OAKLAND — Kelly Clarkson‘s excitement about returning to the stage was evident within minutes of her entrance at Oracle Arena. The pop star donned an ear to ear smile as she looked out over the Bay Area crowd. Thursday’s show was the opening night of her “Meaning Of Life Tour,” which proved to be one of her most mature, unpredictable and musically diverse tours of her career.
“It’s been three years since I was last on the road,” Clarkson exclaimed. “I was busy having babies!”
As the lights dimmed, an introductory video showed a compilation of Clarkson’s music videos and albums going in reverse chronological order, fading to black on Clarkson’s debut, Thankful. Clarkson sang an a cappella version of her debut first single, “A Moment Like This,” at center stage in a nod to her American Idol roots. It’s a song Clarkson had all but retired from her live set, but this revival felt fresh and dramatic with the accompaniment of a single spotlight.
The Texas-born singer dove headfirst into a retro-soul-influenced portion of material, in the vein of her most recent album, Meaning of Life. The weighty mid-tempo title track served as a fitting open of the show to come. Clarkson then moved to sassy kiss-off jams, “Walk Away” and “Love So Soft,” both of which had varied arrangements to maximize Clarkson’s adept band. Flanked by a full backline, including a horn section and a quartet of vocalists, Clarkson’s commanding vocals and easygoing sensibility would be the clear star of the evening.
“I have like four jobs, so I’m always extra appreciative when I get to do this one,” joked Clarkson about her work as a touring musician, The Voice judge and daytime talk host.
Kelly Clarkson capped off the soul portion of the set in grand style with “Whole Lotta Woman,” a fun and bouncy rock-soul fusion that sizzled. It was one of the best opportunities she had to play off her supremely talented backing singers.
After a short interlude and costume change, she returned to deliver a pair of her biggest original hits from her smash album Breakaway. “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Breakaway” elicited two of the biggest singalongs of the night from the crowd. Clarkson’s stage production was simple, but effective. A wide stage with raised platforms at each side gave her the opportunity to get close to fans in the bowl, while a catwalk stretched to the center of the arena and there was a full-size video screen at the back of the stage.
The pace slowed as Clarkson unveiled a new arrangement of one of her most personal ballads, “Piece by Piece,” a song relating her relationship with her own father to the improved bond between her husband and her own daughter. Clarkson was still visibly moved by the song lyrics, even quipping that she still had to “ride the struggle bus” when the song reached its turning point in the third verse.
“A lot of times you write these songs in the studio when you need to get something out, but then you have to keep performing them live,” she said.
Clarkson next focused on deeper cuts like “Just Missed The Train,” “Beautiful Disaster,” “Good Goes the Bye” and “Sober,” with the latter being one of her finest works off the criminally underrated My December. The concert took a turn for the unexpected at around the halfway point when she started a Facebook livestream for a pseudo-concert talk show, “Minute and a Glass of Wine.” Clarkson explained that she plans to stream live every night of this tour. With the debut of her new daytime talkshow coming in September, Clarkson wanted to take that model and bring it to the stage as a way of preparing and getting comfortable for her new role. What happens during ‘Minute’ will be different every night and will include a song, a guest or a combination of the two.
In Oakland, Clarkson began by covering Miranda Lambert ballad “Tin Man” before bringing a guest Allen Pierce, a nurse and one of the first responders at the Camp Fire disaster in Paradise, whom she interviewed about his experiences. It was a risky move to slow the momentum of an arena pop show for an extended dialogue segment, but the move paid dividends. Clarkson was an entertaining and engaging host. Her stage banter felt familiar and personal.
Clarkson proceeded to bring one of her backing vocalists, a contestant from season 14 of The Voice, to the forefront to sing power ballad “Run, Run, Run” with her. Clarkson joked that she nearly dropped “Move You” from the setlist before her sister pleaded for it to stay.
Clarkson then turned up the energy to close out the main portion of her set with a trio of hits, including the bop “My Life Would Suck Without You,” “Heat” and “Heartbeat Song.” She brought Kelsea Ballerini (who preceded Clarkson with a batch of vibrant jams) and opener Brynn Cartelli (a former contestant on The Voice) back to the stage for a rousing rendition of “Miss Independent,” a live staple that is lightyears superior to its recorded counterpart.
For the encore, Clarkson was raised high on an elevated platform to sing a pair of songs from musicals: “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton and “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman. The performances were the unexpected highlight of the night with Clarkson soaring both literally and figuratively above the audience. Her vocals were compelling and pitch-perfect making for a show-stopping moment.
“Stronger” and “Since U Been Gone,” concluded the show with fans singing, jumping and dancing in the aisles.
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.