PBS Pop Idol Groban Is Right on the Money
January 31, 2005
By Sean Piccoli
Josh Groban's emergence as a performer also marks the arrival of a new sub-genre of music: Call it PBS pop. Mating the bombast of both rock and opera with pop standards, show-tune melodrama and world music, the baritone Groban has become the male counterpart of another public television mainstay, British octave-slayer Sarah Brightman. Their compatriots include globe-trotting Greek instrumentalist Yanni and the chanteuse Monica Mancini. All embody a highminded view of culture that appeals to the PBS audience and stirs the check-writing impulse during pledge drives.
Groban's success has carried him off the small (subsidized) screen and on to the arena circuit. His current tour visited the Office Depot Center in Sunrise on Saturday night and played to a sell-out crowd that suggested, in its overall appearance, the means and virtuous inclination to support quality television. Also on hand in the capacity crowd of 13,000 was a younger constituency -- girls who flung T-shirts on stage bearing messages such as "Chick Magnet" and "Studlicious."
"Which T-shirt are you?" he asked the audience, receiving his saucy keepsakes with the good humor that also has endeared him to millions. Stardom sits more comfortably on the precocious, curly-haired 23-year-old than he admits by way of a comic modesty. In concert, his sheer enthusiasm for singing and performance constituted a kind of confidence, carrying him easily through an amiable set.
The set itself was problematic. Groban's voice is handsome, and he sings with a combination of discipline and emotion that served many of the selections well. The melodies and rock-opera acoustics of Alla Luce del Sole made for an improbably smart, catchy hybrid of power ballad and aria. My December, by the rock-rap band Linkin Park, reverberated through the building like a minor-key tremor, amplified by a large string section and Groban's core six-piece band.
Groban's interpretive skill shone on the first of two encores, a heartfelt reading of Simon & Garfunkel's America, which he sang and played on piano without backup. The whole singer-songwriter songbook lies open before him if he wants to take it.
But too often his choices reflected the shortcomings of PBS pop -- that mixture of the grand, the pretty and the exotic that comes out bland but still passes for educated listening. The multilingual ballads (Mi Morena, Oceano, Caruso) started to run together like pictures in a tourist flipbook. Groban has Sting's tendency toward arrangements that bleach idioms of their native character in order to accommodate American tastes.
But if Groban himself hears no difference between opera and operatic, between Euro and European, that shortcoming hasn't hurt him. Public television's reigning check magnet instead has tapped into a market that wants the sheen of artistically demanding music with just a bit of the substance.