Concert preview: Josh Groban and Judith Hill plan to surround you with sound
Music • Utah experiences are fond memories for both performers at EnergySolutions Arena.

By David Burger

Special to The Tribune

Published: October 9, 2013 07:29PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:35PM
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Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune Singer Judith Hill is photographed on the red carpet for the premiere of "Twenty Feet From Stardom" at the Eccles Theatre during opening night of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on January 17, 2013.

The last time multiplatinum pop-crossover singer Josh Groban toured the world, including a stop in Salt Lake City, he began his set by appearing in the center of the arena, far from the stage, with fans all around him.

Although he would retreat to the stage after several songs, Groban found himself still craving that feeling of closeness, and connectedness, with the audience.

“When we went out to the middle, it never felt old,” Groban, 32, said. “I never wanted to leave that small stage at the beginning of the show, with all of those smiling faces.”

So, this time around, Groban decided to do something about it. He will perform in the round, which means his stage will be centered in the middle of the arena.

“What a great challenge,” he said. “It’s time to try something new. … It’s always about trying to capture that intimacy.”

Intimacy isn’t something Groban needs to force when he comes to Salt Lake City, he noted. His first arena show ever was at the Delta Center, now EnergySolutions Arena. And when it came time to document a concert film in 2007, he chose to film it at EnergySolutions Arena in front of a sold-out crowd. (If you want to check it out, rent “Awake Live,” released in 2008.)

Groban is touring behind his 2013 album “All That Echoes,” featuring production from an unlikely source: Rob Cavallo, chairman of Warner Bros. Records, who’s best-known for his work with antihero hard-rock icons Green Day. Then again, Groban worked with rap- and rock-producing legend Rick Rubin on his previous record, so he once again went outside the box by choosing Cavallo.

“I’ve been a fan of his versatility,” Groban said.

And where did they meet?

“We met at a party at Kid Rock’s house,” he said. (Like Superman and Clark Kent, you would never imagine Groban being in the same place as Kid Rock.)

Performing in the round presents advantages, but also disadvantages, if the musician isn’t careful, Groban said. Although before launching this tour, he had never seen an in-the-round concert in person, he has seen many of them on YouTube. When Metallica last visited EnergySolutions Arena, for example, the band did a similar concept, with the result being that for most of the concert, the audience would generally see the backsides of three of the four performers onstage at any one time.

Groban is aware. “People aren’t paying to see my butt all night,” he said.

He continued: “The energy you’re projecting needs to be 360 degrees.”

When you have sold more than 25 million albums, you get to pick your own opening act, and Groban hand-picked Judith Hill, who has had a memorable 2013. She had a starring role in the Sundance-debuted, award-winning documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” about backup singers. Shortly thereafter, she starred in the spring 2013 season of NBC’s “The Voice,” getting all four judges to press their “I Want You” buttons and turn their chairs during her performance of Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants.” She ultimately was robbed by not winning the season, but her career is on the upswing — zero feet from stardom.

“[The film] has been an amazing journey,” Hill said. “I feel deeply honored to be a part of such a powerful story. I want to carry the torch and make the older generation of background singers proud. They have inspired me so much and I continue to learn from the greats.”

Being featured at the Sundance Film Festival means she has fonder memories of the snow-covered, frigid Utah fest than most.

“The Sundance Film Festival is mindblowing,” said Hill. “It is such a rich place of art and culture. I stayed at a beautiful resort and met so many interesting people. I had a blast this year [performing and appearing at the festival] with Morgan Neville, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer. We performed a concert after a few screenings of the film. It was a night to remember.”

With a year to remember, Hill hopes to parlay her fame into becoming a solo performer, rather than relegated to the sidelines. “Throughout the course of this year, I’m going to release new music, representing all sides of me,” she said. “I want to take people on a journey. I’ve got a lot of tour dates coming up. I will be announcing all of it as they come. … Every time I perform, I think to myself, ‘Perform like it’s your last night on Earth.’ ”

Hill has experienced one of the most heartbreaking crises for a singer in this day and age. In 2009 she was selected as Michael Jackson’s duet partner for “This Is It,” Jackson’s scheduled concert residency in London that was one of the most-anticipated music experiences in the modern era. She practiced for months with Jackson — up until his death on June 25, 2009.

While it doesn’t match the challenges she faced at that time, performing in the round will be a different experience for Hill, as well. “The round is a challenge because you have to make sure everyone in the audience is connected to you,” she said. “But [it’s] also very exciting because the possibilities for staging are bigger. I can’t wait to perform some of my new songs using the full circle of the stage.”

davidlouisburger@yahoo.com

Josh Groban with Judith Hill

Where • EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City

When • Tonight at 8

Tickets • $39.50-$99.50 at SmithsTix