When I told most people I was taking my mom to see Josh Groban this past Thursday at Capital One Arena, they initially confused him with jazz pop singer Michael Bublé. Perhaps pointing out that Bublé is Frank Sinatra without the booze and cigarettes, and Josh Groban is Pavarotti without the physical heft is a distinction only schmaltz-core fans like me are apt to make. Yet it seems obvious, at least to this reporter, that if you’re choosing between a Pavarotti knock off and a Sinatra clone, the former is preferable to the latter.
Josh Groban has one fundamental thing going for him at the outset: he is a motherfucking powerful singer. Josh’s singing does nothing less than explode through his music, which is quite a feat, considering his band consists of guitars, multiple drummers, and a mini orchestra. Josh got his start when a teacher assigned him to a singing role in the school play. When the introverted five year old began projecting sound from his barely developed vocal chords for the first time, all in attendance sounded a collective chaching! From that moment to the present, Groban has been performing for rapt audiences across the entire world. But no credential can surpass the nodding approval of my mother, who provides a steady stream of emphatic, North Jersey accented exclamations of “awwwsome!!!” throughout the show.
The evening began with a performance by the amazing Indina Menzel. Menzel got her start on broadway as the original Maureen Johnson in Rent. From there, she gained national fame as the witch in Wicked, for which she received Tony for Best Actress in 2005. She has since been seen on Glee, Enchanted, and most famously played Queen Elsa in Disney’s 2013 blockbuster Frozen. You can imagine the collective freak that took place when the first notes of “Let it Go” rang out. Menzel may be a Disney queen, but her true nature tends more toward the Wicked, as was apparent when she accidentally stepped on her long golden skirt and exclaimed “Shit!” Hearing a few gasps from the crowd, the indignant Menzel declared, “Some people get offended when a Disney princess curses. Well, I’m 47-years-old, I’ve been married twice, and I’ve had two babies come out of my vagina… sometimes I’m gonna curse.” My mom, who came to the show in a pussy hat, heartily approved.
Then it was Josh’s turn. Wearing an understated gray outfit and brandishing a thick beard, the 37-year-old isn’t quite the same doe eyed youngster that wooed Oprah in the early 2000s. Still, the spark of youth has far from abandoned the Popera icon. Josh’s giddy, boyish manner is infectious, and reveals his love for what he does has only increased since he began. He doesn’t even seem sick of singing his 2003 mega hit “You Raise Me Up,” and audiences aren’t sick of hearing it either.
Josh began the set with a few original tunes off his new album Bridges, which has an Imagine Dragons/Coldplay vibe (except he’s an opera singer so it’s actually listenable). Soon, the band was silenced, and the orchestra swept in for a stirring rendition of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. There’s something really magical about listening to Disney-type music with my mom. When I was a kid, my mom took our family to Disney World more times than should be allowed without requiring a background check. Her long marches across the parks earned her the nickname “Stalin” from my visibly less excited to be there dad. You didn’t hear any complaints from us kids though. My mom made sure we saw and did everything.
As memories of riding Dumbo flood my mind, I notice that Josh has vanished. His band is still playing, but where’s Josh? A Chopinesque piano arpeggio began to fade in, and as the band quieted down, a baritone voice broke through, “She can kill with a smile/she can wound with her eyes.” Josh’s face materialized on the jumbo screen as he brilliantly covered Billy Joel’s 1977 ballad “She’s Always a Woman.” Almost at once, like a crowd at a tennis match, the whole audience turned toward to back of the auditorium, where Josh sat behind a piano on a small platform. Before long, an accordionist hopped up to join the serenade. By the third song it seemed like the whole band was squeezing onto the tiny stage. Josh politely turned to the people in front row. “We’re coming back soon,” he joked, “I know how much you paid for front row seats.”
Wrapping up his mini concert for the back row with a duet featuring Idina Menzel, Groban ran across the auditorium back toward the main stage. The final hour was a gambit of classic show tunes, pop covers, Italian opera, and originals. Cell phone flashlights filled the stadium as bedazzled fans swayed back and forth, sang along, and melted in the cuteness and sincerity of it all. Finally, the lights dimmed and Josh pledged to perform one more number before ending the night. It was a song he’d heard one afternoon in Ireland while being shuffled in a cab from the airport. The song that caught Josh’s ear would go on to become his breakthrough hit. Excited gasps filled the room as he began to play “You Raise Me Up.” Groban entreated the audience to dedicate his signature song to a person in their life who has always loved and supported them. Surrendering myself fully to the shmaltz, I thought of the amazing woman sitting next to me as I sang along.
Josh Groban may not be a favorite of “serious music heads.” But damn. That man sure did make my night out with my mom special. You may call him cheesy. You may scoff at his sad puppy dog eyes and Christmasy vibe. But I’m telling you: if you take your mom to see Josh Groban, you will not be sorry. And who knows, you may even enjoy it yourself.