Kelly Clarkson - Manchester Apollo

Almost two years to the day since an all-conquering show at the MEN Arena, Kelly Clarkson returns to Manchester for the first of two nights at the significantly smaller Apollo. Testament indeed to that now infamously difficult third album, the ‘My December’ tour calls at theatres rather than the enormodomes. Thing is, despite the promise of an entirely more appealing venue, tonight doesn’t reach the highs of the previous tour. Close to the end of almost three years solid touring of the ubiquitous ‘Breakaway’, that particular live show, propelled by a smarter-than-average band and a jubilant crowd, was nigh on perfect. At the height of her popularity, the American-Idol-winner-who-it-wasn’t-too-embarrassing-to-like was earning her stripes. In 2008 it seems that there is clearly ground for Kelly Clarkson to make up … even if it’s of a commercial, rather than artistic, nature.

On one level, the good bits tonight are just storming, and as explosively stirring as anything I’ve seen on a live stage these past few months. Opener ‘One Minute’ ploughs straight into ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’; it’s a kinetic kick-off. The band, with a few personnel changes, are febrile and ferocious and, aided by a soundman whose preference for volume over absolute clarity at least adds spice to proceedings (though a bit less bass and a bit more snare would have helped), there’s potential for thrills. But it’s the elements that dilute what she got so right two years ago that deflate the event as a whole. The lame attempt at staging detracts; rather than the no-risk, no-frills simplicity of the last tour, this time there’s a set based on the ‘MD’ album cover that looks cheap and nasty, a centre acoustic section in which Vegas curtains drop, shielding the stage and popping the band way up front. And a final third in which the curtain rises to reveal a re-worked Industrial Rock Backdrop, all black, steel and white lights. Frankly, it’s very American, very unnecessary and bloody distracting. To have caught these musicians post-gig, playing for love in some sweaty dive would have been a joy, but to see them arsing about in front of some shallow choreography is poor. Add to that the new addition of a couple of anonymous female backing singers who really aren’t needed (or audible) and the heart starts to sink a bit. You sense youthful vigour being choked by The Machine.

All that aside, the music is rather fine. ‘My December’ is an intelligent piece of scabrous, but not entirely un-commercial, rock. It burns darker than ‘Breakaway’ and all credit to Kelly Clarkson for taking the creative reins and pissing off her record company. (Hey, let’s not forget, they weren’t exactly dancing on the tables when they were trying to block its release. God knows how they feel now that it turns out their hunch was right and nobody bought it after all.) As she herself says “It’s not exactly Metallica.” Slight shame that it’s mightier moments are left on the bench tonight : no ‘Hole’ with it’s Sonic Youth snake of a riff or the swaggering ‘Can I Have a Kiss’. The brooding quieter ones (‘Be Still’, ‘Maybe’, a soaring ‘Sober’) punctuate the noise (‘Never Again’, ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’.) ‘Maybe’ astounds – the eventual cue for the band to step in after the hushed, acoustic build-up bringing real drama. A blast of ‘Hear Me’ would have gone down a treat but all of the ‘Breakaway’ hits get an airing. The clatter of ‘Gone’ and ‘Walk Away’ get the place bouncing. A terrific full band take on the title track hits the spot and ‘Because of You’ gets ridiculously sustained applause. The Voice, it must be said, is marvellous. That the following night is postponed due to laryngitis beggars belief.

This time around she continues the smart choice of covers with Patti Griffin’s ‘Up to the Mountain’ and encores with ‘Chivas’ and an inevitable ‘Since U Been Gone’. Something about us being “the best crowd ever” and she’s gone. Not bad. Only … best crowd ever ? Really ? Well, maybe if you were in the bouncing swell downstairs. But for those of us stuck in a section of the circle that seems to think it’s here for Chris de Burgh, the blood starts to boil. £26 and you’re happy to sit there like showroom dummies ? The Curse of the Casual Gig-Goer gathers pace. Talk about draining an atmosphere. So, to the two arseholes sat front row centre, who snapped away like peeping toms on their little digital cameras during the closing uproar of ‘Since U Been Gone’, while everyone around them had the balcony bouncing, I say to you this : stay out of the way and sit at the back next time. You pair of selfish geeks.

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