Josh Groban Toyota Center November 12, 2013
The scent of mothballs wafted over Josh Groban's concert Wednesday night at Toyota Center: not from the music, just all the clothing returned from winter storage on Houston's first truly cold evening since, what, February? The 32-year-old L.A. native may be an unusual young pop star these days -- witness the performers who will occupy the same building tonight and tomorrow, Drake and Rihanna -- but Groban has demonstrated the kind of broad appeal that spans generations, if not so much genders.
Despite a cover of "Dream On" that brought out the Tchaikovsky underpinnings of Aerosmith's classic '70s power ballad, Groban's sound is almost 100 percent rock-free (let alone rap), so it's all too easy for critics raised on those two genres to be dismissive of his talents. His kind of music favors execution over attitude, emotion over irony, and precision over posturing, so of course it's uncool. (This is a guy whose big break came as a last-minute substitution for Andrea Bocelli for a Celine Dion duet at the Grammys, after all.)
Then Groban opens his mouth and you're like, whoa.
Groban is a fine singer in English, with a keen ear and a preference for complex, melancholy character studies like Jimmy Webb's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" and Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" to go with more sentimental originals like "February Song." A personal highlight was the medieval Irish tune "She Moved Through the Fair," a wedding song with a deep undertone of sadness.
Yes, some of his more inspirational songs ("The Prayer," "To Where You Are") verged on being a little too Hallmark-y, but hey, they're supposed to be. You would have to be a mighty cynical Grinch indeed to not feel some sort of upwelling during "You Raise Me Up," his lone encore that left one lady in particular wanting more (see "Overheard").
But when Groban switches tongues to one of the Romance languages, as he did several times ("Un Alma Mas," "Sincera," Voce Existe Em Mim"), Groban's sonorous borderline tenor/baritone goes into a completely different gear. The vowels open up, and his voice rises to meet the end of a phrase. He's a pro.
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All night Groban and his music director (also his electric guitarist, whose name escaped me) deftly balanced intimate songs that showcased an orchestra member or two, and expansive production numbers like the cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever" that closed out the main set, featuring the University of Houston concert chorale.
Pulled from all ends of the earth -- Ukraine, Cameroon, Finland, New York, Boston, the horns and strings from right here in Houston -- his band had no difficulty with the kind of intricate, cinematic sound most moviegoers would recognize from those scenes where the camera is flying over a vast, panoramic landscape at top speed; pure grandeur and exaltation.
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But any Groban review would be incomplete without a mention of his talents as a raconteur. Sadly, he did not sing any Kanye tweets, but he did a killer impression of Stewie from Family Guy when telling a story about standing in line at an L.A. Virgin Megastore to buy a copy of his own debut album (I know... and so did he), and told what men were on hand, "I feel like some of you were dragged here tonight by your wife or girlfriend... this is just two hours in a very long evening." Funny guy.
And nice. He also conducted a Q&A session with the crowd (Groban is a sushi lover and aspiring pilot) and gave a drumstick to a kid who couldn't have been more than eight years old -- and already had two drumsticks from previous Groban shows. He starts growing his fanbase early, and in a lot of ways, seems like a kid at heart himself -- warm, affable, friendly almost to a fault.
But not while he's singing. With music of such gravity, lightening the mood here and there is crucial to an effective performance. Wednesday, Groban may have only been transcendent a few times, but he was deeply satisfying all the way around.
So, How Was the Opener? Recently of NBC's The Voice, Judith Hill opened with a short set that mingled classic pop (she opened with snippets of Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good" and the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There") and more exotic flavors, like the dancehall/go-go mashup "Abracadabra" and Mideast-tinged "Love Trip." She later returned to duet with the headliner on anguished ballad "Remember When It Rained?" and "The Prayer." Groban said she's a comer, and it sounds like he knows what he's talking about.
Personal Bias: I am a huge nerd. I went to see Josh Groban by myself.
The Crowd: Mature. Well-behaved. Bundled up. If there was another guy going stag there, I didn't see him. Women, on the other hand, arrived in pairs and packs.
Overheard In the Crowd: "You got the right spot, sister!"
- "He's really short. I didn't think he'd be that short."
- "Marry me, Josh!"
- "He's not coming back?"
Random Notebook Dump: Groban singled out Houston's Hope Stone while plugging his Find Your Light Foundation, which advocates arts education and cultural awarenees in the nation's schools. Since the government can't even keep itself open, Groban noted, arts budgets are all to often the first to be cut.
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