Along with Josh Groban’s incredible pipes and impressive musical range we saw onstage at the Santa Barbara Bowl on July 30, there’s an unjaded sweetness to Groban — a puppy-like eagerness to be liked by an incredibly talented and wildly successful former nerd who got bullied in high school. I found it quite endearing.
His warm, self-described “tenor in training” and equally warm personality were accompanied by an impressive orchestra, a full choir, and lovely guest artists, including his mentor/producer David Foster (who also hangs at the polo fields with Prince Harry), the esteemed Preservation Hall Jazz Band, violinist/singer Lucia Micarelli, and singer-songwriter Eleri Ward, along with his longtime guitarist/music director, Santa Barbara’s own Tariqh Akoni.
The highlights for me were Groban’s cover of “Shape of My Heart,” which he quipped was by “the beautiful, talented, tantric Sting”; Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a lovely duet with Micarelli; and Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around,” from Sweeney Todd, a stunning duet with Ward, whose warble was both enchanting and unexpected. I came in loving all of those songs already and left with a new appreciation after hearing them “Grobanized,” which the artist himself admitted is not an equally suitable treatment for every song.
In addition to pop covers and songs in both Italian and Spanish, Groban also performed some of his own compositions, leading into his melancholy early hit “February Song” with “there’s nothing like being signed to a music contract at age 17 to inspire having an existential crisis in your twenties.” Just about every song was sprinkled with a lead-in story, and there was plenty of banter with the audience, which included two adorable tots dancing in the front row (only in Santa Barbara can families afford Bowl tickets for the pre-K crowd), to which Groban quipped, “Most artists have a mosh pit; I have a nursery.” One couple got engaged during the show, to which Groban offered to play at their wedding, “since my tour is ending soon.” He then dedicated a sweet rendition of The Magnetic Field’s “Book of Love” to the pair.
The encore, Groban’s version of “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” from Man of La Mancha, was a fitting finale to show off those aforementioned incredible pipes. He not only Grobanized us; he mesmerized us — adding his undeniably beautiful voice, and personal touch, to the canon of that famous song that’s been interpreted by everyone from Robert Goulet to Roberta Flack, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and even Gomer Pyle himself, Jim Nabors.