CINCINNATI — "American Idol" Ruben Studdard is lucky he has a healthy ego.
Not only is "Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken beating the champ on the Billboard singles charts, but on the fifth stop of the "Idol" summer tour, the spiky-haired crooner proved that he's winning the battle for the hearts and minds of "Idol" fans across the country.
Even before the nine "Idol" finalists took the stage at U.S. Bank Arena Sunday night to perform a nearly two-and-a-half-hour medley of covers, the mere sight of Clay's face on the two Jumbotron screens flanking the massive neon ballroom set was enough to elicit deafening screams of approval from the more than 9,000 (mostly preteen) female audience members.
But, once Ruben calmly waltzed out in a denim suit and Yankees cap 35 minutes into the show to sing the Carpenters' "Superstar," it was clear why the "velvet teddy bear" took the crown. Studdard's smooth vocal styles and his million-watt smile were enough to win over the "Claymates," drowning as they were in a sea of partisan signs ("Every day is Clay day," "Clay is the word," "Achin' 4 Clay," "I've been Claymazed" and perhaps most stinging, "Clay was robbed"). Amid a parade of countless questionable fashion choices and enough dry ice fog to fill a stadium, the shrieking fans also got a chance to hear a preview of songs from both Studdard and Aiken's debut albums, both due in the fall.
Ruben was notoriously unflappable during his "Idol" run, but the no-pressure, good-time vibe of the tour proved that the other finalists — sans flame-haired singer Vanessa Olivarez, who didn't make the trip, Marine Joshua Gracin, who was called back to duty, and Corey Clark, who was uninvited due to his legal entanglements — earned their spots as well, even if their futures as performers don't seem quite as bright.
After a taped introduction from judge Randy Jackson and the first of a dozen live vamps on the thumping "Idol" theme song from the five-piece live band, Charles Grigsby took the stage in a crisp NBA throwback ensemble for a spirited run-through of Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do." His set was a good barometer of the evening's cross-generational appeal. While the kids cheered his hip-hop dance moves, parents grooved to the classic soul tune and a few likely got a chuckle from the two male backup dancers sporting Sex Pistols T-shirts.
Grigsby graciously introduced a video montage of Julia DeMato highlights, and the satin-tuxedo-clad singer rose to the stage through a mid-set trap door and a haze of dry ice fog while reclining on a couch and singing Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." Lanky Rickey Smith busted out his falsetto for Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," Kimberly Caldwell did her Pink-style rocker chick thing, adorable Carmen Rasmusen impersonated country pop singer Shania Twain, Trenyce brought some gospel soul to the party and Kimberley Locke channeled soul diva Aretha Franklin as she sang Freda Payne's 1970 hit "Band of Gold."
It was Clay they wanted, though. When the slight singer with the perfectly tousled hair finally emerged, the arena exploded in flashbulbs and screams. With an uncharacteristic five o'clock shadow, Aiken made his way down one of the stage's two grand staircases as he sang the ballad "This Is the Night." The cheers were a bit quieter for Ruben, but the "Idol" champ got the crowd on its feet with his cover of the uptempo Luther Vandross hit "Never Too Much." Just to prove how good a sport he is, Ruben even grinned as he asked the girl holding the "Clay Was Robbed" sign to lift it up higher so he could see it.
After a short intermission, the "Idol" boys, all dressed in white and singing "The Lady Is a Tramp," squared off against the girls, all dressed in black and shimmying across the stage to Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious." The collaborative vibe continued with Clay and Ruben awkwardly jousting over female conquests as they sang the Michael Jackson/ Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," followed by the whole cast alternating leads during a 10-minute Bee Gees tribute.
In the inimitable words of judge Simon Cowell, the "real competition" started when Clay and Ruben unveiled songs from their debut albums. And, again, Clay seemed to have the advantage. Ruben's R. Kelly-wannabe hip-hop soul anthem, "Can I Get Your Attention," was a muddled mess of spare beats and cliched gangstaisms of the "ballers, shot callers, all my thugs and party don't stop 'til the sun comes up," variety.
The audience members seemed a bit confused by the street attitude, but they were clearly on board when Clay took his turn during the show's first encore. Clad in an audience-pleasing Ken Griffey Jr. Reds baseball jersey, Aiken sounded powerful as he performed the midtempo ballad "Invisible," which mixed a slight rock edge with Aiken's proven pop balladeer persona and a somewhat creepy lyric.
"If I was invisible/ Then I could watch you in your room/ If I was invisible/ I could make you mine tonight," Clay sang, adding the computer-morphed aside, "Wait, I already am." Not surprisingly, the song brought down the house, though Ruben quickly regained the love with a commanding, soul-stirring rendition of his signature hit, "Flying Without Wings."
The whole cast emerged once more for a respectful cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" and a flag-waving, fireworks-sparking finale of "God Bless the U.S.A." that brought the heartland audience to its feet. For now, Ruben may have the crown (and a seriously bling watch), but as long as he keeps seeing signs like "Let's Get Clay-Z," the big man will have to work hard to stay one step ahead of Clay.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.