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Groban owns this audience

When you think of singer Josh Groban, you may think of his tremendous vocal range, or of his silky tone.

After Friday night's concert at Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena, a few more of us will think of him as a first-rate entertainer: he was funny, worked the crowd, and did everything but take himself too seriously.

He had the crowd laughing several times, although one ill-advised Wolfpack joke was more likely to go over better on the Straight To You tour's next stop Saturday night in Raleigh.

This tour promotes his newest album, "Illuminations," but includes plenty of older material. The lower-bowl-only seating allowed for intimacy, and when Groban appeared, he played keyboard and sang on a mini-stage at the back. My friends who had started out 18 rows from the stage were now only about ten rows from him.

Even with the band and Groban so far apart, the acoustics suited them.

It was not a large symphonic treatment, but plenty powerful, especially violinist Lisa Liu, whose next career should be in dancing.

Groban and the band performed 20 songs, including two instrumental. One was the usual mid-show piece that allows the vocalist to go backstage for a break, but Groban returned to join the drummers on his own kit midstage, and held his own.

He made several forays into the audience, and during a way-fun text-message segment, he brought an audience member onstage with him to perform "The Prayer". He told the fan she had better be able to sing:

"If we are doing this, you'd better bring it!" With a little coaching, she did very well.

Also during that segment, Groban answered texted questions from the audience – he admitted his first concert was New Kids on the Block at age 9, and his favorite album as a kid was a mix tape he made of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and "Use Your Illusions I and II" by Guns and Roses. His sung mashups of these were worth the price of admission.

Groban turned 30 a few months ago, and seems to be comfortable on his career path and as a well-rounded guy. He's done a couple of hilarious turns as a guest on TV's "Glee," and has a foundation that contributes to a number of admirable causes.

Friday's set list included a balance of older and new songs. "War at Home," which he co-wrote, salutes returning veterans, and is musically reminiscent of 2006's "You Are Loved", which he also performed.

"Machine" may be a smidge too funky for Groban just yet, but the audience got to move around with it. "Bells of New York City" makes dramatic use of percussion, and haunts the listener.

Standards included "Alejate," Alla Luce del Sole," and Neil Diamond's "Play Me.

He concluded with "You Raise Me Up," his No. 1 hit from 2004, and encouraged the audience to be his gospel choir. Carolina Panther fans may remember that he performed it during Super Bowl XXXVIII's pre-game show, in a commemoration of the previous year's Columbia space shuttle disaster. "You Raise me Up" began as an Irish tune, and made its way to Groban through his mentor David Foster. Groban was the right person to tell us that we can be bigger people when we have the courage to rely on each other.

Before there was Josh

Opening act Elew calls his style "rock jazz," which is as good as any label. He plays piano without a stool, anchoring his sturdy legs. His first few pieces were not familiar, but then he played several medleys of popular tunes from many eras, including a marvelous mashup of "Nadia's Theme" and Coldplay's "Clocks".

Elew (born Eric Lewis) produces music that is sometimes about the space between the notes. It would have been nice if audience members had hushed up, to let those spaces resonate.

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