The video and audio quality weren’t great. But in between songs, through his dirty computer lens, Groban proudly showed his fans a framed photo of his dog, Sweeney, talked to his fans about the seriousness of COVID-19, encouraged fans who may be feeling lonely to seek help and even apologized for the plain gray wall behind him.
“Somebody just said the audio sounds like I’m down in a well,” Groban said with a laugh as he started reading the comments that flooded the Facebook livestream.
Eventually, he picked up his laptop, walked to the bathroom and took advantage of the shower acoustics to sing “You Raise Me Up.” And then, after sharing a message of encouragement with the 3,500 fans who were watching live, he said goodbye.
“Hope we can do this in person sometime again really, really soon.”
A little over two years later, Groban is back on the road.
He’s more dressed up now. He’s backed by a full band, orchestra and choir, performing songs from his album, “Harmony,” which he released in November 2020 (in case you’re wondering, he does not recommend putting out an album “smack dab in the middle of a global medical emergency”).
Wednesday night’s show at Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena was a substantially glossier production than Groban’s shower singalong during the early days of COVID-19, but one crucial element remained unchanged: the singer’s approachability.
In an arena that can seat up to 20,000 people for concerts, Groban seemed intent on being as accessible to his fans as he was singing through his laptop at home. On the large stage, the singer was poised as he performed everything from 2006’s “February Song” to material from the new album, determined to let each baritone note ring loud and clear. But in between numbers, he went at a frenetic pace as he chatted with his fans, sometimes getting ahead of himself and stumbling over his words. It was as if he was catching up with a friend he hadn’t seen in years.
And in a way, that really was the case.
A lot has happened since Groban’s last Salt Lake City show in 2018. Before the pandemic, he was about a third of the way through recording “Harmony,” which he originally envisioned as an album of all covers — a tribute to classic songs he loved like Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” But as he hunkered down at home, with more time on his hands than he’d had in a while, he experienced a musical awakening of sorts. He found himself creating.
Now, once again at the arena where he filmed his “Awake Live” TV special in 2007, Groban was visibly eager to let his fans in on the stories behind some of his newer music as well as the longtime hits. He’s a fast talker and a descriptive storyteller, and while there isn’t data to back this up, there’s a good chance he spoke more words than he sang.
Before singing his cover of Robbie Williams’ “Angels,” featured on his new album, Groban enthusiastically recounted the moment a bouquet of flowers — five dozen white roses — arrived on his doorstep, with a little note of gratitude from Williams. After gushing over the intricacies of the note — which was signed with not one, but two “XOs” — Groban ultimately and somewhat begrudgingly concluded that the gesture likely came from Williams’ management.
Before launching into “February Song,” he shared how he wrote it a few years into his stardom, when he felt overwhelmed by the pressures of the industry, and all of the perpetual praise and criticism that surrounded him.
In between his songs, he talked about mental health, influential teachers and the value of arts education. He encouraged parents to facilitate their kids’ passions. When he saw a “My First Concert” sign in the crowd, he noted that his first concert was New Kids on the Block in the third grade — a Christmas show that featured Donnie Wahlberg breakdancing in a Santa suit.
Some artists take the stage solely to perform. Fans pay good money to hear them sing, and that’s what they’re going to do. But Groban puts continual effort into forming a connection with his fans, crafting stories and painting as vivid a picture through his words as he does through song.
Of course, there’d be nothing wrong if he just came out and sang. He has an angelic voice that has attracted millions of fans, and it was clear from the start of Wednesday’s show — when he opened with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “The World We Knew (Over and Over)” — that his voice was in top form. But it’s this additional layer of entertainment — Groban’s sincere, sometimes awkward but always endearing down-to-earth rambling — that draws his fans in even more.
It may be odd to suggest that the best part of a Groban concert isn’t the singing. But here’s a case for it: You can listen to him sing anytime on the radio, on YouTube, on Spotify, you name it. But it’s in person, after you hear his heartfelt stories and messages, that those songs become even more powerful.
Groban talks with the same sense of hope and optimism that permeates his music, using his voice in more ways than one to do what he’s been singing about for nearly 20 years: to raise people up.