A Crooner With the Power to Knock the Arena Senseless
New York Times
March 14, 2007
By Stephen Holden
The cultural symmetry was perfect. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was having its annual induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria on Monday evening, Josh Groban, the 26-year-old pop superstar who has nothing to do with rock ’n’ roll, was serenading faithful Grobanites, as his fans are known, at Madison Square Garden. Call it the peaceful coexistence of two worlds.
Mr. Groban specializes in the kind of heart-on-sleeve, Mediterranean-style ballads that were popular long before rock ’n’ roll was a gleam in Little Richard’s eye. His is the music rock was supposed to kill once and for all, yet here it was flourishing in the voice of Mr. Groban, Oprah Winfrey’s pet balladeer, whose newest album, “Awake” (Reprise) has already sold nearly two million copies.
In a strictly symbolic sense, the New World and the Old World were still going at it head to head: unlimited freedom of personal expression (rock ’n’ roll) versus discipline and control within an established hierarchy of artistic values (European pop with Hollywood trimmings).
In the real world, of course, the boundaries between one thing and the other have been muddied for decades by that X factor, music technology. If you closed your eyes during Mr. Groban’s concert, you could imagine that the pulsing bass and drums and acoustic string section amplified beyond recognition into a thick aural soup were not all that different from the sound of a power ballad by an ’80s hair band. Only Mr. Groban’s attitude was different: angelic, not demonic. The crucial word is power. Arena pop, just like arena rock, wants to swamp the senses and overwhelm.
Mr. Groban has an indisputably beautiful voice. He is our national choirboy. If his taste in material leans toward stiff inspirational kitsch, his taste as a singer is exceptionally pure. His pristine baritone, which tilts toward a tenor, is an impressive instrument wielded with a surprising modesty and grace. Mr. Groban scrupulously avoids the excesses that semiclassical belters have deployed since the heyday of Mario Lanza to make the ladies swoon.
His voice is full but not overripe; his enunciation, whether in English or Italian, impeccable. His intonation is nearly perfect. He always sings directly on the note. At its upper end, his voice shades into pure, sweet head tones. He doesn’t sob. He respects the melodic line of a song and brings to everything he sings an intrinsic sense of balance and proportion.
What his singing lacks is any suggestion of swing, either of the rock or the jazz variety. I can’t picture him making an album with a swing band or even venturing into soft rock in which the lyrics shed their formality to become more personal and idiomatic. A typical Groban ballad like “You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up)” offers only the vaguest expression of encouragement from heaven above: not much nourishment.
At Monday’s concert, as on his “Awake” album, you could hear Mr. Groban discreetly widening his stylistic range. This singer, who toured in South Africa not long ago and spent time with Nelson Mandela, has absorbed African influences into his music. Two of the album’s cuts were recorded with the great South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which joined Mr. Groban onstage for those two songs (“Weeping” and “Lullaby”), as well as a version of “Homeless,” from Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
Midway in his set, he was also joined by Angélique Kidjo, the French-based Beninese singer-songwriter who had opened the show with a brief set. The two sang an impassioned rendition of “Pearls,” the haunting Sade portrait of a Somalian woman scavenging kernels of grains from the ground to feed a starving child.
The other innovation in Mr. Groban’s music is to be found in the song “Machine,” which he performed late in the show. While images of a robot stomping through a city flashed on a screen, Mr. Groban inveighed against the very technology that has enabled him to become an arena pop attraction. His voice, however pumped up, still sounded defiantly human.
A complete schedule of Josh Groban’s forthcoming concert dates: joshgroban.com/tour.