11 August, 2011

Milwaukee review...

By Dave Tianen of The Journal Sentinel.
For years, he has been the puppy-eyed altar boy crooner atop the popera pyramid.

Josh Groban has been a kind of teen idol for non-teens, a poetic soul possessed of a stunning and powerful tenor voice, singing dramatic David Foster ballads in a Berlitz medley of romantic languages. Women from their college years to grannydom have melted under the spell of those ballads.

But he was also all heart and no loins, a sexual menace on a par with Justin Bieber.

But after a prolonged absence, Josh Groban returned to the Bradley Center Tuesday night with more than a hint that he may be a musician in transition. There's still that tousled mane of brown hair, but at 30, the jaw line has tightened. More importantly, last year, Groban cut "Illuminations," a new album with Rick Rubin, famous for producing the acclaimed stripped-down albums from Johnny Cash's last years.

Groban entered the arena from the rear and took his place at the piano on a mini-stage in the center of the floor, with sections above the luxury boxes at the Bradley Center curtained off. The evening opened on a distinct singer-songwriter cast. "Changing Colors" would have fit easily in an '80s Elton John collection. "You Are Loved (Don't Give Up)" was an old fan favorite, but with a jacked-up rhythm line. It actually took Groban four songs to abandon English, which clearly suggests a change of habit.

Signs of a more multifaceted Groban continued to surface throughout the set. "Bells of New York City" is a new tune from "Illuminations," and it suggests a cross-pollination of Art Garfunkel and '70s Neil Sedaka. The African anthem "Weeping" goes back in Groban's résumé to the "Awake" album from 2006, but it's an uplifting and welcome diversion in the set list.

It probably would be neither wise nor profitable for Groban to abandon the romantic melodramas altogether. "Broken Vow" is the kind of big-voiced romantic-disaster tale that Celine Dion has built a career on. Groban closed with "You Raise Me Up," which has always struck me as a "Wind Beneath My Wings" rewrite. But that kind of high drama crooning works best when surrounded by music of different shades and moods.

Tuesday, Groban seemed more pop and less popera. That's a good thing. Most of us don't speak Italian anyway. He already had an exceptional instrument. Now he appears to have a broader palette.

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