(Hammond, IN - The Venue March 10, 2012) As we've begun to learn from a sprouting assortment of television shows, the world is full of gifted singers whose instrument may be staggering from a scientific viewpoint. However, what differentiates a technically good singer from a great one is how much of their soul they exude in their performance. Kelly Clarkson isn't just one of the best singers from a methodological perspective, but from a soulful one as well. If you think you know her from the songs on the radio and her award show performances, then you have another thing coming because in concert her shows take on implausible dimensions of candor as she takes her audience on a tidal wave of emotions. She doesn't simply direct and tells stories to the crowd but pulls them into the middle of the hurricane where the pain and euphoria are experienced hand-in-hand. She delivers self-belief arms-to-the-air anthems that are wholly catching and downright astonishing. It's like being taken to a safe and secure place where you're certain to come through a rehabilitated person on the other end.
Despite concert tours by Van Halen, the reunited Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen and Roger Waters in 2012, let me state that the Kelly Clarkson and Matt Nathanson package currently touring is one of the best of the year. Nathanson warms up the crowd while Clarkson headlines for an evening of high octane soul searching. On their tour stop at The Venue in Hammond, Indiana both acts were in top notch form. Those who came to see Clarkson alone received a gift in the form of Matt Nathanson. Along with Will Hoge, Michael Franti and Butch Walker, his club performances are not to be missed and when chosen to open for another artist, they're the ultimate secret weapon. Nathanson's all-too-short forty-five minute set was full of deceptively sunny songs that find middle ground between the pop and rock spectrum. He's as comfortable in a coffee house as he is in an arena and could win over any crowd, a rare feat I've only seen a few other artists be capable of. Nathanson took to the stage not as an opener but as a musician set out to make a bond with each and every member of the audience. He has this uncanny ability to make a slight vocal infliction that takes the song from simplicity to surreal as he did on "Gone". His in-between song banter was more than engaging but entered a realm of intimacy. He was clever, charming and well
himself. Even a jaded soul would have smiled at that charisma that exploded off the stage. He took the animated banter and it flowed over into his performances. His latest single "Run" oozed sexiness, the cover of "Laid" had everyone on their feet and on "Faster" his hard work paid off as the sold-out crowd excitedly played along with him in a clapping game that made everyone stand up and take notice. Two particular songs reached a holy realm; "Room @ the End of the World" and "Come on Get Higher". On "Room" his vocal was searing with Nathanson fully throwing himself into the song vocally and playing the hell out of his guitar. Those fortunate enough to watch it witnessed someone not seeking fame and success so much as an artist sharing something philosophical. Watching him made you realize that the world would be a better place if all art was as endearing and sincere as his songs and albums. Matt Nathanson is a gift from Kelly Clarkson to her fans as his opening set will seduce anyone fortunate enough to see it and you will walk away more than merely entertained but with another music artist you will want to follow until the end of your days. Kelly Clarkson and Matt Nathanson both take to the stage every night swinging hard with slices of hard bitter truths that they manage to discern a hidden silver lining from elevated the crowd in the process.
Kelly Clarkson's ninety-minute set opened with "Dark Side", the upcoming third single from Stronger. A see-through drape covered the stage with projected headlines that she's had to battle over the course of her career including "Fat" and "Still Single at 29". While it's startling to see these phrases and words on such a large space, it highlights the ludicrousness of our media. We should be heralding her openness, the way she puts her heart into her music, her divine inner beauty and the empirical joy she brings to millions. Sadly the focus is often on things that are wholly inconsequential, but somehow she rises above and beyond with every record and performance. Right after the opening, she offered up devastating double knock-out of "Behind Hazel Eyes" and Since You've Been Gone"; the latter of which began with an underground throbbing bass line which evoked the Strokes at their best before the band launched into another stratosphere for the chorus. It's unusual to see someone wallop their audience with two mega hits back-to-back but Clarkson is more than an performer but a artist who knows her audience and isn't afraid to take chances. She took chances over the 19-song set that were more than charming but compelling. In short, Clarkson weaved a spell on the sold-out crowd.
The show ranged from surprisingly effective new songs, rearranged classics and a smattering of carefully chosen and invigorating covers. Her latest album, Stronger was well represented and its song selection has expanded since the tour began in February. "Einstein" was done acoustically showcasing the powerhouse vocal delivery and breaking the song down to its most fundamental aspects with a dirty groove to boot. "You Love Me" which she referred to as her favorite song she has written to date and was unflinchingly earnest in concert. "I Forgive You" had the crowd singing along immediately. It didn't stand out to me on the record, but there were more teeth to it in concert. Many may dismiss Clarkson's albums because of how they are constructed with a bounty of outside writers and producers. However, she has a hand in choosing the songs, the arrangements and she infuses her own heart and personality into the songs. Take any track on Stronger and have someone else sing it and it doesn't have the same effect. Many of the tracks may not work at all but with Clarkson's pipes behind the songs, she brings the words and arrangements to life with the instrument that is her voice.
There are usually two types of artists in the world; those that play to their diehards and those who don't. Clarkson never tours with the same repertoire twice. The arrangements are diverse, sturdy, inventive and above all else daring. She never takes her crowd so far that she alienates them but hypnotizes and challenges them. "Heavy in Your Arms" found her in the crowd belting out the Florence + the Machine song with unhinged zeal. Each and every performance is like hearing these songs for the first time. She holds nothing back and she isn't afraid to let it all hang out for her fans. While some artists retreat from profound emotions, she collides with them head-on. Every show has a fan request section, a new and different song that is not rehearsed until the day of the show. A music lover first and foremost, Clarkson doesn't so much come off as a star but one of us, with the Mount Rushmore of singing pipes. Paramore's "The Only Exception" was the evening's choice and it was delivered in an acoustic arrangement that suited the song. The spare piano arrangement of Carrie Underwood's "I Know You Won't" tugged at your heart in a fully assured vocal performance as did "Because of You" (which she declared was "about the cycle of family") and "Don't You Wanna Stay" (with Jason Aldean's vocals dropped in and his image on silhouette) was a massive crowd pleaser. "Already Gone" was a revelation in its chamber arrangement with seven backing vocalists carrying the first part of the song that showed the song in a more fluid and organic arrangement that is infinitely superior to the album cut. "Never Again" was dialed back to just a piano and her vocal once again having her rely on passion instead of bombast to get her point across. My December has become a cult record for her most fervent fans. Her performance of "Sober" from her 2009 Chicago stop stands as one of the greatest single song performances I've seen in the last decade. The unreleased "You Still Won't Know What It's Like" was hauntingly poignant while the perfect back-to-back pairing of "Mr. Know It All" and "Miss Independent" capped the evening in a thrilling finale. Clarkson is in need of a career defining live album from multiple tours. It should be more than a souvenir but a showcase so the naysayers can hear her with their hearts and not their heads. She plays to the fans first and foremost and from there the devotion, grow, spreads and more and more people come to realize there is more to her than meets the eye.
Appearances can be deceiving and as Kelly Clarkson proved; her tightly constructed set pulled her fans nearer. She makes herself endearing to them and ventures into a deeply personal realm few others dare to. The greatest gift an artist can ever give their audience is something real and tangible to contemplate. This is what differentiates Clarkson from others who have made their mark on the reality TV circuit. She throws herself into the songs and whether or not she wrote the song, you walk away feeling she has shared a piece of herself in the process. This is a near unattainable feat yet she does it marvelously. You believe each and every word that escapes her lips. She captures lightning in the bottle over and over again with what appears to be relatively ease by providing such a surge of emotions and euphoria, one can only hope her audience does the same for her. As she sung "Breakaway" it became evident that the song was bigger than her or anyone in the room with its towering arms-to-the-air chorus. Her music uncovers strength from tumultuous turmoil. The fire and desperation that runs through Clarkson's veins is channeled into the performance. Anyone who witnessed the jolting "My Life Would Suck Without You" and the wonderfully hot-blooded anthem "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" knows there is something therapeutic about a physical release that only an engaged concert performance like this one can bring. Seeing Kelly Clarkson in concert is akin to sharing an intimate and revealing evening with her where despondency and dreams are shared side-by-side. People may have walked in thinking they knew who Kelly Clarkson was, but left knowing her on a much deeper and personal level.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter