Charlie Gabriel, left, Branden Lewis, and Ronell Johnson of Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on Friday, May 6, 2022, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
As one of the most popular modern singers of classic-model pop and Broadway songs, Josh Groban is often called the keeper of the flame. But he’s a little too modest to see it that way.
“I’d say we’re all keepers of the flame — any of us who are out there singing from the heart, singing what we love, trying to keep things fresh but still being a student of history. Music is meant to evolve, to find new relevance, and that is the dance that I do, trying to hold onto those traditions while keeping them fresh. So I think we owe it to the flame, to keep it lit in every way possible and not let it get dusty,” Groban said.
Groban will touch a few musical bases when he plays the Pavilion on July 6 — and he’ll be stretching things even more by inviting a New Orleans musical institution, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to open.
“I always like to bring musicians along that I can learn from. And Preservation was one of the first bands I ever saw, at arts camp in Michigan. I would say that if anybody needs their soul recharged, look no further than those guys.”
Some of his recent song choices are especially surprising. For instance, he’s covered “Book of Love” by the Magnetic Fields (whose leader Stephin Merritt was part of the Boston indie-rock scene in younger days). Merritt’s wry sensibility would seem to be a long way from the straight-up sentiment of many songs that Groban prefers.
“I’ll admit that my first introduction to ‘Book of Love’ was the Peter Gabriel cover version, with that gorgeous string arrangement. But me to that song is perfect in its simplicity. There are a lot of more sugary ways to sing a love song, and I’m certainly guilty of finding ones that are really sugary. But when we think of all the tropes about how love is supposed to be, what your expectations are, there’s the very simple idea that all those things start to make sense when you meet the right person. That’s what the song says to me, and I always try to call out a couple in the audience when I sing it.”
Even more surprising, he recently dipped into the Elton John catalog — but instead of doing one of the big ballads you’d expect, he covered “Empty Sky,” the title track of Elton’s first album and one of the first outright rock ’n’ roll tracks Groban’s done. He credits producer Steve Jordan (who in recent months is also the Rolling Stones’ drummer) for finding that one.
“I’m always cognizant of ways that I can use my voice that really reach people, and aren’t just satisfying for me personally. At the same time, we don’t want to go to a place where people aren’t believing it. So I’m always trusting producers to get me to those different places.”
Besides, he says, it’s not that strange to do Broadway, classical and pop songs in the same set.
“The thing I’ve found with all this cross-pollinating is that all these influences are in each other’s genres. If I do an Elton or a Queen song, I can see how operatic those songs really are. And if I do something like (the Frank Sinatra hit) ‘The World We Knew,’ I can see that has rock and pop elements. As a vocalist, that puts me in a fun position to be in. My fans have never pigeonholed me as crossover or anything like that. When I wake up in the morning, my voice naturally wants to be in the boundary of all those worlds. And when I do a live show, I want to be a conduit between them.”