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Finally, John Stevens IV of Amherst is having fun.

As he and nine other contestants from the third season of Fox's hit talent show criss-cross the country in the "American Idols Live!" tour, one thing has changed: Compared to the pressure-cooker of weekly national performances and telephone voting, the 47-city tour is so low-stress it's like an afternoon in a hammock.

"The tour is fun," Stevens says from one of the group's luxury buses, which last week was on the road to Albany. "The show was more pressure -- a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety. There's a lot less in this. You're out there in front of the people, just having fun."

Stevens is looking forward to bringing the fun home Tuesday, when the tour stops in HSBC Arena.

Jennifer Hudson, who was eliminated the week before Stevens, said she got butterflies in her stomach again when the tour played her hometown of Chicago on Aug. 5. "To go to my hometown, and to feel all that Chicago love, that was when I got nervous again," she says. "We're all so nervous when it comes time to do our hometown. But they turned out -- family, friends and all my Chicago people."

"We've done many of the other contestants' hometowns -- New Orleans for George (Huff), we've done Atlanta for Diana (DeGarmo), we've done Winston-Salem (N.C.) for Fantasia (Barrino)," says Stevens. "In the first act, I introduce George, and in New Orleans, there was this roar and this excitement that ran throughout the crowd -- it was breathtaking. And that's what we live off of. We get a high off of that stuff. And I hope that happens - just the excitement.

"Buffalo has been great to me. I appreciate that."

Stevens, who turned 17 on the day the Idols played Detroit, says the contestants are harmonizing personally as well as on stage. "I've been getting along with them great," he says. "Basically, it's just family."

It's literally family, too - Stevens and the other now-17-year-old contestant, DeGarmo, are accompanied by their mothers as chaperones.

And how is Lynn Stevens doing? "I think she's enjoying it - but she misses my dad, she misses home. She's a little worried about my dad" handling all the household tasks, says Stevens.

The tour ends Sept. 30 with three nights in Honolulu.

In the meantime, the mother and son have had a chance to talk about John's immediate future. For Lynn, his path is clear: He's going to go to college with his classmates.

"My mom says I have to apply this year," says Stevens. "I was thinking about taking a year off, but most likely I'll be applying this year." He's interested in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, New York University, Carnegie Mellon, "those type of places," he says.

In the meantime, he's keeping up with his studies through a tutor "so it's not going to be too much different from the show . . . it's just going to be moving" (on the bus).

Stevens was out of school from early March until the end of April, when he returned home just in time to attend his junior prom at Williamsville East.

But more than schoolwork and college plans will be occupying the tall redhead. Stevens is excited about the record deal he signed in August with Maverick records, a division of Warner Bros. The label, which was launched by Madonna and features a variety of pop, rock and alternative singers, plans to release Stevens' debut album in early 2005, according to the company's Web site.

"It's amazing to be with Maverick," Stevens says. Song selections have not been made yet for the album, although he's made some suggestions. "I have submitted about a four-page list of songs and they haven't gotten back to me yet," he says. Will the chosen tunes be the Sinatra-style classics that are his specialty? "Most likely."

Hudson, who turned 23, and Stevens are two of the four singers who celebrated a birthday on the 79-day tour. Camile "Koy" Velasco and Amy Adams also celebrated birthdays. When that happens, Hudson says, "At the end of the show, we surprise the birthday person on stage with a cake, and we sing "Happy Birthday.'

"If we get an off day, then we all go out and celebrate that person's birthday. We surprised Camile on stage with her cake on the day of her birthday. We didn't have a show on her birthday, so (a day later) she really didn't expect it, and then she was gonna leave off the stage and we had to run and catch her, like, "Hey, wait! Here's your birthday cake!' "

The young singers "try to get out and go everywhere" at every stop, says Hudson. "Me and John Stevens are good running buddies, so we pretty much go everywhere together - go look at the town. Nine times out of 10, we always wind up at the mall, though!" she says, laughing.

On those mall trips, Stevens says he is sometimes recognized. While "walking down the street, or walking in a mall or going to dinner in a restaurant, you have people come up to you and ask for your autograph, or ask you, "Aren't you the guy from "American Idol?" ' "

"At times it can be overwhelming, but most of the time it's nice, you know?" he says. "People recognize you and appreciate you for you, what you did on the show, what you sang, they realize that and they like it. They come up to you and appreciate that. It's nice."

Tickets for "American Idols Live!" are available at HSBC Arena's box office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays or through Tickets.com, which also can be reached by phone at (888) 223-6000. While floor tickets have sold out, seats in the 100- and 200-level sides for $45 and in the 100- and 200-level ends for $35 are still available.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com