Joshing Josh Is the Man to Twang the Heartstrings and Warm the Cockles
June 11, 2007
By Adam Sweeting
Adam Sweeting reviews Josh Groban at Hampton Court Palace

Ideally, the Hampton Court festival offers a Glyndebourne-style ambience in which music-lovers can gorge themselves on champagne and smoked salmon before taking their seats in the palace's historic Base Court.

However, the glacial temperatures on this evening suggested that icebergs had been floating up the Thames in a return to the Little Ice Age, prompting a stampede for blankets from on-site caterers Waitrose.

The contrast with Josh Groban's palm-fringed home town of Los Angeles could hardly have been more extreme, but the singer took it in his stride ("Even though we're cold, we love it," he claimed).

Whether or not it was the cold that caused him to miss a few top notes remains moot, but by the time he was halfway through his opening song, the melodramatic yet stirring Don't Give Up, the crowd was already thawing from within.

With his album Awake bouncing back into the chart at number 12, Groban is making headway in the UK, though he has a mountain or two to climb before he can match the coast-to-coast euphoria he creates in the States.

That may be because he isn't easy to pigeonhole. He doesn't follow the classical-crossover formula of bowdlerising the classics or turning pop songs into pseudo-arias.

Instead, he deals in theatrical pop songs, exploiting their heartstring-twanging scope with a vocal range reminiscent of an operatic tenor while avoiding the operatic repertoire itself.

It can sound treacly on disc, but Groban brings an appealing nonchalance to his stage performance. He took the stage in jeans, stripey shirt and jacket, looking more college computer geek than the superstar who sings at Olympics ceremonies and presidential fund-raisers.

Refreshingly, he hasn't been sucked into the Hollywood orthodoxy of round-the-clock weightlifting and plastic surgery, while his facetious humour helps to alleviate the often overwrought mood of his songs.

Nonetheless, if you're looking for an unabashed emotional wallow, Groban is your one-stop shop. The likes of February Song or Remember When It Rained are luxuriant specimens of the power-ballad genre, leaping from torrid climax to poignant crescendo, while Un Dia Llegara or Un Giorno Per Noi tip the hat to Old Europe while avoiding the gigolo-ish smarm of a Julio Iglesias.

The techno-stomp of Machine, reminiscent of Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, flags up Groban's enthusiasm for all kinds of rock music. It's a trait he shares with his accompanying violinist Lucia Micarelli, whose own solo spot featured a feverish arrangement of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir.

Perhaps a rock opera for the next album, Josh?