April 4th, 2012, 1:55 pm · · posted by BEN WENER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Said this before and I’m sure there will be reason to say it many times more as the years and albums roll on: Kelly Clarkson is a simply stunning singer, arguably the strongest to be found in any genre.
Céline Dion can hit the same notes but her passion is vapid. Mary J. Blige and Adele have all the passion but nowhere near the same range. Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera and Carrie Underwood have the range but not the versatility. But Clarkson, still not even 30 (she crosses that mark April 24), can do it all: layer fierce belting onto a banging dance jam, take a slice of country glop and make it worthy of Etta James, bring believable soul to disposable fluff and vulnerability to hard-bitten rants, and outdo her peers every time.
Tuesday at L.A.’s Nokia Theatre, during a whopper of a show littered with guest stars whose surprise appearances floored the capacity crowd – especially when Blake Shelton turned up to sing Jason Aldean’s part on “Don’t You Wanna Stay” and friend/mentor Reba McEntire joined an encore performance of “Because of You” – Clarkson routinely confounded expectations and effortlessly stole songs from others.
She easily bested the considerable pipes of Florence Welch on a rendition of the English siren’s “Heavy in Your Arms” that proved Clarkson could be a goth-metal queen if she wanted to be. She also owned Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t,” heightening its regret by dialing down the histrionics in a superb piano-and-voice version, inserting riveting runs and aching asides that her fellow American Idol champ would never think to indulge.
Clarkson is just remarkably gifted: her notes soar higher than just about anyone’s, and on virtually every song she sings, yet they never go soft or fade into the ether. They have startling potency no matter how many times you’ve heard her cry out during “Since U Been Gone” or “My Life Would Suck Without You.”Setting aside Annie Lennox as a force all her own – an icon so admired by the young Texan, she deliberately channels her in the syncopated sass of “Walk Away” – Clarkson continues to prove that she’s the most purely powerful female rock voice since the wailing heyday of Pat Benatar and Heart’s Ann Wilson. She makes upstarts like Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Evanescence’s Amy Lee sound puny by comparison.
Moreover, she’s fearless in ways modern pop stars who aren’t Lady Gaga rarely dare. Most, including Gaga, tend to get caught up in production artifice – it’s more important they nail their moves than nuance their performance. (Think Katy Perry or Taylor Swift.) Clarkson’s focus is resolutely on the music. Both her set design and outfits (tight black pants accompanied by an array of sleeveless shirts, most of them spangled and shimmering) ultimately seem like an afterthought.
And she’s nothing if not soul-baring. Tuesday’s show, ostensibly centered on her best album, last October’s Stronger, got off to a boldly autobiographical start with “Dark Side,” in which she wonders who could love her warts and all while being engulfed by a montage of snarky charges leveled against her lately (chiefly that she’s not supermodel slender). It was such a jarring, open, dig-these-scars moment that it almost felt like the performance had begun halfway into the set list.
There was no build-up to the show at all, despite AC/DC on the PA to amp up fans. Instead, Clarkson blasted headlong into demon-exorcising with big hits like “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and the once-ubiquitous “Since U Been Gone,” gained variety with empowered tell-offs like “Einstein” and a dramatic reworking of Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends,” then reached an emotionally devastated pitch with the night’s highlight, a starker arrangement of “Never Again,” from her troubled, much-discussed My December album five years ago. (“Congratulations,” she told fans who cheered when it was mentioned. “You’re the 35 people who bought it.”)
What’s slightly unfortunate is that Clarkson still doesn’t have a completely firm grasp on showmanship. Not that she requires elaborate packaging; adding gimmicks would undermine the purity of her delivery. But two things would help in the future: video screens and some self-editing.
The latter point first: Clarkson is so charmingly real that she can quickly seem as distracted as a 12-year-old, babbling about whatever tangent pops into her head (“I frickin’ hate the gym – who hates the gym?”). I suspect her fans, particularly young ones, love that about her. I find it cute but also a bit of a crutch – she’s better than that, and some minimizing between songs would not only strengthen her show overall, it would probably add time enough for another song (or two).
Her plea on behalf of African orphans, for instance – first with a clip of her work with Houses of Hope Africa, then with the sincere song “You Still Won’t Know What It’s Like” – was convincing enough. Her rambling suggestion that people cough up something for their charity of choice, seeing as they can afford a ticket to her show – that was mild overkill.
Not having any screens, however, was a terrible mistake that made the distance from the back of the room to the stage seem much further than necessary. It’s bound to feel even more removed next week at the former San Diego Sports Arena, but it was especially frustrating here, considering how many friends were brought on stage at this only-in-L.A. celebration, including turns from first-season Idol competitor Tamyra Gray (for a skillful duet on the Whitney & Mariah tune “When You Believe”) and Michelle Branch (who more or less performed her Wreckers’ song “Leave the Pieces” as-is, with Clarkson merely adding occasional harmony).
The crowd went absolutely bonkers when Shelton and McEntire surfaced, and they maintained that enthusiasm when the star roared through one of her finest anthems, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Imagine how much more deafening the response might have been if they actually could have seen the elated expressions on the performers’ faces. Maybe that’s nitpicking, considering how overwhelmingly convincing the rest of Clarkson’s show was. But even the mightiest need to keep honing their craft.
Matt Nathanson, the amiable singer-songwriter who broke through a few years ago with the irresistible love song “Come On Get Higher” and has since forged ahead with his superior current album Modern Love, knew precisely why he was appearing at Nokia: “My job tonight is to fluff you and get you ready for the Kelly Clarkson experience. By the end of the show, I want to see you with your shirt off running through the aisles … enthusiastic for our rock ’n’ roll.”
That didn’t quite happen, though the audience did respond heartily to his hip-swiveling cries throughout a solid opening turn. Cuts like “Run” (his duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles) and “Room at the End of the World” (here including snippets of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”) have the smooth, catchy feel of John Waite or the Goo Goo Dolls, gratefully without the smarminess.
He indulged a cover as well, a fine take on “Laid” by the British group James. But if there’s anything Clarkson could learn from the nearly 40-year-old troubadour, it’s how to engage in amusing banter: Nathanson at his best has the timing of a first-rate Improv comic.
Setlist: Kelly Clarkson at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, April 3, 2012
Main set: Lights-out music: AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long / Dark Side / Behind These Hazel Eyes / Since U Been Gone / You Love Me / Heavy in Your Arms (Florence + the Machine cover) / When You Believe (Whitney Houston & Mariah Carey cover, with Tamyra Gray) / Einstein / Walk Away / Till the World Ends (Britney Spears cover) / Leave the Pieces (Wreckers cover, with Michelle Branch) / I Know You Won’t (Carrie Underwood cover, piano version) / Don’t You Wanna Stay (with Blake Shelton handling the Jason Aldean part) / Let Me Down / I Forgive You / Already Gone / You Still Won’t Know What It’s Like / Breakaway / Mister Know It All > Miss Independent
Encore: Never Again (piano version) / Because of You (with Reba McEntire) / Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) / My Life Would Suck Without You
Matt Nathanson: To the Beat of Our Noisy Hearts / Modern Love / Run / Laid (James cover) / Wedding Dress / Room at the End of the World (with snippets of the Monkees’ Daydream Believer and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody) / Faster / Come On Get Higher
Kelly Clarkson and Matt Nathanson perform again April 10 at Valley View Casino Center, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., in San Diego. Tickets are $35-$69.50. Nathanson also performs April 6 at House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Drive, $22.50.
Photos by Armando Brown, for the Orange County Register.