Less than three weeks ago, Gwen Stefani was near-vomitous with nerves over her first performance as a solo artist in six years at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre.
The 45-year-old No Doubt frontwoman had just enlisted her friend and longtime video director Sophie Muller to helm a series of custom videos, was still trying to figure out costumes for her four dancers and putting together ideas on how to best surprise ticket-buyers from MasterCard, which was sponsoring the Saturday (Feb. 7) performance. And, oh yeah, she had to remember all the words to the songs from Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and The Sweet Escape that she hadn’t performed anywhere since 2009.
Such context makes Stefani’s actual performance on Saturday all the more mystifying — for 90 minutes and 22 songs, she brought an arena-level production to an intimate theater, with over a half-dozen costume changes; lush, Old Hollywood films from Muller; a quartet of dancers who paid homage to the Harajuku Girls and shrieking fans who still knew every word to hits and album cuts alike.
Much like her impeccably preserved physique, Stefani proved to 2,000 of her most devoted fans that she could still shine as a solo star. “Never in my life could I have imagined singing these songs again, so thank you so much for coming out!” Stefani said to the crowd after set opener “Spark The Fire,” following up later with, “Just so you know, to me it’s really you doing the show tonight. Every hit of energy that you give me, I’m just drinking it.”
Watching Stefani embody her solo pop star persona can be very different from seeing Stefani the No Doubt frontwoman: there’s more choreography and less pogo-stick dancing, more belting in ball gowns that turn into rompers and less checkered pants with tank tops. Her newfound love of emojis trickled its way into everything from the videography to the costumes (Jeremy Scott, in the audience, likely contributed), and the films with Muller showcased a deep appreciation of 1940s Hollywood (Jean Harlow, whom Stefani portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, remains a strong visual influence.)
That made the less-familiar parts of her solo catalog just as compelling as the most ubiquitous ones (“Hollaback Girl,” “What You Waiting For” and finale “The Sweet Escape” among them.) A medley of “Harajuku Girls,” “Yummy,” “Don’t Get It Twisted” and “Now That You Got It” saw her and a live band weave from J-pop to disco to Orange County ska in under five minutes, a virtual sonic tour of Stefani’s many stylistic identities. New Order-tinged love song “The Real Thing” got the full Busby Berkeley treatment with feathered fans and kaleidoscopic video of Stefani synchronized swimming with herself. Sweet Escape closer “U Started It” proved to be the only stumbling block, with Stefani holding out her mic to the crowd to remember a few first-verse lyrics.
With a third solo album still in production (the set included one wholly new song, a power ballad seemingly titled “Start A War”) and an international tour imminent, Stefani showed no signs of waning demand. To wit: the throngs of MasterCard holders who joined her on stage for “Hollaback Girl” and nearly trampled each other in their voracious attempts to snap selfies. Even Jack Nicholson scored a front-row seat from the balcony to cheer on Stefani as if she were his beloved basketball team the L.A. Lakers.
Her No Doubt personality may still come more naturally, but Stefani winningly showed how she can still be herself.
Here is the set list:
“Spark The Fire”
“What You Waiting For”
“Baby Don’t Lie”
“Don’t Get It Twisted”
“Now That You Got It”
“Bubble Pop Electric”
“4 in the Morning”
“The Real Thing”
“U Started It”
“Wind It Up”
“The Sweet Escape”