“THIS IS A WHOLE ’NOTHER LEVEL OF WEIRDNESS AND TRIPPINESS!”
Making that statement after “Underneath It All” on Aug. 4, in reference to selling out four Irvine shows, Stefani seemed totally sincere, even if it might be difficult to accept an “aww, shucks” moment from her, more so than from anyone else in the band. Sure, her already high profile has been raised to absurd levels in the past five years, after the massive pop success of her two solo records, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and The Sweet Escape. She has sold millions of records, is on the cover of approximately a billion magazines each month, popped up in a Scorsese movie, married a super-handsome British dude, and spends her time between London and LA, but there still has to be something cool about being able to come back to your hometown (ish) and pack four consecutive shows, playing the role of “quintessential local boy(s and girl) done good.”

Critics have called her solo work shallow and insincere, essentially an aural infomercial for her LAMB clothing line. (It’s a good bet that these critics are far outside her target demographic.) One song on 2006’s The Sweet Escape was particularly frustrating to detractors: “Orange County Girl.” On that chorus, Stefani repeats, “I’m just an Orange County girl, living in an extraordinary world.” A review in NME declared it “horribly similar to J-Lo’s putrid ‘Jenny From the Block.’”

The origins of No Doubt go back to Anaheim in 1986, with Stefani starting a band called Apple Core with her brother Eric. Fellow founding member John Spence committed suicide the following year. Much has been made of 1995’s Tragic Kingdom and “Just a Girl” (and “Don’t Speak” and “Spiderwebs” and “Sunday Morning” and “Excuse Me Mr.,” etc.) being the band’s breakthrough, and it was, capitalizing on MTV and modern-rock radio’s brief fascination with ska. But in 1992, No Doubt were already on Interscope Records, who’ve released all of their albums other than 1995’s The Beacon Street Collection.

In their 1992 self-titled debut, they were struggling with staying true to their ska origins vs. their new-wave tendencies—much as they received flak for the more somber moments of 2000’s Return of Saturn (“Simple Kind of Life” and “Six Feet Under,” both legitimate downers) and their liaisons with dancehall on Rock Steady (from which a straight line can be drawn to Stefani’s solo stuff). Sure, No Doubt have changed—but that’s nothing new for them.

Which makes their appearance at the Irvine shows all the more uncanny—eerie, even. Both musically and physically, it was very much the same band I saw at those 2002 and 2004 shows. No Doubt’s ability to hold up is either somehow supernatural or a testament to living right. Stefani’s meticulously maintained midsection has garnered much attention over the years, and her abs absolutely retain washboard status, despite mothering two children with husband Gavin Rossdale. The rest of the band look no worse for wear, from touring horn section/multi-instrumentalists Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair to Young, still making the wacky-skimpy-outfits thing work for him.

Much like that 2002 tour with openers Garbage and the Distillers, No Doubt were paired with two fellow female-fronted acts: The Sounds on all four dates, Paramore on the first three, Perry on the last. And just as in that 2002 tour, No Doubt brought out their supporting acts during the encore for an ’80s cover; then, it was Blondie’s “Call Me,” and now, it’s “Stand and Deliver” by Adam and the Ants.

Without a new album to tour behind (that’s tentatively scheduled for 2010), the set lists—which only varied slightly between the four nights—were a lot like the ones on their 2004 tour supporting greatest-hits album The Singles 1992–2003: Other than a couple of more obscure Tragic Kingdom tracks, it was hit after hit after hit. The parting shot was “Sunday Morning,” another Tragic Kingdom song. That could be viewed by skeptics as a tacit admission that the band peaked creatively more than a decade ago. But it’s also proof that out of all of No Doubt’s talents, their best might be knowing what their fans want.

     

“YOU GUYS ARE FUCKING AMAZING FOR SHOWING UP TONIGHT!”
Four shows in or not, there was little, uh, doubt, that fans (including, according to the buzz in the crowd, pro surfer Rob Machado and actress Kirsten Dunst) would turn up at the amphitheater that Tuesday night. It was still nice of Stefani to say. No matter how big she or the band may be, they still engaged in the type of fan-friendly behavior that made them so endearing in the first place, something they no longer need to do. Stefani left the stage twice to reach out to the front row, and she brought fans up twice to take pictures with them. At the end of the set, she left the stage again to take a shot with her own camera of the numerous rows of fans behind her. Moments like that hint that maybe the band really haven’t let international fame and unfathomable success change them all that much. Or they’re at least self-aware enough to want people to think that, which is effectively just as good.

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