Review: Josh Groban salutes teachers, skips most of his own catalog at Florida Orchestra gala event in St. Pete

If only there hadn't been a curfew.

click to enlarge Josh Groban plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 5, 2022. - Photo by Josh Bradley
Photo by Josh Bradley
Josh Groban plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 5, 2022.
After 20 years, Josh Groban still has a hard time trying to tell the difference between Tampa and St. Petersburg. He had to ask the Mahaffey Theater’s sold-out, Saturday night crowd if it was from Tampa or St. Pete, and in terms of applause level, St. Pete had the most residents in house. “They’re leading,” he joked.

The eternally sexy 40-year-old crooner has performed limited shows in a COVID-infested world (he canceled his 2020 shows in Florida, originally set for the week that COVID-19 shut everything down), but knows that he can’t leave all the touring and relevancy to his pal, Michael Bublé forever. Last week, Groban announced a summer U.S. tour to promote his lockdown masterpiece, Harmony, released in late 2020. But before he gets back to playing arenas, Groban had a cracked-out, hot mess of a United State to check up on.

And how do you make a grand return to good ol’ Tampa Bay? Through a gala performance, of course.

Every year, St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater hosts a gala event that features the Florida Orchestra backing up a musician that is normally worthy of more than an intimate setting. Tickets usually sell like crazy, but every penny donated goes toward funding TFO’s educational and artistic programs. Groban—a well-known believer in charitable work for the arts—was the selected headliner this year, and though seeing Sting with an orchestra is a dream come true, Groban’s music echoed in a way that you won’t hear at Madison Square Garden or Amalie Arena.

A little bit after 7 p.m., a few introductory remarks from several key people at the Mahaffey—including Mr. Mark Mahaffey himself—were made, and Groban (dressed in an all-black blazer, button-down, and dress pants) walked out from stage right, just to fist-bump maestro Michael Francis. He would grab the mic, and softly, yet powerfully launch into his 2015 cover of “Pure Imagination,” followed by his 2018 original, “Granted.” The latter saw Josh sit down at a grand piano, and dedicate the song to the teachers and musicians that continuously keep us on our feet.

“It’s so important that we keep arts education alive right now, especially,” he said. “Art, as it always does, has continued to survive and thrive during difficult times.”

Much of the arts’ survival is thanks to charitable efforts like Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation, an organization that, like many, ensures that children get a proper education in the arts. Aside from that, and when Groban solemnly remembered Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (“Children Will Listen,” “Not While I’m Around”), he was otherwise mirthful during his banter in between songs.

“We’re definitely having a pint after this.”

“Anybody want to sing ‘The Duel’ [from Les Misérables] with me?”

“Anybody here on an expensive-as-hell date? All six of you are on a date? Ooh, kinky!”

But perhaps the peak of his snark was when he somewhat subtly introduced his rarely-played version of Peter Gabriel’s cover of The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book Of Love,” and found out about Jen and Rob, an engaged couple in the crowd. Groban gave them permission to turn on their cell phones and film him “dedicating” the song to them, that way Jen and Rob could play it on their actual wedding day. In the end, it took about five minutes before Groban revealed which Peter Gabriel song he’d be doing. Not that anybody expected “Solsbury Hill” or anything, but let’s just say that I’m going to be outraged if his next album doesn’t include the cut that he performed. It was just too perfect to be excluded from anything else.
click to enlarge Josh Groban plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 5, 2022. - Photo by Josh Bradley
Photo by Josh Bradley
Josh Groban plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 5, 2022.

Speaking of dedicating songs to people, one of Groban’s all-time favorite artists is Neil Diamond—who performed at a Hollywood Bowl show that had a crowd featuring Groban and legendary producer Rick Rubin. “There’s a poetry to his lyrics,” he shared.

In 2009, when Diamond was named the MusiCares Person Of The Year, Groban performed “Play Me” at the tribute performance to Diamond, and since Neil liked what he heard, Groban decided to keep the song in the regular setlist rotation. He also saluted Sting (“Shape Of My Heart”) and Robbie Williams (“Angels”), who sent Groban roses upon his version’s first release. “Now, I’m as straight as an arrow,” Groban remarked. “But when he sent me those, I said ‘I’d do it with him.’”

Though this event was mostly based around the Florida Orchestra, the musicianship brought on by Josh Groban and his touring band just added onto the truly historic gala this was turning out to be. On “Alejate,” an early, Spanish cover of Céline Dion’s “Just Walk Away” an extensive, Spanish guitar solo from Groban’s musical director Tariqh Akoni opened the song, and Mark Stephens tickled the ivories on Groban’s penultimate song, the heartbreaking “Bring Him Home,” originally from Les Misérables, which cemented one of the best performances of the song I had ever seen. Maybe even better than Hugh Jackman’s.
click to enlarge Josh Groban plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 5, 2022. - Photo by Josh Bradley
Photo by Josh Bradley
Josh Groban plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Feb. 5, 2022.
Due to an 8:30 p.m. curfew, Groban couldn’t go on too much longer, and wrapped up the gala evening with another Broadway cut, “The Impossible Dream,” from Man of La Mancha. OK so, in 90 minutes, he pretty much put his original works aside (excluding the early addition of “February Song”), and stuck to covers that he has redone. But even with a cover-drenched setlist, he sure as hell is not a has-been. There aren’t any cheesy, twinkly synthesizers thrown into the classic songs, and no vibes of pathetic showmanship skills are present when Josh Groban is.

About The Author

Josh Bradley

Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.
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