The Prince of Nice
By Ann Powers
"I'm so excited! My goodness!" burbles a Noxema girl in a satin A-line dress as her ticket is torn for the second-ever tour date of Josh Groban's exploding career. Her goodness is typical of the nearly 3,000 fans swarming the palatial Paramount Theatre in Seattle: Mom and Dad are here, along with teenyboppers, Grandma with her walker and Little Brother in a tiny bow tie. There's even an infant trapped in on of those horrible polar-fleece jester costumes parents think are adorable. The mood is that of a well-chaperoned dance. In Groban, nice America had found a unifying force.
Dark curls bobbing around overwhelming eyebrows, the 22-year old chanteur strolls through an elegantly spare set with the confidence of one who has partied with Celine Dion. Classy with a capital C, he seems to breathe Italian, though he was raised in Los Angeles. His not-quite-tenor, not-quite-baritone is as fortifying as milk. Groban wraps his balmy voice around the hushed introduction to "Oceano" the opening track on his second album, Closer, which sold nearly 2 million copies in it's first two months on the charts.
There's a barefoot female violinist stage right and a studly, earring-wearing guitarist stage left, flanked by their fellow musicians: 15 string players making up Team Classical, and a 5-piece band that is serving as Team Pop. Then Groban flubs a note. Now, this is promising- pushing too hard, the handsome Muppet seems to be coming to life! He quickly recovers, however, his mellifluous tone recaptured, his countenance serene.
Soon he's into "My Confession" penned by Richard Page of Mr. Mister, a band destine to be reunited by VH1. Groban croons "I'm on my knees" as guitarist Tariqh Akoni plays polished Spanish-restaurant fills- but he never sinks to his knees. He might scuff his black slacks. As he moves through his multilingual repertoire of classically kissed ballads, he projects just one emotion: polite gratitude for the gift of his own voice.
Wandering between his classical and rock crews Groban makes the show a testament to the glory of mainstream eclecticism, mixing corn from different parts of the globe, a champion for everyone who wants classical music to be more like Queen than Beethoven. This is world-pop beyond genre. Sounding huge is the only goal for Groban, who was born with killer resonance, the vocal equivalent of a supermodel's bone structure. He could - and one day might - turn a Pepsi jingle into a hymn.
He does need to find some guts, though. While making a crowd of all ages and sexual persuasions totally lose it, he acts as though he's just earned the understudy role in a traveling production of Cats. Stop being so polite, Groban! You're dating an actress who has the incredible porn-star name of January Jones! You claim to love South Park and Björk - so prove it! It's one thing to be nice. It's another to invite comparison to Haley Joel Osment's character in AI, a film for which Groban sang the theme: a robot striving to become human.
The are some hopeful interruptions, including a rather awkward rendition of Linkin Park's "My December". Groban doesn't know what to do with the song; he really has to think- and harder, still feel. Later, he shyly presents his own co-writing efforts. One "Never Let Go" sounds like Nickelback. Somehow, though, it's awesome. For an instant, this dashing humanoid becomes an actual man.