Groban Blends Somber With Whimsical; Varied Talents Foretell Great Things To Come
March 13, 2005
By Keith Spera, Music Writer
Behold Josh Groban, dichotomy in action.
At a nearly full New Orleans Arena on Friday, the 24-year-old classical pop poster boy studiously worked both sides:
Relentlessly upbeat and informal in his banter, he then applied his sumptuous baritone to predominantly sad songs.
He professed to have loved one particular Italian melody as a toddler -- and what toddler doesn't love Italian melodies? -- but scored pop trivia points with a passing reference to British dance band EMF's 1991 hit "Unbelievable."
On one side of the staircase dividing the stage sat a string section. On the other, an electric guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer rocked out.
At the two-hour show's conclusion, Groban rendered "Never Let Go," a serious plea for courage in the face of adversity -- but wore a New Orleans Hornets jersey over a pink tuxedo shirt while doing so.
Strands of classical and pop, somber and silly, are woven into Groban's DNA. And his millions of fans across a broad demographic love him for it.
His "Grobanite" disciples are a fiercely devoted lot who forge friendships over their shared affection. Women want to take him home either to feed him soup or to satiate other desires.
Their shouts of "I love you!" interrupted his introductions for tragic Italian mini-operas, as did the steady stream of stuffed animals, T-shirts, flowers and caps tossed onstage.
To his credit, Groban mostly rolled with it. After trying on a jester's hat, however, he was ready to move on with the setup for the climatic "You Raise Me Up." Earlier, he'd confessed to sampling a virgin hurricane before the show. "I'm gonna want a real hurricane in a moment," he said, with the barest hint of frustration.
Between anecdotes, Groban sang, and sang well. "To Where You Are," a farewell to a deceased lover, is a guaranteed tearjerker. Such material can easily sink in a sea of sentiment and sappiness; Groban's applied force kept it afloat.
Few of the grandparents in attendance likely had ever experienced a live Linkin Park song. Groban nailed the rap-rock band's mournful "My December," a devastating confession of regret and isolation. Against a swell of strings, his operatic chops -- held notes, quick changes, precise control, robust tone -- underscored the song's pathos: "And I give it all away, just to have somewhere to go to/Give it all away, to have someone to come home to."
He was not alone onstage. Opening act Chris Botti spent the intermission signing autographs on the arena concourse, then joined Groban to fill in sad little trumpet sketches on the edge of "Broken Vow." Lucia Micarelli fronted the string section and her own showcase, in which her violin mimicked the soaring guitar solos in Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Tariqh Akoni ranged from flamenco-style fingerings on an acoustic guitar to hard-rock chords on a black Les Paul.
A midset succession of Italian numbers flatlined, coming across like musical theater pieces badly in need of theater. Providing the English translation of "Caruso" didn't help: Italian lyricism is lost in translation, as talk of a boat's propeller and wake simply isn't romantic in English.
"Remember," Groban's contribution to the "Troy" soundtrack, benefited from epic battle footage projected on video screens. Paired with sweeping visuals, the song seemed grander as well.
Groban showed off varied interests and ambitions. He gamely banged out rock fills on the drums. Even more impressive were solo piano turns in "Remember When It Rained" and the whole of Paul Simon's "America." He fluently navigated the melody, the garnishments and the lyrics' snapshots of life in the land of the free.
He has a natural feel for such material. If his songwriting develops, he could recall an early Elton John, sans the duck costume and drugs.
For as frequently impressive as the young Groban is now, who he may become is even more intriguing.