rich has-been in a few years or he could evolve into something, if not great, then quite good: something perhaps in the theater, where one suspects his heart -- and his voice -- is.