One of the first notes I jotted during Kelly Clarkson’s show at the Nokia Theatre on Tuesday night was, simply, “She seems a little distant.” She and her band had already torn through two of her pop-rock songs, but Clarkson, whose bright, bubbly demeanor is one of her trademarks, had offered little other than a brief greeting and a couple smiles.
Instead, the 29-year-old pop star and winner of the first season of “American Idol” had concentrated on offering her fans a taste of her stunning soprano and allowing her musicians a chance to warm up. As she sang lyrics from “Hazel Eyes”: “Broken up deep inside/But you won’t get to see these tears I cry,” the words seemed to hit close to home.
That initial observation couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out she was just getting situated, finding her balance -- and probably trying to contain her excitement at the evening to come.
By the time she closed 23 songs later with a rolling, riff-heavy version of “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Clarkson had covered Britney Spears ("Till the End of the World"), made the hall roar by shouting, “Who hates the gym?,” complained about a groin injury, shed tears (“I just Dr. Phil-ed myself,” she said, dabbing at her eyes), and pondered the past-tense grammatical construction of the verb “to duet.”
Oh, and she had been joined onstage by some friends: Fellow first season “Idol” contestant Tamyra Grey, singer/songwriter Michelle Branch, country singer and “The Voice” star Blake Shelton, and the iconic singer/actor Reba McEntire.
She was, in fact, the opposite of distant. She was wonderful, the kind of performer you want to sit down and have a beer with after the show and tell her how much you liked her.
Touring in support of her recent album "Stronger," Clarkson’s concert tracked like one of her songs: a slow, tense beginning that gradually finds a groove, followed by some build-up, a hook, a big, inspiring series of climaxes, and goodbye.
That beginning groove arrived in the form of a string of hits stretching back to one of her first, the Max Martin/Dr. Luke produced "Since U Been Gone," which she performed with a rush of emotion. It was early evidence of how different Clarkson is from so many of her contemporaries in her spontaneity and grace, and how, by sheer force of will and a great sense of her strengths as a singer, she's managed to not only survive but prevail over the course of the decade when so many former "Idol" winners have vanished.
Part of it is her spirit. As she welcomed her first guest, Clarkson got blustery when discussing "Idol" peer Grey, whose star never rose the way Clarkson's did. The affection was sincere; you could see it in the way they locked into each others' eyes when singing "When You Believe," the 1998 Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston song from the animated film "Prince of Egypt." These were friends who'd been through the trenches together.
When she introduced Branch, Clarkson seemed thrilled, and as Branch strummed out the chords to "Leave the Pieces," her hit with country duo the Wreckers, the excitement helped light up the oppressive darkness of Nokia Theatre, whose cavernous, unadorned nature can be a hurdle.
Shelton towered over Clarkson as they dueted (yes, Miss Clarkson, this is grammatically correct) on Jason Aldean's country hit "Don't You Want to Stay." She and Shelton have been working together on "The Voice" -- she's been one of his team's coaches -- and to see them stand alongside each other and sing the words to "Don't You Want to Stay" was to empathize with the temptations arising from the married Shelton singing along with someone as magnetic as Clarkson.
Onward Clarkson marched, her band -- two guitars, bass, drums, keyboard and background singers -- working the songs without backing tracks, her set list wonderfully spontaneous, both of which are notable only because so many of her pop singing peers rely in concert on a skeletal band and a rigid set list with little variation from night to night. Clarkson's show was the opposite: It felt like a concert because it was a concert, not a production.
Near the end, Clarkson told a story about singing along to her favorite music in her room, about being inspired while mouthing the words to her favorite Reba McEntire songs, and how that music shaped her. Given the guests who had already surprised us -- "I feel very popular tonight," she had said at one point -- it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but when Clarkson brought her onto the stage, the screeches were as loud as if she'd just introduced Justin Bieber.
Clarkson and McEntire, separated in age but connected by voice, sang something that appeared first on Clarkson's 2005 album "Breakaway," but which the pair recorded for McEntire's "Duets" album -- "Because of You." The song, a devastating indictment that Clarkson wrote when she was 16 about her parents' divorce, mentions pain, heartbreak and death, and doesn't offer much in the way of hope. It's not, in fact, a song that her label wanted her to record.
But as is often the case with Clarkson, she won the argument, and proved her doubters wrong. As evidenced by Tuesday's show, she's getting pretty good at that.
-- Randall Roberts @liledit
Photo: Kelly Clarkson performs at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live as part of her "Stronger" tour on April 3, 2012. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times