The challenge of being Josh Groban is that because his music is serious and intense, people assume he’s humorless and stuffy and that his live shows must be two hours of furrowed brows and weeping.
In fact, the 30-year-old pop-opera (popera?) singer is an affable fellow with a quick wit and self-deprecating charm who happens to possess a lacquered voice and nimble piano skills.
For his “Straight to You” tour, which kicked off last month and played at the Gwinnett Center Arena Wednesday, Groban is experimenting in a way by trying to mesh the intimacy of a theater show with the expanse of an arena.
It’s tricky territory, especially given Groban’s mellow songs. But for the most part, it worked, especially his cleanly lit stage and backdrop of white brick that resembled the crumbled archway of an old theater.
“You guys paid out the wazoo to be here, so the least I can do is sing my [butt] off for you,” he said at the start of the two-hour show, which began at the back of the arena on a satellite stage with the singer playing piano on “Changing Colors” and “February Song.”
Though it’s easy to trivialize Groban’s music as “cheesy,” that’s a flawed categorization. There is nothing fake or smarmy about what he does and his sincerity is evident in every soaring, range-spanning chorus.
Even the Hallmark card sentiments in “You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up)” resonate with meaning when infused with Groban’s rich baritone.
At Wednesday’s show, he frequently darted into the audience – which filled about half of the arena – to glad hand fans and engage in chit-chat. The one thing missing from his stage setup was a video screen, which would have allowed those in the back to also witness these up-close encounters.
“Oh, you smell nice,” he said as he passed one woman. He paused to coo at a baby and made some jokes about the over-reaching politeness of Southerners before dashing back to the main stage to play the atmospheric “The Bells of New York City,” a wintry-feeling, pop-leaning song from his current album, “Illuminations.”
Along with his five-piece band and an eight-member orchestral ensemble, Groban, clad in a black jacket and jeans with white sneakers and T-shirt, made every tune seem effortless.
And his set list, from the seductive flamenco guitar that buoyed “Aléjate” (from his first album released a decade ago) to the pulsing new “Você Existe em Mim,” on which Groban joined his drummer and percussionist in a rhythmic feast, showcased the singer’s eclectic styles.
His frequent interactions with the audience, whether to answer questions texted to him before the show or to bring a couple married 48 years on stage to serenade with “a gorgeous song about cheating” (the gut-wrenching, but beautiful, “Broken Vow”), were always smile-worthy.
And if they broke up the fluidity of the show, well, it was a worthwhile tradeoff to experience more of that Groban charm.
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