LOS ANGELES — Are these performers from "American Idol" or "Last Comic Standing"?
By now, everyone knows that Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson "can blow," as Randy Jackson would say. But who knew they were such comedians? As the Independent Tour hit the Staples Center Monday night, Aiken had his fans rolling in the aisles throughout his hour-long set, particularly over a mid-performance cell phone routine.
"I wanna know who all these people are, talking on their phones," he mused. "I mean, you pay all this money ..." With perfect comic timing, he interrupted himself and reached out to a fan a few feet away: "Give me that phone."
Aiken then proceeded to talk to the person on the other end of the line, cracking jokes about the show and imitating her ecstatic screaming. "Here, let's take a picture," he said, holding up the picture phone for other fans to photograph.
He also charmed the crowd with ad-libs. Later in the set, Aiken mentioned being eliminated in an early round of "American Idol" (before voters rescued him in the wild-card round), and the crowd booed. "It's OK, I'm doing fine for myself," he deadpanned. Eventually, his smirk alone garnered laughs. And when he did a few dance moves, hysterics ensued.
But that's not to say he didn't wow the crowd with his singing as well. Clay had plenty of opportunities to show off his pipes, and he started before he'd even taken the stage: He entered by walking from the back of the arena, through the crowd, to the stage while singing his opening number, a cover of Mr. Mister's "Kyrie" that was perfect for his mighty voice.
Dressed in a blue-on-blue tie and shirt combo and a fedora, Clay segued into "Perfect Day" and "I Will Carry You" before crooning another cover, Steven Curtis Chapman's "All About Love."
Although it was his first tour apart from last summer's "American Idol" package trek, Aiken showed the comfort of a stage veteran, interacting with his band and the audience as he seamlessly transitioned from song to song.
And while he was sometimes compared to Barry Manilow on "American Idol," Aiken showed just enough edge to bring Neil Diamond or even Rod Stewart to mind on Monday.
For "Without You," he was joined by backup singer Quiana Parler, a fellow Carolina native Clay met while auditioning for "American Idol." (The song will appear as a duet on Kimberly Locke's upcoming album, which Clay gracefully plugged.)
After getting the crowd on its feet with "Invisible," Aiken slowed it down for an acoustic set of covers, including Sting's "Fields of Gold," Leo Sayer's "When I Need You" and James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind." "This is my favorite part of the show," he said, as if it weren't obvious by his smile.
The final cover in the set was Prince's "When Doves Cry," which was slowed down to a crawl before exploding into a sexy rave-up. The crowd gasped as Clay grinded on one of his backup singers, who responded by yanking his tie and pulling him closer.
For his finale, Clay explained how "The Way" was about not being able to express feelings — and said he's having a hard time saying how thankful he is for his fans. Performing the sing-along was good enough for them.
Kelly, wearing ripped jeans and a black tank top, opened her set playing guitar and singing "Low." "What's up, L.A.?" she followed, holding the "Aaaaay" to segue into her next song, "What's Up Lonely."
After Aiken's antics, the crowd seemed more eager for Kelly to goof around than sing. "Do the lawn mower!" a fan screamed, prompting Kelly to show off the corny dance (she even wiped her forehead as if "mowing" in the summer sun). "That's why I'm still single," she quipped.
The stage was littered with gifts thrown by audience members, and as Clarkson meandered around it, she picked up gifts and commented upon them: "Thanks, but I've got clothes," she said, picking up a scarf. "And I can't put these panties on!" (They must have been left over from Clay's set.)
But the emphasis was always on the music, some of which was performed in renditions markedly different from the album. For "The Trouble With Love Is," Kelly began the song as it is on the LP, but the band suddenly turned it into a techno rendition. And later she described the album version of "Beautiful Disaster" as having "too much production, and I don't like it." She sat on a piano to sing a scaled-down version and then took center stage for a cover of Bette Midler's "Stuff Like That There."
Later, for the title track to Thankful, the video screens on each side of the stage showed slides of a younger Kelly with her friends and family. Although it was a bit like a graduation party or wedding reception, the crowd loved it. "This is what got me here," she said, introducing "A Moment Like This," during which she spent most of the time signing autographs while singing.
For the final number, Kelly began Journey's "Open Arms" — and just as some audience members started heading out to the parking lot, they were stopped suddenly by the voice of Clay, who slyly strolled onstage to duet with his co-headliner.
"You're so cute," Kelly told him, putting an end to a concert best described as ... cute.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.