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Opening act specialists



Last Sunday, Kelly Clarkson — the “American Idol” winner now in the throes of a whirlwind career — continued her meteoric rise in the public eye and in pop culture consciousness by nabbing the MTV Video Music Award for best female and best pop video for “Since U Been Gone.” This gives extra glitter to her appearance Monday at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

No doubt, as Clarkson was nabbing her prizes, the young heartland rocker Graham Colton was smiling in the shadows — a place he’s become familiar with. The Oklahoma City-bred Colton was hand-picked as the opening act for Clarkson’s current tour, just as he was by the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz back in 2002.

Auspicious calls to go on the road are becoming a hallmark of Colton’s tender career. From the Counting Crows gig on, the Graham Colton Band has made the road its home, stopping long enough to record a debut album for Universal Records, “Drive,” a suitable title for a band with plenty of it.

With more than 400 shows behind them, it’s no stretch to call Colton’s band road warriors.

“Whatever else you want to say about us,” Colton says, while on a Clarkson tour stop in Indiana, “and whatever you want to call us, we’ve certainly put our miles in on the road. That’s kind of been our bread and butter.

“We’ve pretty much played every scenario you can imagine. We’ve played in a 10,000-seat arena and we’ve played to three drunks at a bar, and everything in between.”

And has he had fun playing for three drunks? Colton laughs. “Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it ain’t. Sometimes you make three friends and sometimes you make three enemies.”

Working exhaustively in the live forum, Colton notes, “has been a great litmus test, a nice coming-of-age, especially being a young 20-something guy. It’s the only way, nowadays, with the Internet and all that other stuff, that you can be one-on-one with your fans and be real.”

Playing live, he says, is “all I know about being in a band. I don’t know about music videos. I don’t know about radio. I don’t know about anything else except going from town to town and trying to win over as many fans as possible.”

Given the familiar, classic nature of its sound, the band’s fan base could logically cut across age spectrum. Now 23, Colton remembers his earliest influences growing up in Oklahoma City, later honed while attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“My dad was in a cover band,” he says, “so I spent my childhood on the living room floor, listening to the Eagles and The Beatles. Ironically, the bands that really did it for me when I was in high school were bands I then got to tour with right off the boat — like Counting Crows, The Wallflowers. I was instantly drawn to roots rock like that.

“The stuff that really got me excited was the stuff right after grunge, all those early ’90s, alternative rock bands that were not as angry, but who still had as much depth.”

Listening to the foursquare, timeless rock goodness of “Drive,” it’s easy to see why the band has been invited onto some notable stages, and also why larger headlining status may be elusive so far.

Theirs is a rock flavor proudly out of step with the “Modern Rock” format, with an energetic and nonironic energy reminiscent of Tom Petty and other artists from before the band was born.

Timelessness is the goal, and the package boasts hooks galore and no arty funny business or pretensions.

On the album, the band rocks out of the starting gate with the driving “Don’t Give Up on Me.” Another fine song, “Morning Light,” could be an Oasis outtake.

“Cigarette” is one of the more distinctive songs of the set, a fetching, backbeat-fueled declaration of love’s altering effects, with its howling refrain, “You make me wanna’ smoke a cigarette/You make me want to be someone else.”

Recording the album, with producer Brendan O’Brien — whose resume includes work with Bruce Springsteen, Black Crowes and many others — was a quick and natural process, says Colton.

“It was exactly what we needed at that time. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Brendan saw us live, connected with it, and put us in a room. We just played. Literally, it was nothing more than that. It almost didn’t feel like we were making an album, but almost like we were rehearsing.”

After having opened for a fairly stellar list of artists, including The Wallflowers, Maroon 5, John Mayer, Train and Dave Matthews, Colton was very happy to be tapped by Clarkson.

Colton says that Clarkson “was very conscious about what kind of band she wanted to open, to set the tone for the evening. She wants it to be a rock ’n’ roll concert.”

He’s an avowed fan of Clarkson, even if her style veers in a different direction than his music.

“Her talent speaks for itself,” he says with enthusiasm. “Every night, even people who are fans of her music are completely blown away by her vocal ability as well as her realness onstage. That’s why she’s selling out everywhere she goes, because there’s a buzz about it.

“She’s different than every other ‘American Idol’ winner. She’s different than every other pop star. She’s different than every other regular artist. She fits in everywhere.”

He adds, “On a different parallel, I’m hoping I can do the same.”

Colton is aware of his band’s position, just to the right of rock radio formats du jour. But he’s taking things in stride, finding satisfaction in his support role and trying to keep creative honesty foremost in his music.

“It definitely seems like everything that’s hot right now is kind of a flavor-of-the-month,” he says. “You’ve got to be this new thing to make it.

“We kind of went in the opposite direction. We just said, ‘We are who we are. We’ve got plenty of time to be the new thing later. We’ve got plenty of time to change the world six, seven, 10 years down the road.

“We’re just making an album here. We’re not curing cancer.’ We hope that our whole thing is a work-in-progress and that people grow with us.”

• “Whatever else you want to say about us,” Graham Colton says, “and whatever you want to call us, we’ve certainly put our miles in on the road.”