DURHAM — Kelly Clarkson is nothing if not a dramatist. Here's someone who released an album titled "My December" a few months after turning the ripe old age of 25 - and Tuesday night she came onstage at the Durham Performing Arts Center preceded by a montage of headlines about various struggles ("Fat," "Failure" and such) on the video screens.
Then she proceeded to blast those headlines into irrelevance. Because whatever her drama-queen tendencies, Clarkson can really, really sing, even if it's often hard to tell just how good she is when she has to fight to be heard over some of her backing arrangements.
As the "American Idol" alumnus it's cool to like, Clarkson can pretty much do any style convincingly. Her biggest hits have been up-tempo girl-power rock and dance-leaning pop, but she can also do convincing arena-level bombast of both the rock and country persuasions. Best of all, she's a fabulous torch singer when she turns the volume down.
Tuesday's best moments were when she was accompanied by just piano, especially on a pair of covers - Sara Bareilles' "Gravity" and a soulful reading of Carrie Underwood's "I Know You Won't." At one point during the latter song, a loud male voice rang out from the crowd:
Actually, the crowd was pretty heavily female, gathered to bask in the drama of Clarkson's story. Three of the set's 21 songs had the word "gone" in the title, and another dozen or so centered on some variation of that theme, presented as epic narratives about female trials and tribulations.
Clarkson didn't make anyone wait too long for the big hits, serving up "Behind These Hazel Eyes" and "Since U Been Gone" as the second and third songs in the set. Also present and accounted for were "Breakaway" (still gloriously catchy), "Miss Independent" and, of course, "My Life Would Suck Without You."
The crowd just ate it all up, singing and chanting along on pretty much all the loud ones. Still, it was those quiet songs that hinted at what Clarkson can really do when she's not having to strain to be heard. She's coming to realize that herself.
The encore kicked off with "Never Again," stripped down from the 2007 original version to just voice and piano, and the rage it conveyed was almost chilling. Afterward, Clarkson was perky as ever while drinking in the audience's applause.
"I love that," she said. "I sing that one quiet, and it's even angrier!"
There's a lesson to be learned.
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