I got to Kristen Kelly’s acoustic show at Bourbon Jack’s late Thursday night, delayed by some unexpected traffic, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t get a good feel for her music or how her voice translated live.
It’s nice to be wrong, once in a while. Kelly’s powerful voice filled the crowded honky-tonk roadhouse in Kent and I immediately rejoiced: She wasn’t just another boring product of Music Row and she could actually sing live.
In fact, her voice did its best to overpower the PA, which at times gave her an unnatural harshness. But those are small complaints. Kelly proved just how long she’s been on the road with her easy, friendly banter between numbers and the confident way she belted out tunes such as Koko Taylor’s “Voodoo Woman.”
Kelly’s voice seems best suited for a full band and a large arena, which has been the norm for her recently as she’s spent time on tour with Brad Paisley, Gary Allen, Rascal Flatts and Sheryl Crow, among others. She has excellent vocal control but much like many of country music’s best divas, Kelly seems most at home belting, and it was clear that two backing guitarists could not hope to contain her. Still, the set-up left little to hide behind and Kelly didn’t fail to deliver.
Her best songs, not surprisingly, were her two most recent singles off her self-titled EP for Arista Nashville. “Ex-Old Man” had the sort of light, summery vibe that a lot of country music has skewed toward in recent years. The recording is already stripped down so the acoustic arrangement worked nicely and got the crowd singing and dancing along.
Kelly’s most impressive achievement was her second single, “He Loves To Make Me Cry,” about a man who enjoys pampering his lover. Her soulful rendition Thursday was nearly the same as the EP version — that is to say, nearly flawless — and had many pulling their partners close for a slow dance.
Kelly has been diligently grinding away toward bigger success for years. She’s got the vocal chops, the personality, and though it shouldn’t be important, the looks as well.
With her debut full-length dropping (most likely next year), Thursday night might have been the last time Washington fans get a chance to see Kelly in such an intimate setting. She’s a rising star and one to watch.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails