Michael Bublé At the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Tuesday
Michael Bublé is a man who likes a challenge.
Dressed, as ever, in a suit and tie with his shirt collar fashionably unbuttoned, Bublé looked out at the fans crammed into the Air Canada Centre for the first of two shows there, and said, "I'm going to break the stereotype of who you've come to see tonight. If you came to see a concert, you should have gone to the opera. I'm here to throw a party for 14,000 people."
It was a good applause line, but let's be honest: It takes a lot to get an arena-sized party started when your band is mostly jazz horn players. And yet, through a combination of charm, enthusiasm and sheer talent, Bublé pulled it off. He managed to rock the ACC without really playing much in the way of rock.
Not that his show was a throwback to Sinatra at the Sands. As he mentioned mid-show, he didn't spend his childhood out in Burnaby, B.C., hoping he would some day become a saloon singer. "I wanted to be Michael Jackson," he said, and then offered a short but stunningly accurate rendition of Billie Jean, complete with dance moves.
But that was about as modern as the music got. His own hits, from the wistful, guitar-and-voice version of Home to his irrepressibly perky recent smash Haven't Met You Yet, stuck with a stylistic approach that would have sounded comfortably safe in every decade since the mid-'60s.
Indeed, some of his songs wound up sounding older than they actually were. His version of the Eagles' hit Heartache Tonight, for instance, came outfitted with a shuffle groove and punchy horn arrangement that, apart from the singing, sounded like something from the Ray Charles songbook.
Part of the "stereotype" Bublé meant to dispel involves working from a body of great popular songs, and making them your own. He still does some of that, of course. His Mack the Knife was wonderfully swinging, but his relaxed phrasing and tendency to stay a bit behind the beat washed the tune of all traces of Bobby Darin. Cry Me a River, despite an overly bombastic arrangement augmented by pre-recorded strings and orchestra, was uniquely, if sometimes wrong-mindedly, his own.
Even Georgia on My Mind, a song that's impossible to hear without thinking of Ray Charles's version, sounded fresh in his hands. Much of that has to do with his phrasing, which treats the blues elements of the melody with jazz understatement instead of R&B emphasis, but the quiet confidence he exudes onstage helps, too. It's as if Bublé can't help but be Bublé, and so whatever he sings inevitably becomes his own.
In that sense, perhaps the most telling part of the show was when the singer admitted that his all-time favourite film as a kid was Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the logic of the show, this was essentially a set-up for his version of Twist and Shout, which got the crowd up and singing (in some cases, even dancing).
But it also explained the way Bublé's force of personality dominated the show without seeming domineering. Like Bueller, he's at home in any situation (or, in this case, song), and never less than charming. He's good at seeming mature, and treated such standards as All of Me and I've Got the World on a String with the respect of a jazz veteran. But he's also an inveterate joker, and thought nothing of postponing his rendition of Home for an impromptu chorus of The Hockey Song.
"I'm as Canadian as Old Dutch Ketchup Chips," he said at the end of the show, as if somehow that explained it all. And maybe it does. But he's also charming as hell, and that, as much as his talent, is what makes him a star.
Michael Bublé performs in Winnipeg Aug. 13; Saskatoon Aug. 14; Calgary Aug. 17-18 and Vancouver Aug. 20-21