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Josh Groban performs during the annual PBS A Capitol Fourth concert on July 3, 2011, in Washington, DC. (Kris Connor/Getty Images)
Josh Groban performs during the annual PBS A Capitol Fourth concert on July 3, 2011, in Washington, DC. (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

MUSIC: Concert REVIEW

Josh Groban: Sweet and slyly subversive Add to ...

Josh Groban

At the Air Canada Centre

in Toronto on Monday

Josh Groban definitely knows how to make an impression. After his band offered an instrumental version of Straight to You as an overture, Groban entered the Air Canada Centre in Toronto from the rear, walking through the crowd to a small satellite stage by the mixing desk.

Seating himself at the piano, he launched into a pair of emotionally expressive ballads. Then, after finishing the mournful, nostalgic February Song, he stood and thanked the crowd for coming. "You paid out the wazoo to be here tonight," he said, "so I'm going to sing my ass off for you."

Oh, that Josh - such a kidder!

Middlebrow radical

By rights, Groban should be what seniors call "a nice young man," a charming, pleasant performer with a well-trained voice and a penchant for the sort of sweet, tuneful songs they allegedly don't write any more. Rosie O'Donnell famously dubbed him "Opera Boy," and indeed, his biggest hits - You Raise Me Up and the Christmas chestnut O Holy Night - have made good use of his rich tone and controlled power.

But at 30, the youthful-looking Groban is no mere boy, nor does he seem intent on following Wayne Newton's path down the middle of the road to cultural irrelevance. At the same time, however, he seems genuinely to like old-fashioned melodies, the sort of tunes even the kids on Glee find corny.

So instead of reinventing himself as an indie-rock hipster, like Renée Fleming, Groban has followed his bliss, sticking with big, expressive melodies even as the underlying harmony and structure grew increasingly sophisticated.

Basically, he decided to make middlebrow music edgy - which in its way is far more subversive than covering Death Cab for Cutie.

The big wink

Groban is also quite the joker, and delights in playing against expectations. Toward the end of Monday's show, he went through the audience searching for people to bring onstage. He found a couple who'd been married for 25 years, a pretty "single lady," and a nine-year-old girl. After apologizing that his stage set lacked furniture, he instructed his stage crew to bring out the inflatable sofas they'd been using backstage and seated his guests.

To foster the proper atmosphere, he had wine brought out, plus some milk for the little girl, and served his special audience while joking about possible liability ("I'm pouring my career away …" he crooned). Once everyone was settled and expecting some romantic music, Groban said, "I'm going to sing you a song about cheating."

The house exploded in laughter.

But the really sly thing about Groban's gag was that the song, Broken Vow, really was a lovely romantic ballad, which he sang with tenderness and sensitivity. It just happened to be about someone trying to figure out why his lover left him.

Beauty versus power

Because middlebrow pop aspires to the grandeur of classical but eschews its artiness, the genre has a weakness for big, musical theatre-style voices. Groban, however, played down his power, keeping to the upper end of his range, which lightened his sound, lessening the temptation to simply power through the ballads.

His falsetto was particularly affecting, and when he sang You Are Loved and Bells of New York City, the brightness of his high notes underscored the sweetness of each refrain. It was genuinely bel canto singing, and while it didn't always work - Machine had him sounding like an even paler Michael McDonald, and he didn't quite manage the rhythmic grace to animate Voce Existe Em Mim - his best moments were wonderfully intimate.

Perhaps that's why he handed off the triumphant You Raise Me Up to his audience. By asking the crowd to fill in for the recorded version's gospel choir, he inverted the model, so that instead of uplifting bombast, the tune became a homey singalong. It was sweet and slyly subversive - classic Groban, in other words.

Josh Groban's tour continues Friday in Ottawa and Saturday in Montreal. He plays Vancouver on Aug. 30; Calgary, Sept. 1; Edmonton, Sept. 2; and Winnipeg, Sept. 4.

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