Thursday, June 4, 2009

Music review: No Doubt hot as ever in Cruzan show

Gwen Stefani leads No Doubt
at the Cruzan on Wednesday night.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

By Thom Smith

WEST PALM BEACH -- Five years away from the road.

No new records. Nurturing marriages. Raising kids. Managing businesses. Making movies.

With all those obstacles, a band would have to launch a new tour with some doubt, wouldn’t it? A shadow of a doubt, maybe?

The answer is No, as in No Doubt.

The Anaheim, Calif.-based band roared into the Cruzan Amphitheatre on Wednesday night, touring for the first time in five years as if they have never unplugged an amp. Ill effects from their hiatus, if any, don’t show.

They sing of heartache and lost love, lessons learned, mistakes made, but they aren’t downers. No Doubt’s success may have been delayed early on, when its eclectic style, influenced by Valley Girls and Jamaican dance halls, played rhythm guitar to grunge’s lead. But two decades later, from the barren soil of excess, optimism is struggling to bloom, and No Doubt’s onstage joie de vivre is a fresh nutrient.

No Doubt, of course, wouldn’t be certain without Gwen Stefani. Despite her long absence from recording, her marriage to rocker Gavin Rossdale and the births of two children, she remains one of rock’s most charismatic performers. Wednesday night she group hugged more than 16,000 fans of all ages, grandmas to toddlers. Give back, sing along, she urged. And they did, with relish.

Rossdale was not present; he’s on a solo tour in California. But Gwen did have both kids with her. In Salt Lake City she had the audience sing Happy Birthday to Kingston, who turned 3 on May 26. No songs for him at Cruzan, but wearing appropriate ear protectors, he latched onto one of two nannies for a midset tour along the shed’s main concourse as Mommy sang.

Preparatory and entertaining opening sets were provided by Swedish band The Sounds (five guys and girl singer Maja Ivarsson, 29) and Grammy-nominated Tennessee product Paramore (four guys and girl singer Hayley Williams, 20). Then one by one, silhouetted behind a stage-wide, ceiling-to-floor white shroud, No Doubt arrived.

No Doubt makes its silhouetted arrival Wednesday,
as thousands of cellphones light up to record the moment.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

Flouff. The curtain fell, and there, all in white with black boots, stood the four originals – guitarist Tom Dumont, drummer Adrian Young, bassist and former Stefani boyfriend Tony Kanal and Stefani -- in front of a sweeping cantilevered set. Sidemen Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair, both of whom play horns and keyboards, pranced at their stations atop the ramps as they launched into Spiderweb.

The futuristic set from the mind of Stefani, whose multitasking includes fashion design, fittingly resembled the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. It also worked well with the band’s Clockwork Orange-inspired black-and-white theme.

A musical salute to that ‘70s movie would have been fitting (Beethoven, maybe, maybe not). They did offer some movie music later in the show with a fast-paced Guns of Navarone.

So much for conventional wisdom; any real innovation will come later. Unlike most bands, No Doubt isn’t touring to promote a new album. They haven’t made one in eight years. Instead, they are touring to make fans hungry for the album to come, by giving them the old hits. And they didn’t miss a lick.

Of course, had the band worn grungy jeans and T-shirts, the audience wouldn’t have cared. Had Stefani sung Mother Goose, the crowd would have loved it. From 9:30 start to 10:55 finish, from the front row to the top of the lawn, they didn’t stop dancing, hugging, kissing and canoodling.

“Don’t ask me if I’m dreaming,” Stefani sang, and then urged fans to “keep on dancing.” On stage, she is in constant workout. As she revisits the Jamaican dance halls on Underneath It All or teases Kanal on Ex-Girlfriend, she is all about movement. She’ll be 40 in October – 40 – and she moves better than women half her age, who can only quiver with envy as she maintains the pace, doing pushups (no cheaters) on Just a Girl, to the autograph-signing finale, Sunday Morning.

The band has always thrived on its physicality. Now it can add maturity to the list. But underneath it all is the music. Unlike some modern pretenders – Lady Gaga’s cellophane profanity comes to mind – Stefani has always been able to sing. Now her delivery has added edge, especially on Don’t Speak and It’s My Life, the latter accompanied by an old video in which a much younger Stefani bears uncanny resemblance to Carrie Underwood.

Thirteen years from now, we’ll see how the American Idol measures up. As for now, No Doubt is back, and despite nothing new musically, the band is hot. Its new album will be gobbled up, the wisdom of the tour confirmed, its continued success assured -- no doubt.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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