TAMPA — You might dislike Josh Groban's music — even he describes his poperatic golden-throating as "serious as a heart attack" — but it's hard not to crush on the man himself. As the 32-year-old baritone proved during his Friday stop at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, there's a very funny dude, and a heck of a showboat, underneath all that raise-me-upmanship.
Performing in the round, with an oval stage in the middle of the venue allowing all 10,081 fans dreamy views of the singer and his wavy locks, Groban — dressed in a scalper-chic outfit of white sneakers, skinny jeans and blazer — was flanked by bandmates on each side, rock musicians and classical musicians and backing singers who better be darn good to keep up with their boss.
During the 110-minute show, he'd belt a few grandiose cuts merging aria-inspired crescendos into pop frameworks, starting with over-the-top (natch) kickoff number Brave, from new LP All That Echoes. Then he'd ramble out patter like a comic working open-mike night, including a story about once trying to buy his debut album from a hip record shop, with a confused merchant saying, "We didn't realize Josh Brolin was a singer." That's a great line.
Although thunderous numbers such as Sincera drove the older, breathless crowd into a tizzy, Groban was arguably more effective when he scaled back (relatively, mind you).
A cover of Don McLean's Vincent (a.k.a. Starry Starry Night), for which he was backed by violin and acoustic guitar, was a weeper -— no joking during that stunner. And an earnest reading of Jimmy Webb's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress packed punch because it was so spare.
Groban famously sings in all manner of languages, but to take some of the severity out of the intense readings, he admitted, "If I forget a lyric, I tap into the ancient, ancient language of gibberish." Gobbledy-gook or not, he can break hearts all around the globe, with Un Alma Mas leaving more than a few in the throngs clutching their pearls.
Boy, do they love this guy.
He worked for that adoration, too, playing drums one minute, taking schticky questions from the audience the next.
He dropped names (Robert Downey Jr.!) and plugged his TV and movie work (Ally McBeal!).
And you better believe he built to a big finish, bringing out opener Judith Hill for a gorgeous reading of The Prayer, the duet that made him a star when, during rehearsals at the 1999 Grammys, a 17-year-old Josh filled in for a sick Andrea Bocelli and paired with Celine Dion.
After a swoony cover of Stevie Wonder's I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), which featured a local choir, he came back for encores of his signature smash You Raise Me Up, which Aunt Shirleys the world over have listened to every single day since 2004. And then, as a capper, he performed Charlie Chaplin's Smile, which just about sums up the Grobster. Even when your heart is breaking, the guy makes you grin.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.