King of Croon

Michael Bublé has scaled the music business the old fashioned way; hard work, careful promotion, polished charm

March 2, 2008

By Chris Cannon

Thirty years after Bill Murray officially kitsched hotel-lobby entertainment on Saturday Night Live as Nick the Lounge Singer, crooning is cool again. Many of the old-timers (say, Tom Jones) have become parodies of themselves, but hometown hero Michael Bublé (a Burnaby boy) is reinventing lounge as a contemporary genre. At his January show at GM Place, he opens with Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” and a rink full of fans—mostly giggly girls seated in pairs, aged roughly eight to 80—gasps in delight.

Marilyn Woo, a 42-year-old accountant, eagerly thumbs a snapshot she took of him when he played The Vicki Gabereau Show in 2003. She writes a mash note on the back, hoping to give it to him after tonight’s concert. She has only missed one local performance and can rattle off the venues he’s played as if they’re an old family recipe: the Commodore, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Deer Lake Park. “He’s genuine,” she says. “He’s clever and likes to have fun and doesn’t hide it. He’s a normal guy.” Well, I suppose—if normal is Sinatra from the waist up, Elvis from the waist down, and Jerry Lewis all over.

Record companies are wrestling with epidemic illegal downloading; major labels are passing up Barenaked Ladies; Radiohead and Prince are experimenting with giving their music away. But Bublé’s CDs are flying off the shelves the old-fashioned way: thanks to media saturation and endless touring. A typical Bruce Allen artist (Bublé’s Vancouver-based manager also launched BTO and Bryan Adams to stardom), Bublé pushes product by catching toeholds in every market he can, touring 25 countries in the past year alone. The formula has paid off: his first two studio albums, Michael Bublé and It’s Time, have sold more than 10 million units worldwide, and Call Me Irresponsible, his latest, is approaching the five million mark its first year out.

The merchandise islands in the GM Place lobby serve him up like controlled-portion cheesecake: T-shirts, hoodies, key chains, coffee mugs, magnets, posters, greeting cards, ring tones (just text BUBLE to 99499!). The tour program lists dates and the dozen-plus band members, but it’s clearly meant for pin-up value, mostly given over to glossy shots featuring the many sides of Michael Bublé. (Forget bedroom eyes, the man wears an entire motel on his face.)

While Bublé sports a strong and pleasing tenor (think Bobby Darin after too many cigarettes), he’ll never supplant the artists who gave the definitive versions of the material he covers: Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind,” say, or Freddie Mercury’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” or Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” But that’s alright, mama (the Elvis selection in his repertoire), because that’s not his bag. It’s his gift for connecting with an audience that makes him a virtuoso. (Not to mention rich—Allen says he turned down $30 million for a 35-week Vegas gig, figuring Bublé has 20 years of touring before going the Barry Manilow route.)

Though he’s often compared to crooners like Darin and Sinatra, Bublé is more on par with Elvis Presley or Janis Joplin in his passionate stage presence, one hand on the mike, the other clawing toward an invisible spotlight. Between songs—and often during them—he cranks up the casual charm. Half the show consists of banter and sketch comedy, the women leaning forward eagerly in their seats, the men sitting back (perhaps contemplating the singer’s promise that his show will get them laid tonight). He comes across as an adorable goofball who wants to sit and chat with each audience member individually. I’m reminded of Andy Kaufman’s 1979 Carnegie Hall performance, after which he loaded the entire audience into 20 buses and took them out for milk and cookies.

“You make me a better-behaved guy,” he tells eight-year-old Kristi in the front row, referring to the bawdy material that nonetheless often makes it into his act. (The previous night, in Victoria, it was a nine-year-old named Connor.) At one point he descends into the crowd as if strolling through a family reunion. He kisses an old man on the forehead, has his picture taken with Kristi, then hugs a series of eager women (one of whom grabs his ass), all of it captured on two massive screens so even the nosebleeders get a slice of his charm.

This is his first show downtown since his meteoric rise to international fame (he entertained at this magazine’s restaurant awards a decade ago), and he’s clearly humbled by being on his beloved Canucks’ home turf. He turns it into his living room. Pop by anytime, he seems to say, or look me up on Facebook and challenge me to a game of Scrabulous. Such is the magic of Michael Bublé: it’s our show, not his. He may be hosting the party, but we’re the stars. All 15,208 of us.

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