Groban Gives 'Em What They Want
Kansas City Star
February 13, 2004
By Timothy Finn
Television has hatched plenty of pop-music careers, but none has been as unlikely as Josh Groban's.

A vocalist with a heavy background in music theater, Groban, 23, has parlayed appearances on "Ally McBeal," an affiliation with the Public Broadcasting System and an Olympic gig with Charlotte Church into the kind of commercial stardom you don't expect from a baritone who sings half his songs in Italian.

Wednesday night, Groban performed to a full house at the Midland Theater, where the female-to-male ratio roughly exceeded 3-to-1. Chalk that up to his good looks, especially his fashionably unkempt hair.

It also appeared that the ratio of men who really wanted to be there to those who didn't was roughly 1-to-2. Apparently lots of guys were fulfilling their Valentine's Day obligation a few days early. Good choice. Groban is just the guy to rekindle a little romance, even if you don't understand a word of Italian.

His show lasted two hours, not counting the 20-minute intermission, and for the most part Groban gave his congregants exactly what they'd come for: an exhibition of his vocal prowess; and a soaring escape into a gauzy realm where true love and idyllic romance are still the norm.

He also didn't give them what they didn't want: any inferences to sex, religion or politics. No crotches were grabbed, no breasts were bared and the only thing spilt was the milk of human kindness.

He opened the show with two cuts from his blockbuster "Closer" album: "Oceano" and then "My Confession," which is ripe with gooey bits like "I feel myself surrender every time I see your face/I am staggered by your beauty, your unassuming grace ..."

Not too many singers could pull off puppy-love schlock like that without looking corny and fey. But Groban has the vocal heft of a great rock singer. If his childhood had taken a different turn he might have become the next Roger Daltrey or Axel Rose.

Instead he fell for performers like Mandy Patinkin and more traditional and theatrical material. So "Confession," like most of his other numbers, was another precise feat of vocal dynamism.

He was accompanied all night by a five-piece backing band and a string orchestra that included nearly a dozen Kansas City musicians. A few times the band nearly drowned out Groban's vocals, especially when the percussion and keyboards got heavy. Otherwise, they gave his music a contemporary, pseudo-rock flavor.

Groban's most overt weakness as a performer is his stage presence. When he wasn't standing in front of his microphone, he was idly walking up and down the staircase that split the stage. He kept his chatter with the audience to a minimum. His one good line came when he noticed how close the people in the front row were to the stage: "If I spit on you, I apologize."

The visual effects, too, were pretty low-key. Several times during the show a projector cast images (waves, rainfall) on sheer white scrim that dropped in front of the stage or on a video screen at the back of the stage. Every so often a haze of fake smoke/fog wafted across the stage.

For the second half of the show, Groban shed his dark suit and tie for his casual-Friday best: jeans, brown boots and a starched dress shirt that was untucked, unbuttoned and rolled up at the sleeves.

The unbuttoned fashion didn't alter the mood of the show, though. Toward the end, a lot of the Italian ballads started to sound alike (musically, not lyrically). Maybe that's why the crowd seemed relatively reserved most of the evening, confining its reactions to short fits of heavy applause.

The one genuine mood-breaker belonged to violinist Lucia Micarelli, who also directed the local string section. Her bristling and animated instrumental after the intermission included the prelude to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- a rare moment of levity.

Grobin performed nearly 18 songs, including his cover of Don McLean's maudlin "Vincent" (despite his clunky phrasing, the crowd loved it) and "Alejate," his Spanish-version cover of Celine Dion's "Just Walk Away."

His best-known material got the heartiest whoops and longest applause: "To Where You Are," one of his "Ally McBeal" songs; the crestfallen "Broken Vow"; and "You Raise Me Up," which he performed at this year's Super Bowl. For that song, he brought out a choir from the Paseo Academy to beef up the chorus.

That moment was so rousing it actually prompted several dozen audience members to stand and wave their arms or twirl their souvenir glowsticks. Groban acknowledged them with a smile and a wave, and for that brief moment, it felt like we were all at a live show and not just watching an exhibition on PBS.