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Jukebox Tour - The Critics


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"Idol" star sings his Aiken heart out

Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/29/05

BY KELLY-JANE COTTER

MUSIC WRITER

Clay Aiken kicked off Toms RiverFest last night with a sprightly, "Hello, New Jersey" and a musical retrospective of the early days of rock'n'roll.

It should come as no surprise to his fans that Aiken spent a good deal of his stage time on cover material. As an alumnus of "American Idol," Aiken earned his fame charming the show's judges and viewers with his ability to put some zip into familiar songs.

Aiken is a young man with old-school appeal — a sweet smile, good manners, a cute Southern accent. No wonder he devoted a chunk of his first set to the hits of Elvis Presley.

Presley, of course, was an trailblazer, whereas Aiken is simply a wholesome pop star.

Aiken became a pop star despite not winning on "American Idol." He was runner-up to Ruben Studdard. Aiken's success — his debut, "Measure Of A Man" and his seasonal follow-up "Merry Christmas With Love," both sold well — a testament to the loyalty of "Idol" viewers.

He'd probably broaden his fan base if given the chance to stretch beyond the ultra-produced pop material expected of pop singers nowadays. Aiken also needs to treat lighthearted material more gently. His renditions of Petula Clark's "Downtown" and The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" were too emphatic. That approach didn't harm his version of "Unchained Melody" but came across as heavy-handed on breezier songs.

Give Aiken credit for not over-romanticizing the '50s and '60s. His stage set looked like "Happy Days," with a jukebox and perky backdrop, but Aiken reminded his audience that the 1950s brought about "the Red scare" as well as the sock hop. And during the '60s, he said, Americans "fought our own demons and prejudices" through the civil rights movement. Pop music, he said, was a pleasant diversion in a time of tumultuous change.

True enough. The same could be said of the role of "American Idol" in this new century. Sure, Aiken is a made-for-TV superstar, but maybe the goofy fun of it all is a balm to viewers weary of war and terrorism.

To the teenagers and fortysomethings who cheered for Aiken and waved posters at the Pine Belt stage last night, the singer was as welcome a treat as was the sharp drop in humidity.

A note to any ticket-holders who were upset when they arrived shortly before the scheduled 8:30 p.m. show time to find Aiken already on stage: It was Aiken's decision to move up the official start time to 7:30 p.m., though he took the stage closer to 8 p.m.

Toms RiverFest continues through Sunday. Country star Keith Urban headlines tonight, followed tomorrow by "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson. The rock band Maroon 5 closes the festival Sunday.

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