A love letter to pop music was belted from the diaphragms of some seriously talented, fun-loving musicians Tuesday night at Ak-Chin Pavilion.
Arizona welcomed America’s sweetheart, the original American Idol, and very pregnant Kelly Clarkson as well as Pentatonix, who won The Sing-Off a cappella competition in 2011 on NBC, blogger-loved Eric Hutchinson and Indie Music Channel darling Abi Ann.
It’s been three years since Clarkson headlined a solo tour. Since her early career meant touring on an annual basis, this probably felt like a lifetime for her. The singer did admit that her last pregnancy made it difficult to tour, but that she hopes her impending pregnancy will be more accommodating to being a canonized game show goddess of music.
The thing about pop music that needs to be said before going any further is that it carries a stereotype of being over-processed, Army ration-tight music delivered by properly coordinated drones who are molded to spoon you trendy trash for cash. There are probably some algorithms and case studies that can prove that right, but last night’s concert wasn’t about that type of pop music. Last night’s pop music was about the music. It was about making people feel good with those cutesy, tight, sometimes over-processed songs, but it was also about celebrating the singers who are truly talented vessels for these sound bites.
Kelly Clarkson’s accessibility that launched her career on American Idol and beyond is still there — baby bump and all. She performed barefoot and squealed excitedly about a flattering selfie, asking the fan to post it on Twitter so she could steal it. Clarkson also indulged a somewhat disarming, yet charming habit of dictating whatever crossed her mind. This included interrupting Pentatonix’s Kirstie Maldonado mid-verse during “Heartbeat Song” to compliment her (admittedly adorable) sparkly heels. There’s never a feeling that Clarkson is breaking character when she does this, though. Even when she twice mangled the lyrics of the title track on her new album, Piece By Piece, she blubbered through her lips and sweetly apologized to her musical director Jason Halbert (who was accompanying her on piano) as if they were just in rehearsal and didn’t have an estimated 20,000 soggy-bottomed fans enraptured. She blamed hormones and pregnancy brain. We’ll give her a pass, too. It’s hard to hate. Especially because she admitted that when she was pregnant with her now-8-month-old daughter, River Rose, she vomited a lot on tour. Now, she says, she just cries a lot. So, be nice.
The set list leaned heavily on her new, seventh album as well as her six-time platinum Breakaway from 2004. Clarkson’s favorite song of the night, “Take You High,” had her reveling in the EDM-curious sound on Piece By Piece. It’s an interesting new challenge to her stronger-than-ever pipes. For anyone who thought being pregnant meant shortness of breath, it didn’t phase Clarkson’s performance by one inhale. She was downright incredible. Her pipes. Those pipes.
A starring group of performers who weren’t on the bill were Clarkson’s three backup singers. They looked hilariously polite while singing “dumb plus dumb equals you” with their neutral sway during “Einstein,” and it was great to see them let loose when they took center stage for the first encore performance — a cover of “Bang Bang” sans Kelly (for most of it).
It’s time to talk about the soulful and Paul Simon-esque ball of songwriting prowess dressed in a powder blue suit that is Eric Hutchinson. Fans who saw Clarkson on tour in 2009 and ’10 are probably already familiar with Hutchinson, who is a veteran tour mate for the artist.
Hutchinson, like Pentatonix and Clarkson, rose to fame with the help of pop culture. His first record deal fell through before his album could be released. However, when he finally dropped the album independently, it was attention from the likes of Perez Hilton that got people listening. This story has a happy ending. He was scooped up by Warner Bros. Records shortly thereafter.
Everything about Eric Hutchinson pops. His songs are sticky, his energy is contagious and his personality is witty and confident. Even if you’re rubber and he’s glue, it’s his lungs that’ll really get to you. Similar to Paul McCartney or Billy Joel, he can be vanilla one minute and then pull a rich, soulful voice from somewhere deep inside his bone-y, always bouncing frame.
Following Hutchinson was Pentatonix, which sired very high-pitched screams from the crowd. The audience was so interested in praising the group’s entrance to the stage that it was difficult to make out the first 20 seconds of the set list. For a group that doesn’t do much, physically, while on stage, Pentatonix is a must-see performance. There’s a depth that gets lost in the recordings, compared with what happened at Tuesday’s concert. The appeal of a cappella is that it’s pure human noise, yet somehow it feels superhuman. The crowd definitely had Pentatonix’s number. Even though the group urged the screaming audience to sing along, there was some apprehension or maybe just awe that brought a television-screen-like veil between the “viewers” and artists onstage. The highlight of their set, in addition to Mitch Grassi’s goosebump-inducing tenor wails, were covers of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and Imogen Heap’s “Aha!” The group also performed original tracks “Can’t Sleep Love” and “On My Way Home” to, you guessed it, screams of approval.
Last night: Kelly Clarkson, Pentatonix, Eric Hutchinson and Abi Ann at Ak-Chin Pavilion
The crowd: American idolizers; game show watchers; people who have used their phones as voting vessels; “you at home”-ers
Overheard: Nothing really topped the weird tangents Clarkson got herself into, followed by lamenting that she usually has to hear herself say non-PC things on YouTube the morning after a show.
Bias: I’m not a devoted Kelly Clarkson fan; I listened to German metal on my way to her concert. However, I am a fan of people who can sympathize with my constant craving for ice cream, pickles and watermelon. I also think she’s a total badass with an incredible voice.
“Better Than Revenge” (Taylor Swift cover)
“Cage Without a Key”
“Your Side of Town”
“Love Like You”
“Watching You Watch Him”
“Rock & Roll”
“You Don’t Have to Believe Me” (With some Naughty By Nature asides)
“OK, It’s All Right With Me”
“A Little More”
“Shake It Off” (Partial Taylor Swift cover)
“Tell the World”
“Problem” (Ariana Grande)
“Telephone” (Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce)
“Rather Be” (Clean Bandit)
“Can’t Sleep Love”
“Aha!” (Imogen Heap)
Michael Jackson Medley (featuring a few verses pulled from 19 songs: “One More Chance,” “ABC,” “I’ll Be There,” “Don’t Stop,” “Rock With You,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something’,” “Human Nature,” “Thriller,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dirty Diana,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black or White,” “The World,” “Will You Be There”)
“On My Way”
“Dance With Me” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“My Life Would Suck Without You” (All I Ever Wanted, 2009)
“Catch My Breath” (Greatest Hits – Chapter One, 2012)
“Nostalgic” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“Mr. Know-It-All” (Stronger, 2011)
“Invincible” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“Piece By Piece” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“Because of You” (Breakaway, 2004)
“Breakaway” (Breakaway, 2004)
“Tightrope” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“Take You High” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“Behind These Hazel Eyes” (Breakaway, 2004)
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Guest Performance: Jennifer Waris — “Something in the Water” (Carrie Underwood cover)
“The Heart Wants What It Wants” (Selena Gomez cover)
“Heartbeat Song feat. Pentatonix” (Piece By Piece, 2015)
“Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson cover)
“Walk Away” (Breakaway, 2004)
“Bang Bang” (Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj cover)
“Miss Independent” (Thankful, 2003)
“Since U Been Gone” (Breakaway, 2004)
Correction, 8/26/2015, s:45 p.m.: This article originally referred to Pentatonix's Kirstie Maldonado as Kristen Yose.