Groban Rises Up to Occasion, Packs 'Classical Pop' in Show
August 23, 2004
By Mike Weatherford
Pop-opera singer Josh Groban performs before a crowd of more than 8,000 Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

When it came time for Josh Groban's big finale, "You Raise Me Up," on Saturday, there was just one problem. There already had been a dozen or so big finales before it.

There could be worse problems for the 23-year-old singer, who packed the Mandalay Bay Events Center in his first concert as a headliner. Judging by the older and well-appointed crowd that must have had casino executives salivating, the keys to the Strip are his as often as he cares to return.

Groban justified the appeal of this new and still not fully defined business of "classical pop." His likeable, "Aw shucks" stage personality deflated the pretensions of the music. "I wish I had more interesting responses to that," he noted after the umpteenth female admirer yelled up, "I love you!"

And from the opening moments of "Oceano," Groban's grand voice was tempered with a warm richness that buffed the "Opera Man" edges off the more technical singing, making it approachable to a generation that grew up estranged from real opera.

But an entire evening of big moments such as "Caruso" also shows how tough it is to find material for such an outsized voice. It's one thing to unleash Groban for special occasions, such as the Super Bowl or Oprah's 50th birthday (His introduction of "You Raise Me Up" seemed to equate the two).

It's another to turn down the intensity and vary the pace of a concert. Groban gave it a valiant stab, dismissing his band to accompany himself on piano for Paul Simon's "America." It was a needed surprise, far less obvious than tackling "Bridge Over Troubled Water," but still showed he has trouble toning down his singing to nail quieter emotions.

Perhaps that's why at least half of his 90-minute set wasn't in English. The romance languages just sound so much better for this sort of thing.

Groban does less showboating and note-holding than Celine Dion's recordings for their shared producer, David Foster. And a couple of selections showed Groban might be headed into new and fresh terrain, using his voice more as a musical instrument: A cover of Linkin Park's "My December," set to the snap of martial drums, or his encore (written with electronica act Deep Forest), "Never Let Go."

Striking barefoot violinist Lucia Micarelli was the focal point of an ensemble that included a band and a cadre of local string players, which often seemed to be augmented with piped-in orchestrations. To have a live singer and "synced" music is part of the ironic turnabout for a star who has carved out a new place for lost musical values in the Britney era.

Another fresh-faced Foster protege, pianist William Joseph, let us know what Liberace could have done with Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." But he also offered melodic piano pieces that should quickly make him part of this expanding "classical crossover" family.