Review: Josh Groban, Straight to You Tour - July 19, 2011

On Tuesday July 19, Josh Groban made a stop at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario with his "Straight to You" tour. Thanks to the JLC, I was able to see the concert and meet Josh Groban himself, asked only in return to write a review with my thoughts on the show. This is part of an initiative the JLC is taking that began with the Black Keys concert just a week before: engaging JLC concert goers and asking them to share their opinions and feedback through social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. I was one of four "JLC Reviewers" selected via Twitter, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity.

When I heard Josh was going to be playing at the JLC, I was filled with mixed emotions. I enjoy his music and think he has a phenomenal voice, and considered purchasing tickets for the show. But I couldn't do it. My heart wrenched with the thought. Josh Groban was one of my dad's favourite performers, and the timing of the show fell almost on the 4th anniversary of my dad - who was in the last stages of lung cancer - being admitted to Palliative Care. Josh Groban's music was something he and I shared, and I sang the song, "You Are Loved" to him whenever we spoke on the phone.

When nominated by friends on Twitter to be selected as one of the JLC Reviewers, my initial reaction was to say, "No!!!" I didn't think I could sit through the show and not be a wreck of emotion. But I stifled the reaction, swallowed the lump in my throat and put on my brave face when the JLC said I had been selected. A friend, who knew the story of my connection to Josh's music said, "It's serendipity. You are meant to see this show. You just don't realize it."

I'm not sure if it was serendipity or just plain luck (mixed with some dumb luck, as I was in a car accident on the way to the show - a blog for another time), but it was a fantastic, once in a lifetime opportunity that I'm certainly glad I did not pass up.

Opening for Josh was an act who was seen just a few weeks before on the TV show "America's Got Talent". ELEW, a very talented (and humble) pianist who calls his style "Rockjazz" slowly warmed up the crowd with some interesting and passionate pieces. Opening with "Mr Brightside" by the Killers, the crowd was quiet and watching with curiosity. A few songs later the crowd came a little more alive with ELEW's rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama", which led into a quirky snippet of the Gilligan's Island theme, which drew laughter and applause. ELEW plays with great passion, often on his knees, arms outstretched with silver bands up to his elbows, and face up to the sky, never looking at his hands.

A woman seated behind me said of ELEW, "I think he's having an out of body experience!". I think we all did by the end of his set, which contained more gems such as Coldplay's "Clocks", U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and my favourite little montage featuring bits of "The Pink Panther" theme, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies', "Paint it Black" and the theme from Peanuts. He concluded his performance with a "Smells Like Teen Spirit"/"Favourite Things"/ragtime piece. With each song, the applause was warmer and louder and by the end of the show the most common comment I heard was, "He was brilliant." I agree.

We were ready and pumped by the time the set change was complete and Josh Groban emerged from a side door close to our seats. He took a seat at the piano on a small hydraulic stage set directly in front of us. He looked around to every corner of the room and thanked us all for coming with a genuine warmth. He opened with the song, "Changing Colors" by Canadian band 'Great Lake Swimmers', followed quickly, and after much applause by the beautiful "February Song". Before launching into his third song, he told a story about a Norwegian cyclist who had won Tuesday's leg of the Tour de France, noting that the cyclist was riding a bike made in Canada.

The hurdle I needed to face, "You Are Loved", came next. An interesting arrangement straying slightly and creatively from the album version. He performed it beautifully and yes, folks, I was a wreck.

A song later, Josh was on the main stage talking about his Canadian connections, giving huge thanks to David Foster and Celine Dion for their hand in his early success, and mused about making it into a drinking game. Wearing black jeans, a white t-shirt with a black jacket and black Adidas running shows, Josh looked at ease on the stage telling stories and jokes in between songs. He talked about how he wanted to bring an intimate feel to his concerts for this tour and find a personal connection in arenas. I would say he accomplished that at the JLC on Tuesday.

Escorted by his personal security, Josh walked through the crowds easily interacting with people. He stopped at one man on the floor and said, "You look dragged here. You alright?" The gentleman replied something to the effect of, "Sing The Prayer and it'll be fine." Josh said, "I'll sing if you sing it with me!" He continued walking, making a few wisecracks and charming the crowd. When he returned to the stage he remarked how polite London was. "Toronto was a little grabby!"

"Bells of New York", "Higher Window" and "Alla Luce del Sole" preceded a touching tribute to service men and women, and the song "War at Home". Beyond that, we were treated to a side of Josh not often seen. A 13 piece ensemble took over the stage while Josh momentarily disappeared. They played a beautiful instrumental of "Live and Let Die". Josh suddenly reemerged to play a drum solo, effectively proving he is more than a strong vocalist and pianist.

Josh, as a part of his connection plan, asked questions submitted by fans in the arena via text messages. The questions were selected during the concert and presented to him to read and address, and added more opportunity for Josh to show his comedic and personable side. A few songs later, he was running through the crowd gathering fans for the stage. He joked with them, seated them on blow up couches he said were for the crew, and served them drinks - wine for the two married couples he chose, and milk for a 12 year old girl. The end of the show was nearing and he serenaded them with the songs "Broken Vow" and "Per Te". He took a bow and left the stage only briefly before returning for his encores of "Play Me" and his huge hit, "You Raise Me Up."

The crowd - a full house - was incredibly receptive through the entire show. Josh was able to find the connection he was aiming for, and delivered a positive concert experience. He is a natural talent and true performer. He is growing as a musician and I look forward to seeing what he comes out with next. For me, this experience was slightly serendipitous, and largely cathartic. I now have a new memory of Josh Groban, and I do believe my dad would have wanted that for me. Thank you, Josh and ELEW, for a fantastic evening and safe travels on the rest of your tour. Don't forget that you are loved in London, Ontario.

Thanks again to the JLC for such wonderful experience to see this show and provide a review. If I were to rate the concert on a 5 star scale, I would give it a 4. The entertainment value was there, but I found the sound (vocals in particular) a little off, and I was straining to hear the lyrics over the music.

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