By Mark Guarino
Judging by the sagging careers of Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, being crowned an “American Idol” carries with it the curse of being a short-term curiosity with long-term irrelevancy.
Unless your name is Kelly Clarkson. The 25-year-old Texas native became the television contest’s inaugural winner in 2002 and since then managed to not just distance herself from the franchise, but to launch a career that is her own. These days, she is taking great pains to demonstrate she doesn’t work through a puppeteer’s strings. Last summer, in a highly public feud, she fired her management company and minced words with label boss Clive Davis over the direction of “My December” (RCA), her third album. The result was twofold: Her arena tour was canceled (originally planned at the Allstate Arena) and she earned a reputation as a feisty diva, answerable to no one’s manipulations but her own.
At a downsized but sold-out tour stop at the Chicago Theatre Thursday, Clarkson was not singing pop ballads or R&B covers. Instead, on songs from her new album, she embodied the psychologically dark arena rock of Amy Lee, the lead singer of Evanescence. Backed by a seven-member band that included two back-up singers, Clarkson demonstrated she has a serious interest in arena rock, from the big chorus waves of “Hole” to the less immediate but darker “Maybe.” Although none of the new songs had the thunderous power of AC/DC — the band she referenced twice, starting her show on the heels of “Shook Me All Night Long” and dropping riffs from “Back in Black” into “Miss Independent” — they held their own. It is obvious Clarkson does not possess the swagger or irreverence of a tried and true rocker, but as a first-rate vocal stylist, she can sing the part with conviction.
For someone who was launched into the public eye through a glossy television talent contest, Clarkson’s 75-minute, 18-song set was stripped down to just a band setting — no video screens, no costume changes, minimal flash. Her TV show peers were adept at choosing material that mimicked maturity beyond their years, yet Clarkson was more truthfully invested in her songs. She fully owned the gospel soul of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” while later, on the reflective “Sober,” she delivered lyrics relating to alcohol abuse with poignancy.
Yet her greatest role is still cheerleading the crowd. She said, “jump” and they followed on sunny guitar pop like “One Minute” and “Gone.” Clarkson’s cheerful persona hinges on the strength of her songs — which became painfully obvious when it came time to sing “Chivas,” a song she confessed having written on cocktail napkins and sounded just as wet.
The night ended with the undeniably catchy “Since U Been Gone.” Towards the end, Clarkson pulled up two fans and handed them the microphone and lead vocal duties. On her stage, everyone’s an idol.