From Orange County Register
The pop vocalist seemed tired but didn't let illness affect his powerful pipes in his Christmas-tour opener.
By BEN WENER
The Orange County Register
There was an air of stately lethargy to pop vocal sensation Clay Aiken's Christmas show Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center - but it's hard to know if that was intentional or not.
Certainly some reverence was deliberate. Why else implore attending Claymaniacs (whose squeals and cries of "Will you marry me?" he routinely ignored) to keep their signs at home and dress up for the occasion?
Aiken, the self-described "skinny, redheaded, geeky" little guy from Raleigh, N.C. - who has parlayed his second-place finish on the sophomore season of "American Idol" into a staggeringly successful career - has never hidden his religious beliefs, often indicating that they spurred him to charitable efforts and his first vocation as a teacher for the mentally disabled.
So, it's no surprise that, like his new "Merry Christmas With Love" disc - the fast est-selling Christmas album of all time, its first-week haul of 270,000 besting the record held by Garth Brooks - Aiken's 90-minute performance would be evenly split between somber sacred songs ("O Holy Night," "Silent Night") and jollier chestnuts ("Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland").
Indeed, the show itself was presented in halves, the first devoted to warm renditions of near-secular 20th century standards, the second - furthered along by children reading New Testament excerpts about Jesus' birth - coming across like something you'd see at the Crystal Cathedral.
Both parts had their pluses and minuses, which I'll get to. What was most glaringly evident, however, is that this Aiken kid appears wiped out.
We knew he wouldn't be bounding with energy. Only a week ago it was announced that the start of Aiken's Joyful Noise Tour, due to begin Nov. 21 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, had to be pushed back to this Center engagement because the 25-year-old had suffered vocal-cord damage resulting from ear and sinus infections. (The Civic date has been rescheduled for Dec. 28.)
Friday night, he remained under doctor's orders not to speak, a command he broke very briefly - once merely to explain that he shouldn't break said rule. Naturally, the lanky boy next door seemed tired, moving slowly, resting on a stool, busting out some endearingly awkward dance moves only toward the finale.
But I wonder if that's attributable strictly to sickness. After all, Aiken's professional attack has been relentless since spring 2003, when soul man Ruben Studdard edged him out for the "Idol" crown.
In less than a year and a half, Aiken has issued his triple-platinum debut, "Measure of a Man"; topped the charts with his platinum CD-single "The Way/Solitaire" and embarked on three tours, including an arena jaunt with "Idol" alumnus Kelly Clark son. He's also landed on the covers of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly; made innumerable talk-show appearances; and published a brief memoir, "Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life." Now comes this blockbuster seasonal album and 21-city theater tour, to be capped by the Dec. 8 airing of "A Clay Aiken Christmas" on NBC, featuring duets with Barry Manilow and Megan Mullally.
Plus, he hopes to have his next proper album in stores sometime next year. That's enough to wear out workaholic veterans, let alone a newcomer.
Granted, his ailment and crazed schedule didn't seem to greatly affect his powerful pipes. Looking not unlike a young Andy Williams in slacks and a purple sweater, he acquitted himself nicely on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song," the occasional phlegm-y rasp adding a welcome bit of grit to his otherwise Michael Crawford-esque approach to the material.
Later, re-emerging in a long coat and tie for the stronger second half, he ably nailed those dramatic "glory notes" that make female fans weak in the knees, tackling a string of them that ran through "The First Noel," the atmospheric "Mary, Did You Know?" and, most potent of all, the year- round spirit of "Don't Save It All for Christmas Day." If he was in any kind of pain, he didn't show it.
Still, I can't help but think that he didn't really intend to come off like a near-comatose Perry Como. Liveliness on the level of Harry Connick Jr. might not have fit, either, especially given the setting - jazz ensemble plus full orchestra plus an elementary-school choir from Sherman Oaks and a teen team from Costa Mesa High School.
That arrangement hardly lends itself to boppin' holiday fun. But as his final leg-lifting poses suggested, perhaps he would have brought a more vibrant spark to the proceedings if he could have. Maybe his lack of energy was merely a matter of his fading illness rearing its viral tail.
Or maybe he just needs a good long rest. Surely he's earned it.