The crowd at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was almost as big a sellout as the Toby Keith performance the night before. The soft summer weather was arguably the most pleasant in Houston memory. The warm-up from pianist, William Joseph, and his quartet went very well indeed. And then it was time for the Josh Groban concert that everyone had come to see. Performed in thrilling fashion by this 21 year-old baritone, it was easy to see why he is fast becoming an international sensation. But the show was not without its problems.
I am not, strictly speaking, what has been called a “Grobanite.” These are devoted fans that follow the young artist and his work very closely. My first awareness came with the notable PBS television concert that catapulted Groban to instant stardom. It was a surprising display of talent and power from such a youthful performer, with golden voice, tousled curly hair, slight build, boyish good looks, and ample amounts of charm. Not the sort of fellow we might expect to fill the concert halls with fans of all ages. But guess again.
In the pavilion concert, with rising mist and dreamy green and lavender lighting, he moved freely up and down soaring staircases and performed many of the numbers from his successful first album, “Josh Groban,” and his newer album, “Closer.” From the former, under an appropriately starry, starry sky, he beautifully sang the Don McLean hit, “Vincent.” Although he seemed to reach for breath a bit at times, the “Vincent” rendition showed a softer Groban, the one I suspect many had come to hear. Seated on a simple stool, he showed his skill as a musical storyteller with a gift for letting his music wrap its arms around you. Of course the thrilling crescendos of some of the earlier numbers had an important place in the show’s repertoire, but noise levels began to create problems. Speakers were repeatedly going in and out, and while a backstage screen offered flashy video background, there were inexplicably no large-screen performance projections for the disappointed viewers on the distant hill. Pavilion kitchens, meanwhile, were dousing much of the hill crowd with unwanted charcoal grill exhaust.
These distractions continued through much of what would otherwise have been a very satisfying concert. Groban had a large, fine orchestra, which included excellent soloists on guitar and violin. In the latter role, rising star, Lucia Micarelli was top-notch, but frequently abused by the sound engineers who made a performance full of gypsy flair sound harsh, while folding seat vendors chose Micarelli’s performance as a time to noisily stack their chairs. Over-zealous drummers sometimes seemed to be aiming at the hard of hearing.
But Mr. Groban made the best of things, with his richly mellow voice on full display in various languages including Spanish and Italian. He overcame many obstacles with a special brand of vocal electricity that often bordered on the operatic. Singing “Caruso,” he seems to whisper in our ears at first, and then sails off to some rich vocal high place. But again, speaker failures marred the performance, and went on to disrupt the soaring “Remember When It Rained.” Even Groban’s Troy film collaboration with James Horner (for the song, “Remember,”) came to a fatally noisy conclusion as the speakers again rebelled. The crowd welcomed the beautiful anthem, “You Raise Me Up,”, but even this song did not escape the audio glitches.
Finally, when the star went to the grand piano to show his considerable skill on the 88, he took us on one last musical journey through Paul Simon’s “America.” Mercifully, the sound system respected the encore.
(The Villager 8.19.04)
(The Courier 8.25.04)