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.
Besides revealing what a sad bastard we ourselves are (apparently), these songs and a few others showed Aftermath how we, as in critics in general, tend to give short shrift to what could loosely be called "inspirational" music. Others' versions of Groban's biggest hit and Saturday's final song, "You Raise Me Up," have been as successful in the Christian-music world as his has in the secular, usually with a less ecumenical verse or two added on.
Religious connotations aside, though, it would take a mighty big Grinch indeed not to be moved by "War at Home," which he wrote after a visiting recovering veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, or "Broken Vow," a cheating song whose origins in sadness rather than anger - even though it starts "tell me his name," it's no Johnny Paycheck song - make it that much more heartwrenching.
The handful of songs in Spanish, Italian and Portugese, on the other hand, almost didn't need translation. Listening to Groban's commanding tenor navigate "Oceano" and
"Galileo," "Alla Luce," for example, was to us the same as admiring a painting at the Museum of Fine Arts - it wasn't necessary to understand the lyrics to understand the song.
Sometimes beauty, in and of itself, can be both motive and reward. And regardless of the context you're coming from, it can be pretty inspirational, too.
Personal Bias: A couple of weeks ago, we took our dad to Jimmy Buffett. This one was for our mom. Otherwise, we grew up loving classical music - before rock and roll, even - but symphonies, chamber music and concertos. Opera was never really our "thing."
The Crowd: Mature, but not as much as you might think. Mom-heavy for sure, both existing moms like ours and future moms - many of whom, no doubt, would happily enlist Groban in the role of babydaddy.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Let's go, Josh"
Random Notebook Dump: According to Google Translate, an alternate translation for "voce," Italian for "voice," is "item."
By the Way: In his between-song patter, Groban was charismatic, quick-witted and extremely gracious toward his fans. He even brought a handful onstage to sit on inflatable couches during "Broken Vow" and "Per Te," and gave them wine - except for the toddler, who got a wineglass full of milk.
Straight To You (orchestra) Changing Colors February Song You Are Loved Oceano Alejate Bells of New York City Higher Window Alla Luce War at Home Voce (Overture) Voce (Existe En Mim) Caruso Galileo Awake Weeping Machine Broken Vow Per Te
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Play Me (Neil Diamond cover) You Raise Me Up