Below is a great article from Keith Spera of The Times-Picayune.
Josh Groban's opening night concert in New Orleans was a study in contrasts.
For Thursday’s kick-off of his “Straight to You” tour at the UNO Lakefront Arena, Josh Groban wore a tuxedo jacket over a white T-shirt accessorized with white sneakers. That dichotomy informed the entire show.
His profound singing voice morphed into the eager-to-please banter of a supper-club emcee. The inscrutableness of his Italian and Spanish lyrics gave way to a very literal approachability. Self-serious songs were leavened by quick-witted goofiness; he sang about Galileo and cracked jokes about flatulence.
Groban spent the past week in New Orleans rehearsing, checking out the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf, and dining at Jacques-Imo’s and elsewhere. His parents and brother were in attendance Thursday. “It’s great to be back in New Orleans,” he announced, “but it’s even better to see New Orleans back.”
He was amongst the people from the get-go, alone at a keyboard on a small satellite stage set back against the bleachers at the rear of the arena.
The two-hour show’s set list drew extensively from “Illuminations,” Groban’s 2010 collaboration with rock producer Rick Rubin. Groban co-wrote much of “Illuminations”; when stuck, he said, he would ask himself, “What would Neil Diamond do?” (In tribute, he sang Diamond’s “Play Me” in Thursday’s encore.)
His shift toward more purely pop songcraft has been a tough sell. Some empty seats remained in the upper reaches of the Lakefront Arena; in 2005, Groban nearly filled the much larger New Orleans Arena.
His main stage backdrop mimicked the brick-and-steel-door interior of a warehouse or, with its imposing, broken arch, a decrepit theater. The entire surface served as a video screen for crisp, digital images that occasionally swooped like a flock of birds.
Groban noted that his security team referred to the short staircases leading from the stage directly to the arena floor – there were no barricades – as “GAPS,” short for “Grobanite Access Points.” But the well-behaved Grobanites, as his fans are dubbed, only accessed the stage when invited.
Groban was far more likely to go to them. In pre-show interviews, he promised an intimate show, and it was. He roamed among the aisles, cracking jokes, posing for cell phone photos, glad-handing, serenading. Stealing a page from the Tom Jones schtick-book, he assured reluctant males in the audience that “I’m here to help” get the ladies in the mood.
rrayed behind him was a fluent, flexible, multifaceted band that comfortably straddled the classical/pop divide. Viola, cello, two violins and four brass instruments augmented guitar, electric bass, drums, percussion and keyboards. Tariqh Akoni’s Spanish-style guitar lit up “Alejate.” The band picked up the tempo of “Weeping” and “Machine,” emphasizing the tropical lilt of the former and the funk-jazz core of the latter.
If he were a purely classical singer, Groban’s voice would fall somewhere between tenor and baritone. He sang well, carving out full-bodied, round notes even in such pop-centric songs as “Bells of New York City.”
But just about any lyric sounds more dramatic in Italian or Spanish. He achieved high drama with the likes of “L’ Ultima Notte” and “Caruso,” but never strung together multiple pieces in any sort of dramatic arc. For all the charm of his banter, it broke up the show into individual pieces. The concert felt like a house party in a really big, well-lit house.
To that informal end, he answered audience questions submitted by text message (YoYo Ma and Bjork, it seems, are on his collaborator wish list). At one point, he asked rhetorically whether anyone in the audience could sing. Stephen McCrory, a 28-year-old Air Force staff sergeant and nursing student from Mobile, Ala., raised his hand. Groban invited him onstage, admired McCrory’s combination of tattoos and souvenir Groban T-shirt, and asked what he wanted to sing.
A Tori Amos song, McCrory replied.
How about one of mine, Groban suggested. McCrory lofted a a credible a cappella “Lullaby.” When he struggled with the high notes, Groban jumped in to cover for him.
After inviting a couple, a single woman and a young boy to sit on inflatable couches onstage, Groban served them wine and, for the boy, milk. “You’re not lactose intolerant?” he joked. “Because that would sound awful on these couches.”
He showcased “Broken Vow,” a “really beautiful song about cheating,” and the equally lovely “Solo Por Ti.”
He bowed farewell and, somewhat awkwardly, indicated to his onstage guests that they should leave. He concluded with his signature “You Raise Me Up.” Mostly, he let the audience sing the chorus, which was no surprise. He was essentially one of them.