Nobody Does Ballads Better Than Josh Groban
April 8, 2004
By Rick Massimo
"It's a good thing I love sad songs."
So said vocal prodigy Josh Groban last night, and the 23-year-old's show at the Providence Performing Arts Center reflected that. Emotional dramatic ballads, in English and Italian (plus one in Spanish), let his world-class voice lead the way.
It's quite an instrument -- not a huge range, but with operatic diction and vibrato, and with a warmth and depth, even in the falsetto range, that sets him apart from more bulldozing tenor voices in the field.
The set included "To Where You Are," the song he performed on the "9/11" episode of Ally McBeal; "You Raise Me Up," which he performed before this year's Super Bowl; and cover versions of Don McLean's "Vincent" (a simple tune that Groban's voice overwhelmed) and Paul Simon's "America" (the last encore, which was more suited to his style and featured his own nimble piano playing).
And of course, there were plenty of songs from his self-titled 2001 debut album and from last year's Closer. The same problems that plagued those records were apparent last night; to wit, Groban has been stylistically straitjacketed. Nothing last night rose above power-ballad tempo, and while he refrained from overselling the songs with bad Method acting, they often oversold themselves with often-predictable rhymes and over-the-top emotionalism that left Groban and the songs with nowhere to go.
Hats off, by the way, to the show's designer. Between the set with its three raised platforms; the inventive, varied lighting; the use of projections on scrims behind and in front of Groban; and stage movements that were not quite choreographed but clearly planned out, each song at least looked quite different. "Let Me Fall," which ended the first half of the show, was a visual highlight, as Groban appeared to fall about 20 feet into darkness.
Mention must also be made of violinist Lucia Micarelli, who led the 14-piece string section and contributed solos of real speed and power throughout the night. "Mi Mancherai" was one of the musical highlights, as Micarelli burned through the solo that Joshua Bell originated on record and Groban effortlessly negotiated the many key changes, and all the while both carried out the stage movements that suggested that more than music was going on between them.
Groban's a genial, self-deprecating performer, and his voice is supple and expressive enough to allow him to sing anything he wants. Here's hoping he throws a few changeups on his next record and the next time he comes around. He co-wrote "Remember When It Rained," one of the best songs on Closer, which is a good sign.