“This is hard because my sister is here.”
Kelly Clarkson had not even begun to sing the title track from her latest studio album, Piece By Piece, and her emotions were already slipping out of her control.
“Not all of us had great dads or even present dads,” Clarkson continued, her eyes brimming with tears as she addressed a sold-out Gexa Energy Pavilion Sunday night, her first local headlining show in three years. “Both of us [Clarkson and her sister] have severe dad issues, but both of us found real men, real dads. ... I wrote [Piece By Piece] for others who had a low bar.
“I am not gonna get through this song.”
With a glance at Jason Halbert, her long-time musical director, seated at a piano, Clarkson began, and it wasn’t long before she was fighting back sobs, overcome with feeling, struggling to complete each verse, but ultimately prevailing.
An electricity coursed through the crowd, and while the audience was reverently silent, there was an almost palpable feeling of everyone rooting for Clarkson to conquer her old wounds, beat back the tears and finish the song.
It was, in person as on record, the evening’s emotional high point — a riveting display of a performer at her most vulnerable, doubly exposed for being so very near her hometown, ground zero for those still-raw nerves: “I grew up here,” Clarkson half-explained aloud after finishing Piece. “It’s the airport [my father] left.”
Such blunt poignancy underpins even the fluffiest Clarkson songs, but the 33-year-old Fort Worth-born and Burleson-bred pop superstar takes care to leaven the heavier moments with plenty of lighthearted fun.
Having recently revealed she’s expecting her second child with husband Brandon Blackstock — “Pregnancy is an [expletive],” Clarkson cracked at one point — the inaugural American Idol spent 90 minutes traversing her albums, showcasing the new material (songs like Dance With Me, Nostalgic and Invincible) as well as her multi-platinum hits: My Life Would Suck Without You, Behind These Hazel Eyes, Walk Away and Miss Independent were all aired out.
With her band and back-up singers arrayed around her, and a restless stage design — a tri-fold series of video screens forever turning inside out or outside in provided a visually intriguing backdrop — Clarkson worked to balance the extremes of her catalog, underscoring how essential it is to allow yourself a moment to feel free amid the unburdening of your soul.
Kelly Clarkson may aim squarely at the middle of the pop marketplace — it’s how she’s endured through 15 years of tumult and fragmentation, selling 25 million albums worldwide to date — but it’s enough to know she’s also capable of breathtaking nuance and exquisite vulnerability.
Put another way: What looks like McDonald’s can occasionally serve up a Michelin-starred meal.
Sunday was a homecoming of sorts for another locally grown act as well — Clarkson’s opening act Pentatonix, three-fifths of whom originally hail from the Arlington area.
The five-member acapella group needed little more than microphones and a somewhat odd set of bleachers adorned with LED lights situated in the center of the stage. (They rejoined Clarkson near the climax of her set, offering acappella backing for her hit single Heartbeat Song.)
Running through their wildly popular reworkings of Top 40 hits like Cheerleader, Telephone and Problem, the quintet’s intricate latticework of voices was impressive and impossibly limber.