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Clay soars, Kelly rushes

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published February 28, 2004

TAMPA - Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken followed starmaking turns on American Idol with top-selling singles and albums. Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum, they tested whether their talents could resonate beyond the confines of the TV screen.

It wasn't presented to be a competition, but come on - these two got their careers from a competition. And while Clarkson was the first American Idol champion, Aiken - the second-season runnerup - easily stole the show.

The co-headliners followed opening act The Neu Sisters with separate sets, except for a show-capping duet of Journey's Open Arms. They alternate the opening and closing slots each night.

Clarkson was first up Friday, and her set played nothing like a true headlining gig. Instead, it was largely rushed and graceless.

A ponytailed Clarkson, while in good voice, sang with little passion and even seemed distracted. She steamrolled through most of her album Thankful like she was in a Fear Factor challenge, with barely a breath between songs.

Her delivery was largely uninspired, improving only a little with her set closers: The Idol signature A Moment Like This and her hit single Miss Independent. She sang them in a T-shirt that read "Clay Rocks" - ultimately her one resonating statement of the night.

Aiken ran right off with the show, dramatically appearing from the back of the arena to lead the band through a cover of Mr. Mister's 1980s hit Kyrie, rousing the crowd of 19,823. All night, he was charismatic and assured. Unlike Clarkson, he seemed completely at home onstage.

True, Aiken's smaller-than-life appearance was only magnified - or is that minimized - by the arena around him.

When Aiken sang I Will Carry You off his album Measure of a Man, one had to wonder: Clay, just exactly whom could you possibly carry? Mini Me? Whitney Houston?

It's too bad some of Aiken's material isn't better: The cheesy verses of I Survived You were indistinguishable from a Jack Black parody. But darned if Aiken - no doubt a fan of the word "darned" - didn't preach it like it was gospel, and darned if the crowd didn't buy every syllable.

Aiken closed by aping Prince - come to think of it, there's a guy he could carry - with a cover of When Doves Cry.

Few sights on earth could be stranger than Aiken dancing amorously with a lovely backup singer, crooning to her "the sweat of your body covers me . . . can you picture this?"

She's can't, we can't and Clay can't, but he knows it, and that makes him immensely appealing.

He's in on the joke, but his talent is serious, and Friday he seemed every inch the star. As for Clarkson - how about From Justin to Kelly II?

[Last modified February 28, 2004, 01:15:03]

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