WEST ALLIS, Wisconsin — The state- and county-fair circuit is usually reserved for country artists, nostalgia acts or rock stars on their way to being has-beens. There must be something about cow barns, corn dogs and pig races that appeals only to the down-home, dewy-eyed and desperate.
But there Kelly Clarkson was, between the Ferris wheel and the helicopter rides on the Miller Time Main Stage on Saturday. While cover bands elsewhere on the grounds cranked out their renditions of John Mellencamp and Commodores crowd-pleasers, Clarkson commanded the stage like a true star, yet one who seemed perfectly at home in the kind of surroundings that seem quaint to the folks on the coasts but are just fine to the families in flyover land.
After all, despite a platinum, chart-topping album, the Burleson, Texas, native has been able to avoid any outside pressure to turn her into a typical music-biz diva. The Britneys and the Beyoncés (and their wannabes) have followed a road to success that's leaned heavily on producers, stylists and personal trainers. But Clarkson's still first and foremost a singer — a pretty one with a body that on most of the planet is called "normal" — one who feels perfectly at home performing her biggest hits while the smells of barbecue and roasted corn on the cob waft through the audience.
Lest we paint the wrong picture, there was nothing small-town about the performance or audience. Eleven-thousand reserved seats were snatched up in three hours after they became available at 8 a.m. on show day, and more than 1,000 other fans crowded in the remaining unreserved seats for an obstructed-view glimpse of the first "American Idol" champ.
From the girls from as far away as Indiana who camped out since 12:30 a.m. to the 8-year-old who was crying because she feared she wouldn't be able to get a glimpse of the singer, Clarkson clearly made a connection with fans who might love Christina and J. Lo but who don't quite feel like they can relate.
Clarkson herself showed no diva aspirations. When she started the concert just before 9 p.m., she sang the opening strains of her latest single, "Low" (see "A New 'Low' For Kelly Clarkson As She Seeks Out Revenge"), from offstage, but that was about it for the drama.
She emerged into the spotlight wearing a modest red halter top and blue jeans. Sure, she changed "costumes" during the course of the evening, but only once, and then only from the halter into a black T-shirt that read "Kelly, singer," joining the rest of her band, which played the whole show in self-deprecating tops emblazoned with things like "Jason, keys."
There were no special light shows, no backup dancers, no video screens. All of which meant that the songs and Clarkson's performance had to stand on their own, which they did.
From the improvised vocal riffing she did on "Low" to the tender reading of "Some Kind of Miracle" to the power ballad "Just Missed the Train," Clarkson showed that she had the vocal goods — that is, the right balance of feeling and technique — to deliver. The fans definitely appreciated Clarkson's no-frills approach.
With only one album under her belt, Clarkson had to reach into the covers bag to fill her 60-minute set. She rolled out a series of shortened versions of songs by Aretha Franklin, Garth Brooks, Whitney Houston and Aerosmith, and while her version of the latter's "Eat the Rich" was rather confounding, her take on "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" was delivered with a mixture of innocence and understanding that befitted the 21-year-old's voice and public persona.
Clarkson will play another half-dozen state and county fairs between now and October.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.
For a full-length feature on Kelly Clarkson, check out "Kelly Clarkson: Crowd-Surfing Anti-Diva."
And check out her music picks, including Pink, Aerosmith, Eminem and more, on Kelly Clarkson Radio.