Classical Music

Saturday Night: Josh Groban At Toyota Center

Josh Groban Toyota Center May 14, 2011

Josh Groban is an unusual pop star. Unusual for 2011, anyway.

One hundred years ago, many "pop stars" as we think of the term today drew their repertoires from light opera and Italian bel canto. The vocal techniques and subject matter - love and betrayal, God and nature, the art of singing and power of song - were largely the same as they had been for centuries, but infant technologies like the phonograph and Marconi's wireless allowed singers like Enrico Caruso to reach an unprecedented level of international fame.

But then came jazz, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, rhythm and blues, the Grand Ole Opry, Elvis, the Brill Building, Michael Jackson, hip-hop, Stock Aitken Waterman, Max Martin and American Idol. In today's pop culture, an operatic singer selling out a sports arena would be like a horse-drawn carriage winning the Daytona 500.

Enter Groban, who did that very thing (or close to it) Saturday at Toyota Center. Granted, the cycles of the preceding paragraph have not completely bypassed the 30-year-old musician. Even with his abundant classical training, no one as gifted - and as young - as Groban could have avoided soaking up something. Man does not live by Puccini alone.

With their fluid rise-and-fall piano lines, opener "Changing Colors" could have easily passed for Elton John, and the way Groban got inside Neil Diamond's "Play Me" ("You are the words/ I am the tune") in the encore was nothing if not intuitive. Late in the set, "Weeping" had a hint of Technicolor Afropop (call it Graceland meets The Lion King) and "Machine" let the band cut loose with some steamy hothouse jazz-funk.

Speaking of Groban's band, the 15 or so people joining him onstage seemed equally culled from the ranks of orchestras (string quartet, brass) and primo New York or L.A. session musicians (drums, percussion, guitar, bass), and played like it. Groban himself showed off some impressive percussion chops on the extended intro of "Voce." But as much of a pleasure as it was listening to such skilled musicians, a couple of things took some getting used to.

Allow us to explain: Our rock-hardened ears almost never find themselves in such a blues-free environment of any size, let alone one as big as Toyota Center. Hand in hand, it took us a while to adjust the complete lack of cynicism in ballads like "Awake," "You Are Loved," and "Higher Window." Groban introduced the latter as about romantically imbalanced feelings (we're paraphrasing), and bundled it in the hope of its refrain "just don't tell me it's too late for me to love you" rather than any bitterness whatsoever.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray