Grandma's Night Out: Josh Groban at the Bank
The Ottawa Citizen
February 28, 2007
By Lynn Saxberg
Josh Groban was anything but boring in his Tuesday night performance at Scotiabank Place

The only person I know who's a genuine fan of Josh Groban is my grandmother. She's had a thing for the brown-eyed singer ever since she saw him on an episode of Ally McBeal years ago. In honour of her recent 88th birthday, I brought her to Groban's concert Tuesday at Scotiabank Place.

Grandma, a.k.a. Barbara Miller, is a lively woman who loves to chat and socialize. Although her hand ached from playing bridge the day before, she was looking forward to our girls' night out. It was also her first visit to the home of the Ottawa Senators, and I pulled strings to get her the red-carpet treatment: we had seats in the Citizen box, complete with wine and munchies.

Grandma knew Groban was celebrating his birthday, too, which gave her a connection to the 26-year-old Los Angeles native. They're both February babies - she was born in 1919, he in 1981.

She was tickled whenever the crowd broke into a chorus of Happy Birthday. "Is all this fuss for little old me?" she would joke, and flash me a big grin.

There's never a dull moment with Grandma around, and maybe that's part of the reason I brought her. I knew she'd keep me alert during the overwrought ballads and pseudo-classical fare that is Groban's speciality.

As it turned out, Groban was an engaging showman who gave a terrific performance. Along with a top-notch, eight-piece band consisting of Afrojazz/funk cats with a couple of string divas, he's touring with a futuristic stage setup that filled 11 tractor trailers and enabled a grand piano to rise slowly onto the stage. Groban recruited Ottawa-area talent to make up the string and brass sections, and brought in the Cornerstone Choir for the finale.

Boring, it was not. The musicians were jaw-droppingly good, especially barefoot violinist Lucia Micarelli, who got the Led out with one solo: In fact, it looked like she was physically attacking the Zeppelin classic, Kashmir. "I don't know how the instrument can take it," Grandma marvelled.

The shaggy birthday boy in jeans demonstrated the power of a convincing baritone, his voice rising over the vast sound of the band. Depending on the song, he was the preacher's son, the smooth-talking romantic or the globe-trotting prince.

Groban drew heavily from his latest, most adventurous disc, opening with the soaring You Are Loved (Don't Give Up) and bouncing through the inoffensive Now or Never, the lush waltz So She Dances, the sweeping February Song and the funky Machine.

On the oval screen behind the stage, video images of floating candles, rolling waves and a woman dancing illustrated the songs. Machine earned a perplexing video-game treatment with a robot smashing buildings.

We also saw footage of Groban's life-changing trip to South Africa last year, a journey that provided more than musical inspiration: Nelson Mandela enlisted him as an AIDS ambassador to Africa.

Artistically, Groban displayed his affinity for African culture in several ways. On the latest album, a couple of songs are with the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But on stage, Groban used a vocoder to make his voice sound like a choir, an unfortunately cheesy effect.

Far better was the duet between Groban and African singer Angelique Kidjo, who also opened the show with a dynamic performance. For their duet, Kidjo and Groban walked slowly toward each other from opposite ends of the stage, singing their version of the Sade song Pearls, recently recorded for Kidjo's forthcoming disc Djin Djin. The studio version features Carlos Santana on guitar. The live version featured some equally sizzling licks from Groban's guitar player, Tariq Akoni.

As the two sang their way toward each other, Grandma wondered if the youngster had a woman in his life. "Hmm, who can we set him up with?" she mused. "He's so cute."

Groban was also quick to show his wit when fans approached the stage for autographs or to present gifts. Among his bag of audience-entertaining tricks was a sudden appearance in the stands - just one section over from us! - a decent drum solo, a brief juggling act and an appearance in a personalized Senators jersey.

Grandma, who may have been the oldest fan in the crowd of 7,500, enjoyed every minute.

"Very good indeed," she declared, comparing it to the last concert we attended together. "Almost as good as Engelbert."