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Light on Their Feat : Led by Energetic Singer Gwen Stefani, No Doubt Delivers Sharp, Fun Pop

November 02, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Halloween night is for scary fun. No Doubt has a reputation for providing fun that's lighthearted and not the least bit frightful.

But the Anaheim band's concert Thursday at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center, its first headlining show in Orange County since becoming a nationally famous act with a double-platinum album, carried a scare factor that had nothing to do with the fake gore on drummer Adrian Young's grease-painted face, or with the 18 jack-o'-lanterns lining the stage.

No Doubt got its scare about a month ago, when singer Gwen Stefani developed voice problems and received doctor's orders to rest her tour-battered vocal cords or risk serious damage. The Halloween show was the band's return from enforced inaction.

Decked out at the start in sparkling Tinkerbell wings, Stefani fluttered, trilled, crooned and yelled her way through a 90-minute set in her usual energetic fashion, showing no signs of discomfort or wear.

There appeared to be nothing to fear as No Doubt, which already has played more than 200 concerts since its campaign for the "Tragic Kingdom" album began in July, returns to the trail for months more of touring.

Even on her best day, nobody will confuse Stefani with a diva. Her voice is rangy but thin, tending toward a shrill, piercing, breathy quality that easily might turn off some listeners. She makes her mark not with her Madonna-esque pipes, but with her flair for theatrics and high-energy entertainment.

Despite her blond beauty and signature bared bellybutton, Stefani's calling card is comedy, not seductive vamping. Adopting a persona that borrows from Lucille Ball and Judy Garland as a wide-eyed Dorothy, she spent her time on stage romping, mugging and playing the sly ingenue who only feigns dizziness.

In a set blessed by superb arena sound, No Doubt showed off the depth of "Tragic Kingdom." The material's appeal extended far beyond the CD's three radio / video hits, "Just a Girl," "Spiderwebs" and "Don't Speak." Such secondary songs as "End It on This," "You Can Do It" and "Sunday Morning" were among the evening's highlights.

The album's title track, played as the show opener, did give the band a noir-ish, mock-spooky Halloween card to play. But it was a somewhat slow-starting set, as lesser songs such as "Excuse Me Mr." and "Different People" served more as warmups than heat-generators.

The concert's peak moments had bodies on the arena floor leaping like bubbles in a pot at full boil. But there was a discernible trough with "The Climb," a slow, laborious number that combined the doomy side of the Beatles with the blustery declarations of Freddie Mercury.

*

Catchier songs eventually began to roll, and the show rose on the pure-pop appeal that has made "Tragic Kingdom" a hit. No Doubt also reached back for older numbers that showed its versatility, going disco on "Let's Get Back," from its 1992 debut album, and chaotically punkish on "Total Hate," a song written in 1987 and recorded on the 1994 studio outtakes release, "The Beacon Street Collection."

"Total Hate" segued into a memorial to Brad Nowell of Sublime, a friend of the band who sang a duet with Stefani on the "Beacon Street" recording of "Total Hate." In typically theatrical No Doubt fashion, Stefani cried out "Braad-leee" in an echoing dub-style reggae coda built on a Sublime song snippet; it was a stagy but still touching way of calling on the dead rocker's spirit.

Rather than give by-the-numbers renditions of its three hit singles, No Doubt stretched and spiced them a bit. "Just a Girl" and "Spiderwebs" became vehicles for Stefani theatrics and fun audience-participation moments.

"Don't Speak," which fell into a routine, big-ballad guitar-grind when No Doubt played it last spring at the KROQ Weenie Roast, benefited from a subtler approach and from the sonic swirl created by a guest cellist and violinist.

The string players stayed for "You Can Do It," a zippy, Motown-inspired song in which Stefani's smooth, high-ranging "oooh-oooh-oooh" refrain suggested that her real calling might be as a Supreme.

Stefani and guitarist Tom Dumont stripped "Hey You" down to its basics for the encore, turning the rocker into a nice intimate moment, if not the riveting emotional exploration that a singer with a richer voice might have mustered.

Weightiness just isn't what No Doubt is about, although its material, which mainly gives believable portraits of troubled relationships, isn't as lightweight as some of its critics contend.

The show ended, appropriately, in frolic, as bassist Tony Kanal introduced Richard and Eva--a couple who met at a No Doubt show--so that he could propose on bended knee, and she could accept the proffered ring. The band then gave its blessing to the union-to-be with a bouncy rendition of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

"Hi, we're No Doubt, loser band from Anaheim, and everybody came to see us," Stefani announced to the full house of 5,000 at one point, with mock surprise but believable humility.

This homecoming provided the fun and sharp pop craft that the fans came for. On its strength, they'll probably all come back to do it again whenever No Doubt returns from bagging however million more record sales are still out there to be blithely, not grimly, reaped.

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