Groban Shines On the Big Stage
Providence Journal
March 8, 2007
By Rick Massimo
Last time Josh Groban came to Providence, in 2004, he sang at the Providence Performing Arts Center; last night, he filled the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, which is roughly six times larger. So the question was, how would he play on the big stage, and in the big room?

Pretty well, it turned out. Though the sound wasn’t brilliant in all areas of the Dunk, the 26-year-old Groban’s outsized, operatic voice was actually more suited to the larger venue. And as a performer, he managed enough aw-shucks charisma to fill the stage, and that was before he took a run through the audience during “In Her Eyes.”

It helped that he was touring behind a stronger record than last time. Last year’s Awake employed a richer palette of sounds and styles than 2004’s Closer, with guest stars such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Herbie Hancock. Awake also shows off some of Groban’s writing skills, and he takes a more relaxed approach to singing throughout.

All this was on display last night. There’s still a lot of Euro-pomp in Groban’s mix, including the opener “Don’t Give Up (You Are Loved)” and most of the material that he still sings in Italian. But it’s giving way to pop experiments such as the Afro-pop of “Weeping” and the wordless Philly-soul-inspired coda to “So She Dances.” Vocally and musically, he’s sounding more like an ambitious pop singer and less like a slumming classicist.

The clearest illustration of the difference last night came during two songs where Groban sang at the piano. “February Song,” his new single, co-written with Five for Fighting’s Jon Ondrasik, was a highlight — an unapologetic pop song without classical pretensions, and sung with, by Groban standards, a casual, restrained delivery with silky tone and a few spectacular notes here and there. Later, Groban returned to the piano for “Remember When It Rained,” from Closer, and the difference was clear: hyperdramatic melodies and no note left unemoted.

Groban’s PPAC show was heavy on visual and theatrical design. Last night’s stage set was simpler, and Groban’s band was front and center.

There were a few missteps. On Awake, Groban sang “Lullaby” with Ladysmith Black Mambazo; last night he used a vocoder to replicate the choir effect. It sounded weird and artificial; a solo a cappella version would’ve worked better. And “Machine,” the funk attempt from the new record, came off leaden — a stylistic bridge too far, at least for now.

In 2004, I wrote in part of Groban’s performance, “Groban’s a genial, self-deprecating performer, and his voice is supple and expressive enough to allow him to sing anything he wants. Here’s hoping he throws a few changeups on his next record and the next time he comes around.” I’m not kidding myself that he read that review, but last night’s show was as if he had.