On Wednesday night (August 11), Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard brought their joint “Timeless” tour to New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center. Well, it was supposed to be at Hammerstein, but at the last minute it was moved to some secret ballroom on the seventh floor, which had the decor (and odor) of an untouched 1970s wedding reception hall.
It turns out the venue switch (due to low ticket sales) worked brilliantly for Clay and Ruben, since their show played like a long-lost Carol Burnett/Julie Andrews variety special. (With less of a budget.)
The setlist is set up like the tagline of Terri Garr’s favorite radio station: Featuring the hits of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and today! Except scratch the “today” part. The only songs from this decade were their debut schmaltzy “Idol” singles, performed in an opening “battle” mash-up that winked at the fan-wars that erupted after Ruben won the second season of “Idol.” (They didn’t even perform their post-“Idol” hits — I guess Clay’s “Invisible” and Ruben’s “Sorry (2004)” were deemed too musically adventurous for this tour.)
“Timeless” is wall-to-wall decade medleys. I counted 69 different songs represented in the two-hour show. And most of them are tracks you’d find on one of those cassettes your parents used to buy at a car wash: “Harper Valley PTA,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “When I See You Smile,” “Caribbean Queen,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Basically Every Song That’s Ever Appeared On A Time-Life Compilation And/Or ’80s Movie Soundtrack.”
In between sets, Clay and Ruben delivered their finest stand-up material, whether it was bantering about 1960’s race relations (!!), joking about Clay’s sexuality (!!!) or performing endless sketches about “Pastor Ruben” curing Clay’s “lack-of-rhythmitis.” (!!!!!!!!!!!)
Feast on these sample exchanges:
Clay: Thanks for opening for me tonight, Ruben!
Ruben: I didn’t open for you!
Clay: I’m pretty sure you came out first!
Ruben: I’m pretty sure you came out first!
Ruben: We have a lot in common, Clay! I love my wife!
Clay: And I love “Desperate Housewives.”
Bruce Vilanch earned his pay check, folks.
And this was long before Clay busted out tear-away Hammer pants to perform a ’90s medley that included hits from Montell Jordan, All-4-One, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bell Biv DeVoe, Backstreet Boys — you get the picture.
The “Timeless” tour throws back to two eras simultaneously. One is when variety shows ruled the school, but it also references a time when “American Idol” was set up to find exceptional vocalists versus contemporary music artists (a la David Cook). Simon often criticized contestants for being “cruise ship singers,” but sometimes a reliable workhorse performer is what “Idol” would produce. In case you forgot, Clay and Ruben can sing really damn well. And although I went to the show to bask in (and gawk at) its unabashed hokiness, I can’t deny that Ruben’s “Superstar” and Clay’s “Mandy” covers left me with goosebumps.
By the time the “Timeless” show wrapped up, I felt like I was in the Catskills circa 1964. Then again, maybe that’s because the grand finale had Clay and Ruben singing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing.” (As my buddy Brendan said: “Nobody puts Cluben in the corner.”)
What saved the show from being a totally depressing exercise in seeing washed up reality stars is the realization that Clay and Ruben aren’t taking themselves seriously at all. They have created a show exclusively for their tried-and-true, intensely devoted fans. (Although, judging from the way the fancy hairdos stood up and sat down depending on which performer was singing, I’d say 99.99999 percent of the ticket holders were of the Claymate variety.)
These two singers brought an immense amount of joy to their followers last night. Yes, the “Timeless” tour may be as dated as the secret ballroom on the seventh floor of the Manhattan Center, but sometimes it’s fun to tap into your inner grandma. And Grandma Jim left the show with a big dopey grin on his face.
That being said, if six years from now Kris Allen and Adam Lambert are putting on a similar show, I might jump out of a window.