Kelly Clarkson and fans turn purgatory into a rockin' party

Kelly Clarkson and fans turn purgatory into a rockin' party
Kelly Clarkson performing in New York in October. (Scott Gries / Getty Images)
A grimy fog crept through Universal City on Sunday evening just before Kelly Clarkson took the stage at the Gibson Amphitheatre. No buzzing crowd of latecomers rushed in from the parking garages; a lone scalper tried to hawk his tickets for $10. The will-call ticket line was devoid of VIPs -- they were all downtown at the American Music Awards, watching this year's bestselling stars glad hand each other. The scene out front at a show is rarely this quiet. So this was what pop purgatory looked like.
Kelly Clarkson hit: A review in Tuesday's Calendar section of Kelly Clarkson's concert at Gibson Amphitheatre referred to "Miss Independent" as "her first big hit." That 2003 Top 10 single was preceded by "A Moment Like This," which reached No. 1 in 2002. —

Inside the building, though, something bright and hopeful was happening. The lobby buzzed with young women thrilled to be so close to Clarkson. Moms with tweens, twentysomethings in perfumed packs, slightly older ladies dragging along dutiful dates zoomed toward their seats, eager for Clarkson to emerge.

The scrim lifted to show Clarkson in the red gown she wore on the cover of her latest album, "My December." That dress soon fell away to reveal pants and a satin top more suitable for rocking out. For the next hour and a half, that's what she determinedly did. Her affable patter suggested no bitterness about the year she's had, but on nearly every song, she roared until it seemed her lungs would burst. The pop machine may have temporarily exiled Clarkson; she and her fans turned purgatory into a party.

A superstar after selling an estimated 11 million copies of her second album, "Breakaway," the first-year "American Idol" winner took a chance with "My December," writing much of the material and going in a darker, harder direction. It paid off in thorns.

She fought publicly with her record label, saw a summer stadium tour go bust, fired one manager, hired another (Narvel Blackstock, the husband of her current mentor, Reba McEntire) and endured a round of shaming at the hands of music industry pundits. Eventually she apologized "to those whom I have done disservice," especially RCA Records President and legendary record man Clive Davis. She'll certainly take note of Davis' advice on her next project.

For now, though, there's this album, full of songs she co-wrote and clearly loves to perform. Sunday she relished them, though her fans sang along much more heartily with her older hits.

Performing with a seven-piece, guitar-dominated band on a no-frills stage, with no costume changes, dancers or stripper poles (her two backing vocalists moved modestly, and one sometimes played guitar), Clarkson didn't bother with rock poses, though she did mention she felt sweaty at the show's end. She laughed her way through lighter-hearted songs such as "Chivas," a dumpee's revenge written on a cocktail napkin, and pushed her thunderous alto until it nearly tore on vengeful rippers like "Never Again" and "Gone."

After singing "Hole," a brutally confessional song about depression that she said she finished in 10 minutes after hearing her co-writer's initial track, she almost sighed. "I absolutely love rock music," she said. "I mean, I'm pop, obviously, but I like the influence." The qualifier was a sad sign from a woman whose hits are mostly about independence and tough self-love. But Clarkson's a trouper, with an adaptable voice and a famously strife-ridden family history that's helped her learn how to reconcile people in crisis. It must feel necessary for her to back-burner her beloved rock, though even the "pop" hits aimed for explosions Sunday.

The night's ballads showed where Clarkson can go next, if she likes. "Be Still," one of the overlooked gems from "My December," was a swirling lullaby that communicated intimacy without any histrionics. A cover of the Patty Griffin song "Up From the Mountain" had Clarkson testifying gospel style. The ground between these songs is where Clarkson might go if she opts to blend pop and country next.

She still seemed disinclined (good-naturedly so, if that's possible) to dive back into the shiny pop territory where she's found her strongest commercial success. Of course, she delivered her big singles, delighting in the blissful fan reaction to anthems like "Behind These Hazel Eyes."

Yet she and her band, several of whom were key players on "My December," also poked a pin into "Miss Independent," her first big hit, by mashing it up with the classic-rock staples "Back in Black" and "Whole Lotta Love." And "Since U Been Gone," a perfectly constructed pop-machine classic and Clarkson's biggest single by far, was quickly dispatched as the final encore.

Clarkson made it clear to her fans that she knew how much such hits meant to them. So many female voices shouting their words echoed the fact that, just like the songs Clarkson wrote for "My December," these are empowerment anthems.

That's the thread that runs through Clarkson's recording career: Her voice helps other women gain the courage to fight back, if only in their fantasies. Now that she's tasted blood in a real-life battle -- and emerged with her grace intact -- we can only wait to see what she'll do next to get those voices raised.