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Clarkson, Fray a surprisingly strong mix

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

I am the entertainer, And I know just where I stand: Another serenader In another long-haired band. Today I am your champion, I may have won your hearts, But I know the game, You’ll forget my name ... If I don’t stay on the charts.

— Billy Joel

I don’t believe I was the only one who thought this, but I went to Alpharetta’s Verizon Park Amphitheatre at Encore Park Wednesday to see The Fray, the Denver-based band who’d hit big with their soulful singles “You Found Me” and “How to Save a Life.”

Frankly, I didn’t know Kelly Clarkson was even on the bill until I got my tickets.

Turns out, though, the majority of the 10,000 or so who were on hand for the show not only knew Clarkson was appearing, they came to see the “American Idol” winner. And, admittedly much to my surprise, I left knowing why.

Clarkson’s powerful 15-song performance proved to skeptics (like me) that she’s moved beyond the faux “Idol” fame and actually worked hard to become a legitimate pop star. The adoring crowd — which included everything from star-struck tweens to would-be hipsters to soccer moms of all shapes, sizes and colors — needed no convincing. They were all-in from the first notes of opener “My Life Would Suck Without You” to the coda of Clarkson’s mega-hit “Stronger.”

Clarkson’s powerful performance was only one of the night’s surprises for me. I was a little taken aback when The Fray followed openers Carolina Liar to the stage. In fact, my wife and I decided the reversal would work to our advantage. We’d watch The Fray’s set, catch a couple of Clarkson’s tunes and leave early, maybe get back to Albany before 3 a.m.

I was also surprised at the range exhibited by The Fray, a band whose biggest hits are serious, thought-provoking numbers more suited to introspection. (“How to Save a Life” chronicles singer Isaac Slade’s experience as a mentor for a crack-addict teenager.) But the band rocked out at times, changing pace effectively like Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine used to do.

Slade gave fans a treat when he threw a couple of choruses of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” into the mix of “Never Say Never,” and he won everyone over during “Happiness” when he walked through the crowd to the second tier of seats at Encore Park and sang and played a piano that had been set up on the breezeway.

Then, during set closer “Ungodly Hour,” Slade did a lap around the amphitheater — even slapping five with some surprised fans among the 3,000 or so in lawn seating — while the band played on. The most poignant moment of the 20-song set, though, was guitarist Joe King’s moving “The Wind,” which he dedicated to the shooting victims of Aurora, Colo., King’s hometown.

The plan to leave after a couple of songs from Clarkson was soon abandoned when she came out smoking and never let up. Clarkson, too, came into the audience with her three backup singers to perform fun.’s pop hit “We Are Young,” and she stayed there (10 rows directly in front of where we sat) to do “Already Gone,” explaining, “When I was growing up, we were so poor if I ever got to go to a concert, these are the seats I had.”

One of her set’s best moments came when Clarkson called Douglas, Ga., native and TV singing competition “Duets” runner-up John Glosson onstage to perform “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” which she followed with the fan-requested Trisha Yearwood hit “Walkaway Joe.”

Obviously, by this time any thoughts of leaving early had been pushed aside, and we joined the crowd in saluting Clarkson for her powerful one-two-three finish: “Mr. Know It All,” “Miss Independent” and “Stronger.”

Sitting in the audience for an expected strong performance from musical artists makes for a great experience. Getting a surprise show like the one Kelly Clarkson put on takes it to a whole different level, even if it did mean getting home at 3 in the morning after all.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.