By Michael Slezak
Updated February 01, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

It’s been a big week in the American Idol Nation. There was the wrap-up of the season 8 audition episodes. There was the premiere of Kelly Clarkson’s video for “My Life Would Suck Without You” (and the single’s historic leap from No. 97 to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100). There was the telecast of Fantasia’s buzz-worthy “Lady Marmalade” at UNCF’s tribute to Patti LaBelle. But all that good stuff was just a warm-up for the one performance that Idol fans and non-fans alike were anticipating: Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of Super Bowl XLIII, her first public appearance since the horrific murder of her mother, brother, and young nephew back in October.

Suffice it to say the Oscar-winning star of Dreamgirls did not disappoint. Clad in a ruffly, navy blue military-style jacket and some dangerously high heels, J.Hud blew the doors off the National Anthem and made it look easy (vocally speaking, that is). You could see just a touch of nerves in Hudson’s face — and call me crazy, but maybe a second or two where she had to fight back the tears — before she heaved a sigh and began to sing. And sing she did, rumbling powerfully through the low notes on “twilight’s last gleaming,” describing the “rockets’ red glare” with appropriate bombast, and holding out the note on “flag was still there” to a point where a lesser singer might’ve fainted from lack of oxygen. Yeah, her pronunciation of perilous (“pair-OH-lous”) stopped me for a hot second, but ultimately, this was a triumphant, emotional return for a wonderful performer who’s suffered unspeakable tragedy. Welcome back, J.Hud, and congratulations!