As the first winner of “American Idol,” Kelly Clarkson seemed poised for a predictable career — the saccharine nature of the powerhouse TV contest tends to breed a risk-averse approach — but over the past decade she has been anything but. Each album seems to be met with some dramatic twist (canceled tours, musician in-fighting, record label drama, politically charged dust-ups), and still Clarkson continues to reinvent herself musically. With each challenge she has only further ingrained herself into the fabric of mainstream popular music, exhibiting a unique combination of talent and offbeat charm.
2012 has been a year of stability and renewed television success for Clarkson, with a gig starring on ABC’s “Duets,” an appearance on “The Voice” and a stunning rendering of the national anthem in the ceremony preceding Super Bowl XLVI. With an album still in the early writing stages, Clarkson has taken to the road largely on the momentum of her elevated television profile. Monday night at the Hollywood Bowl was a festive, rapidly paced celebration of her career to date with a few unexpected “Duets”-inspired collaborations.
Opening with the undeniable “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Clarkson set a rapid pace early, propelled by a monolithic combination of pulsating keyboards, thudding drums and a warm swell of backing vocals. She stretched her voice to the very top of its range and belted out the choruses with a fervor that persisted throughout the evening. “Behind These Hazel Eyes” — one of Clarkson’s more enduring tracks — was performed with a deft attention to dynamic detail. The verses were restrained but powerfully sung, leaving room for the climactic chorus section to achieve its greatest impact.
Most fans seemed primed for a high-energy set, which Clarkson graciously obliged, whipping rapidly between fast-paced rockers and soulful, elegiac ballads. Midway through the concert, Clarkson was joined by “Duets” contestant Jason Farol for a fiery rendition of “Mercy.” Farol’s verses were swaggering and wholly competent, but he was simply overwhelmed by the multi-octave power that Clarkson exhibited. A cover of Fun’s ubiquitous ode to nightlife debauchery “We Are Young” followed.
Later on, R&B songsmith and fellow “Duets” star John Legend joined Clarkson for a pair of cover tunes — the modern country turned string-laden ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay” and Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me.” The singers’ voices meshed excellently and both seemed giddy to be performing in such a seemingly casual way for a large and attentive audience.
There is simply no denying that Clarkson can flat-out sing, capable of cutting through lyrics with such deft precision that meaning is assigned to even the most mundane of couplets. She consistently embodies the role of a spurned romantic, an outsider who has learned to accept her idiosyncrasies and draw strength from painful past failures. The audience responded wildly to every song in the set, but major hits “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Mr. Know It All” and “Miss Independent,” garnered the most fervent reactions.
After an abbreviated encore, Clarkson graciously thanked the audience — exhibiting a humble sense of appreciation and gratefulness for the privileged position she now enjoys. She’s truly a unique talent, one who seems to speak for a cohort that sees itself on the fringes of social interaction: awkward and searching, but enthusiastic about the things that are to come.
Clarkson will play three dates in New York during her tour: Aug. 17 in Bethel, Aug. 21 in Wantagh and Aug. 29 in Canandaigua.