ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Michael Bublé boldly climbs out of the retro box

WeddingsJohn MayerJohnny Drama (fictional character)Frank SinatraVancouver CanucksElvis Presley

MICHAEL Bublé swings, there's no doubt, but what's cooler is his punch. The strongman poses he frequently feigned Tuesday, opening a sold-out, three-night run at the Greek Theatre, weren't just a joke. Bublé, a 31-year-old Canadian vocalist who's claimed control of the American songbook with three successively more accomplished and popular studio albums, is a singer with an athlete's drive and a beat-master's sense of phrasing. At the Greek, his shiny suit and hot little big band signaled retro sophistication, but the best music placed him firmly in the here and now.

The music mattered most, but much of the evening was taken up with gags and monologues. Bublé's shtick endears him to his fans, but it was ultimately far secondary to his voice and his musical interaction with the players in his young band, especially pianist and musical director Alan Chang and drummer Rob Perkins.

Bublé was discovered singing at a wedding, and his flashy demeanor at the Greek showed what a great wedding singer he must have been. On a slanted stage that suggested a futuristic Las Vegas (not to mention Elvis Presley's legendary 1968 "comeback" television special), Bublé made the ladies swoon, joshed with the fellas, glad-handed in the crowd and cracked wise.

He strutted like a smarter version of Johnny Drama from "Entourage," did a spot-on Elvis imitation and engaged his young, uniformly attractive band in plenty of banter. Even the celebrity he singled out in the crowd was an interesting choice -- Brian Burke, general manager of the Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks and former GM of British Columbia native Bublé's team, the Vancouver Canucks.

Bublé's humor worked best when it had an edgy swagger recalling the infamous patter of his original role model, Frank Sinatra. But his fans adored every corny, canny move, sometimes to the detriment of the music. Bublé lapped up the love; he should have called for more quiet, as he did during a careful rendition of "Always on My Mind," which showed that he could achieve a honeyed tone and supple intonation.

Too much goofing almost obscured Bublé's inventive approach to melody and rhythm. Many young singers now are basically reference librarians, emulating their inspirations far too accurately. Bublé may have started his career in that vein, but he's developing a bold style of his own.

His take on "Feelin' Good" had some of the force of Nina Simone's version and its own, R&B-inspired kick. He drawled his way through "Call Me Irresponsible," showing how "lazy" phrasing can sometimes work. He even beat-boxed, ever so briefly. If he got a bit breathy here and there, he usually recovered by finding the songs' rhythmic core.

As much as Bublé's self-presentation turns fans' thoughts toward the Rat Pack, he's also reminiscent of his peers, notably the young hip-hop soul titan Usher and the blues-rock scion John Mayer. Two self-penned adult-contemporary hits, "Home" and "Everything," sounded quite a bit like Mayer; that's a smart commercial move, but it would be more exciting to hear Bublé throw down on some contemporary R&B.

For now, though, Bublé's formula is working. Donning a classic costume, but not strictly adhering to the musical approach those duds suggest, he can avoid the clichés of current mainstream pop and explore his potential as a singer.

Having found his way out of the retro box, he's not going back in. And that's the stance of a true fighter.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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