By BRUCE DENNILL
Michael Buble / Coca-Cola Dome, Johannesburg / 21 March
Arriving at a concert to see an artist you’re already enthusiastic about is always made better by the discovery that there’s a bonus in the shape of a support act that isn’t there as part of some local talent development programme but has instead been included in order to fill out and improve the production you’ve paid to get into.
At Michael Buble’s Johannesburg dates, that act; that pleasant surprise; was Naturally 7, a New York septet who create wonderfully layered a capella R&B and, even more impressively, just about match Buble for charisma. They’re impeccably rehearsed, with choreography to match their multi-instrumental mouth music. Everyone’s impressive, but bass “player” Armand Hutton is extraordinary, able to summon an unlikely venue-filling rumble from his chest.
When Naturally 7 retreat – too soon, it seems, which is a mark of their instant appeal – Buble arrives in a style more appropriate to Rammstein than a housewife-friendly crooner, with towering pyrotechnics kicking off a version of Fever that’s far more sedate than that beginning would suggest. Buble, looking “40 and a bit chunky” (his own words, used later in the set) begins at a similar level, performing adequately but not suggesting much of the magic that’s made him a household name wherever in the world he travels.
He soon shows his mettle, however. His inter-song banter is almost peerless, and when he gets a chance – early on – to impose his charm on his audience, he grabs it with both hands, bringing up a to the edge of the stage a super-fan who’s created a poster in his honour. He poses for pictures with her and then signs the poster, pointedly telling her that he’s not going to include her name on in the message as that will damage the artwork’s potential trading value on E-Bay.
That sort of savviness is what sets Buble apart. His set is upwards of 75% standards, so in theory, anyone with a good enough backing band (his is superb) and a decent voice could present a similar package, but there are few people on the planet as adept at entertaining as Buble is. He combines confidence, humour (above and below the belt) and general knowledge with an ability to read and manipulate an audience to such an extent that he can have 15 000 people eating out of his hand.
There are chops too – he possesses a fine voice and excellent timing when it comes to phrasing well-known lyrics in fresh ways. But he’s occasionally a lazy singer, prone to doing just enough ensure his vocals play a measurable role in the arrangements, rather than really throwing himself at a note. When he does really go for it, it proves worth the wait, but it’s a sporadic thrill. It may be that giving 100% all of the time doesn’t fit in with the cultivated loucheness that Buble’s built his stage persona around, or it may be that he’s planning for the long term, and holding back now will help ensure that there’s still something to give in 1o or 20 years’ time. Or perhaps he’s just a smooth operator who’s earned the right to show a little cheerful arrogance on the basis of his presenting an otherwise spectacular show, typified by his swapping out his horn section for a string section for just a couple of tunes, because, you know, he can.
Keeping to this formula means that Buble is more or less guaranteed to avoid ever letting an audience down. If he begins to get bored, though, it’ll be interesting to see what ideas he introduces in the future.