Groban Pipes Up With Pop Arias
April 3, 2004
By Rafer Guzman
Perhaps you've been wondering if the voice of classically trained pop singer Josh Groban is as good as everyone says. Well, it's a clear, fine baritone with an impressive range and a strong vibrato. It may or may not deserve to grace the world's best opera houses - I'm no expert, and neither are most people in Groban's fan base - but it's certainly more powerful than the pipes of the average pop star.

The average pop star, however, has a few things over Groban, beginning with the ability to make a song swing or move or at least breathe. That's a trick Groban has yet to learn.

Or perhaps Groban, who's scheduled for a three-night run at Radio City, needs to unlearn some of that classical training. Even when he ditched his formal gray suit for a pair of slouchy blue jeans, his performance was tightly controlled, as though he were reading from sheet music. For all the operatic flamboyance and overwrought emotion of his songs, few of them felt truly alive.

Groban has made his name as a classical crossover singer, but little of his latest disc, "Closer," could be considered true opera. Thursday night, most of his material consisted of humble pop balladry given a coat of classical lacquer using romance-language lyrics (Italian, French, Spanish) and an orchestra with at least a dozen members. Whether it was "Mi Mancherai" (from the film "Il Postino") or Don McLean's folky "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)," Groban approached nearly every song as if it were an aria, minding his diction and heeding some inner metronome.

That made the show's pace plodding and predictable, as one wave-crashing ballad followed another. Some used a wistful, Spanish guitar, others relied more on orchestral flourishes, but nearly all were built on brooding melodies that exploded into dramatic choruses. "To Where You Are" shifted into emotional overdrive by ratcheting up a key - after the very first verse.

Groban didn't put on any airs about this. He freely admitted that "Alejate" was a plain old pop song called "Just Walk Away" when he first got hold of it, but was translated to Spanish because the language had "more fire." He poked fun at his choice of maudlin material: "As you probably know," he told the adoring crowd, "I like sad songs." (Groban clearly has a sense of humor: At one point, his lead violinist launched into "Bohemian Rhapsody," the campy, operatic rock song by Queen.)

But only on a couple of songs did Groban break out of his imaginary tuxedo. As he wrapped up "Remember When It Rained," a song he helped write, he abandoned the verses for a wordless chorus, letting his voice jump and play - just a little - through the melody. Finally, on one of the evening's last songs, a version of Simon & Garfunkel's "America," Groban loosened up, letting the song control him instead of the other way around.

JOSH GROBAN. A classic case. Thursday at Radio City Music Hall.