RALEIGH — When Clay Aiken hits the stage tonight at Memorial Auditorium, he will be performing for the couple of thousand people in the crowd, as well a future audience that could be much, much larger.
The concert, which will feature the first live performance of his coming album, "Tried and True," will be taped for a PBS special that will air this summer. It's a one-time-only deal, and Aiken, the Raleigh native and "American Idol" runner-up, will sing each song from the new album.
"Tried and True," scheduled for a late May release, is Aiken's first album for Decca Records. It's also the first in which he didn't feel record-company pressure to go in a pop-friendly direction. Working with Decca, he and longtime manager Simon Renshaw charted a different course for Aiken's career.
"Our idea was always to head toward a Johnny Mathis-y kind of thing," Aiken said recently during an interview in a downtown Raleigh coffee shop.
So the songs on "Tried and True" are lushly arranged classics. Aiken's hard-core fans will hear some familiar tunes, standards that he performed on "Idol." The new album includes "Unchained Melody" and "Mack the Knife."
Aiken, 31, has developed an adult audience over the years that he intends to keep. To that end, the album features a guest turn by saxophonist and label-mate David Sanborn on the Sammy Davis Jr. classic "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Vince Gill performs guitar on Andy Williams' legendary "Moon River."
Decca is known for signing artists who appeal to mature audiences. Bobby McFerrin, Placido Domingo and Ray Davies of The Kinks are among the performers who record for Decca. Aiken feels comfortable there.
"Adult audiences aren't fickle. That's who I've done well with in the past," he said. "This is a chance to do what I want to do, sing songs that I think are great and not try to put a square peg in a round hole."
Aiken will perform tonight with 15 or 20 musicians, a stripped-down ensemble from what was used to record the album. Part of the idea behind the concert is to see how a group of this size will perform the songs. If all goes well, Aiken could hit the road with a similar ensemble.
Whether he tours in the near future will depend largely on the economic atmosphere surrounding the touring business. But he has some ideas of what he'd like to do if an opportunity arises. Aiken and "Idol" winner Ruben Studdard have talked for years about creating a show together.
In the end, it will come down to economics. Tours are expensive to produce, and people don't go to as many concerts as they used to. Acts that aren't at the top of the pop charts can find it more difficult to make a dollar on the road
"I'm not Lady Gaga," he said, laughing.
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