It’s been nine years since I last saw Kelly Clarkson in concert. It was here, at Darien Lake, on a summer night much like this, when she toured her second album, the breakout hit “Breakaway.” About that night, I wrote, and remember distinctly, that the pop/soul songstress, the one who could sing like she had to, the one who knew no better way to connect, the one who had become our first “American Idol,” was poised to rise to superstardom.
And that she did. If you were there Tuesday, one of a horde of lyric-possessing super fans, you could see how much of a star she became and still is. But at the time, she also was a novice at performing, standing – understandably, you could concede – still, clutching a nervous belly with each note. Surely, her star would blast off into the sky and she’d loosen up a bit, take the reins more readily.
Clarkson’s star shone brighter Tuesday than in 2006, with a greatest hits album of post-millennial pop classics under her belt, and a new one, “Piece by Piece,” now in promotion. Here was the Kelly we’ve always known and loved. But someone else was hiding in there, somewhere, too. Here again, wrapped up in a coat of fan love and inarguable talent, is a singer seemingly unsure of where she fits in, what she should be doing.
Clarkson, in just 13 years of being a pop star, has built a respectable library of hit songs that are easy to love. They sing of strained relationships, vengeful angst, wistful romance and self-defined value. If you entered the game with a weak hand, Clarkson had swooped in and slipped you a couple of aces. She’s empowering, relatable and has your back. And that these songs seem resolutely tailored for the tween and teen set does not diminish their effect on adults in need of some confidence.
But from the looks of Tuesday’s show – which was vocally and musically fantastic, in no uncertain terms – Clarkson still couldn’t seem to find her place. On stage, she moves when she has to, barefoot and rocking a gnarly hair braid, but also in dated, unflattering cocktail dresses and evening gowns. This isn’t a statement on her fashion – though a Michael Kors quote from “Project Runway” would summarize my feelings about those fabrics – rather on her comfort: Is she a laid-back Texas girl with a soulful drawl and back porch charm? Is she a pop-rock goddess with a punk-ish attitude? Is she a wholesome role model ready to empower every rapt young fan?
She may be all of those things, but she didn’t appear comfortable in any one of them. It’s as if she would have preferred to wear a T-shirt and jeans, but felt obligated to dazzle when all we really needed was simplicity. That’s the Kelly that won her this success. That’s the Kelly that sings about becoming yourself, loving yourself, needing nothing more than yourself to be happy. That’s the Kelly that is exactly what makes her so different and appreciated.
Her biggest hits – “My Life Would Suck Without You,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Stronger,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Because of You” and “Breakaway,” among them – hold up quite well. They are airtight. The latter two of those were sung at a piano, elegantly bare.
During an inspired “open mic” slot, in which Clarkson grants one lucky YouTube winner a performance of their choosing, a ferocious Jamie Grace came up and capably covered Taylor Swift’s “Trouble,” aiding herself on acoustic guitar. Grace showed formidable chops, adding plenty of originality. Those four minutes might have changed her life. Great idea, Kelly.
Newer material proved itself at home, too. The title track, also pared down to an intimate piano and vocals, was introduced as a sympathetic love letter to every other young girl who ever felt betrayed or disappointed by her father, and that there are good men out there in the world, too. An obscure reference for a pop ballad, but its candor and beautiful melody make it work.
The five-member a capella group Pentatonix, which opened the show, joined Clarkson for “Heartbeat Song,” punctuating it with their tight harmonies and vocal percussion. “Walk Away,” one of Clarkson’s punchier kiss-off songs, merged nicely with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.” Only by the evening’s end, with this and her three-song encore, did Clarkson give it up and turn it loose, getting down with her incredible backup singers in a runway strut.
It might have taken a while, but Miss Independent eventually came around.
Darien Lake Performing Arts Center