LIVE: Josh Groban @ SPAC, 07/02/2022
My work week was slowly coming to an end, and a long holiday (and birthday) weekend was rising like the sun before me. It was going to be a quiet weekend; my plans consisted of watching the season finale of Stranger Things (no spoilers please), watching Moon Knight for the 900th time, and watching the neighbors launch colorful ICBMs from across the street and scare my cats. I was finishing up my tasks when comes a sound that always triggers my fight or flight response: the email chime. Nobody likes emails on a late Friday, especially not those that fall in the civil twilight between the dwindling hours of work and the first hours of a long weekend.
However, this surprise email left the opposite of a leaden ball of dread in my stomach—a little zap of pleasant surprise. LiveNation hit me with an email that said “You up?” ie 2 tickets and a photo pass to Josh Groban’s show the following day. JG! How fun! I had completely forgotten that I’d put my name in to cover this show since it wasn’t a bucket list musician for me. But our good Nippertown JG (Jim Gilbert) and our thespian JG put together a conniving little birthday weekend surprise.
Being the excellent daughter I am, I had given my mother [and father] some tickets (albeit nosebleeds) to see him at Radio City in April. They had the great fortune of being upgraded to orchestra seats (as seat fillers) because they were filming the set, and my parents came home raving about how wonderful of a show it was and how it had been miles better than the “Stages” tour they had seen years ago.
It was a no-brainer to call up my mother instantly, but I knew it might be tricky because they were supposed to depart for a two-week sail around Long Island the next day. “Well,” my mother had told me a touch giddy, “something on the boat broke and your dad has to fix it before we can go. So I’ll go with you! How serendipitous!” She later told me she was glad this happened to him because, as I can confirm, it’s just no fun sitting around on the boat while
stuff gets fixed my dad chats with his fellow sailors at the marina.
This was my first time shooting at SPAC, so I didn’t really know what to expect myself, but I truly just had a great time watching my mom enjoy herself. She excitedly pointed at the group of tour buses and asked, “Is Josh in there!? Can I just knock and say hi?!” No, mom, I’m working.
My mom and I enjoyed relaxing on the terrace where we media folks were stationed, with cushioned seats and a private bar and bathroom. From the terrace, we did a lot of people watching, and to my mother’s dismay, realized that she was his target audience of women of a “certain age.” There were quite a lot of mother-daughter dates, it seemed. In between our existential crises, we listened to the (surprise?) opening act, a solo artist named Eleri Ward. Eleri had a really short set, no more than ten-fifteen minutes. But this was a delightfully short set, not because she was bad, but because it gave you a tantalizing taste of what that voice could do. Her voice reminded both me and my mother of another big, classical voice—a woman called Sissel merged with a little bit of Colbie Callait. Ward, to me, however, had less of a ‘classical’ sound and more of the indie-folk sound despite her obvious classical training. She performed some incredible arrangements of Sondheim songs, most notably “Send in the Clowns,” “Children Will Listen,” and my personal favorite, the “Johanna” reprise from Sweeney Todd. I’m not personally that much of a musical theater fan, but the way her rich vocals danced through these arrangements made my ears very happy with her soaring timbre and smooth vibrato accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar.
As soon as her set started it was done, and the main opener, Preservation Hall Jazz (PHJ), took her space. We hurried down to our seats, which were incredible. Essentially front row stage right. A great, great spot. The only complaint my mother had was now she was close enough that her one true love Josh Groban would now notice she wasn’t wearing makeup. I’m so sorry to have thrown a wrench in your romantic encounter by not reminding you to wear makeup.
PHJ is exactly what you’d expect of a band with just such a name. A lively group of good-looking (mostly young, entirely easy on the eyes) men wielding a baritone sax, keys, trombone, a trumpet, and an upright bass who simply enjoyed their craft, and enjoyed bringing the audience along the journey of enjoyment with them. To me, watching PHJ was like watching a group of friends jam. Neon-colored Nikes and Chucks on their feet danced as they played, and faces that smiled as they danced. The music had the quintessential brass growl and that sandy musical grit that is just as cajun as any N’awlins po’boy. At one point, the brass went stage right as the bass became the focus, and the brass players swayed, snapped, joked, and danced along with the bass, keys, and drums. They were having a lot of fun, and you can’t help but share a grin with them as they do. Their energy peaked at just the right time, during the New Orleans anthem of “The Saints.” They had the audience calling and responding at all the right times during the iconic song, maintaining that energy as it seamlessly transitioned into “You Are My Sunshine,” which honestly surprised me.
As a whole, PHJ was a delight to watch. You see these young musicians having a blast as they appreciate the music and history that may very well have been carved out by their ancestors a century ago.
Now, of course, we approach the section about the man himself, the JG, the Josh Groban. I’m not a die-hard Josh Groban fan. I certainly enjoy his music. The man can sing and his music is pleasing to ears of all ages, but the target demographic is very obvious—menopausal and post-menopausal women. He’s this charming, dorky-looking man who has a sarcastic sense of humor to rival my own (Josh, just saying I think we’d be great co-comedians, hmu) but knows how to use it to wrap an audience of thirsty women around his finger without being raunchy. I saw the Buble show in November too, and while this had many people in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram, it was still somehow a different audience. Buble had many younger fans, Groban had more on the older end of the spectrum and catered more easily to that range in my opinion.
He performed with a full orchestra, and even a few times throughout the show, brought in the incredible Skidmore College Ensemble to be his choir. (I also later learned that there were some local musicians brought in to be a part of his orchestra.) There was one moment I caught that really warmed me, and that was during the song “Granted.” Groban, while seated at the piano, looked over his shoulder to one of the groups of choral singers. His eyes were alight with something akin to pride, with joy. It was a beautiful moment to witness. Their attendance was most wonderfully appreciated during his final (pre-encore) and most famous song, “You Raise Me Up.” The swell of the choir, the goosebumps that prickled my arms, the energetic joy that vibrated around the room—it was such a beautiful song to listen to.
The most exciting point for me was when he brought out (a rather pregnant) Lucia Micarelli, a virtuoso violinist who I really admired in high school. Still do. That woman can SHRED, and I think maybe Hans Zimmer should use her for a song or two as he does for Tina Guo. (Please, everyone, search the depths of YouTube for her cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”) She had a fantastic solo, but then I got to experience her do something more than play, and that was when she dueted with a lovely arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Her voice was full and husky and a low alto that balanced perfectly with the clarity of Josh’s voice, and you could see the connection these two friends had as she gazed demurely over her microphone at him.
I also learned that Josh Groban was one hell of a drummer. Who knew? I didn’t until I witnessed this really cool drum battle.
He had one more duet up his sleeve towards the end of the show. He brought out Eleri Ward again to join him in one of my favorite theater songs “Not While I’m Around,” also from Sweeney Todd. It was here that I experienced my first goosebumps of the show. Ward really showed off her vocal prowess here, in those soaring vocal leaps and sustained high notes that just elated me.
I enjoyed every moment of the show. My mom did too, and I enjoyed watching her have a good time. I loved watching her get that giddy excitement in her eyes, to feel that bit of starstruckness being so close to him. She enjoyed it perhaps a little too much, because once again asked if she could go knock on his trailer door, and then told me to chase after his tour busses that went by us with a police escort.
“Yes, mom, I know. Maybe you’ll marry him next time.”
JG Setlist: The World We Knew, Shape of My Heart, Angels, February Song, Granted (with Skidmore choir), She, [Lucia Micarelli’s Violin Solo], Un Amore Per Sempre (with Lucia Micarelli on violin), Both Sides Now (with Lucia Micarelli on vocals), Alla Luce del Sol, [Drum Interlude], The Book of Love, Celebrate Me Home (with Skidmore choir), Not While I’m Around (with Eleri Ward), Somewhere Over The Rainbow, The Fullest, You Raise Me Up (with Skidmore Choir). Encore: Impossible Dream