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No Doubt opens 2009 tour in Las Vegas

May 17, 2009 | 11:33 am

Reporting from Las Vegas

Can a band that’s been on hiatus for five years, during which time its lead singer launched a monstrously successful solo career, return to find a meaningful place again within a music industry that’s gone into free fall while it was away?

No Doubt.

Much has indeed changed since the rock foursome from Orange County bid fans adieu in 2004 with a short but potent tour to promote a new greatest hits album, one that functioned as the guidepost for Saturday’s explosive opening-night performance to a sold-out house at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

Singer Gwen Stefani birthed two children and two platinum-plus solo albums, not to mention establishing herself as a bona fide fashion designer, while bassist Tony Kanal,  guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young broadened their music skill sets by writing, playing with and/or producing other artists.
Nobody tried to pretend everything was the same as when No Doubt was riding high on the pop charts in the late-’90s and early-2000s, and it paid off in several aspects of a smartly conceived, thrillingly executed show that’s due for nearly five dozen dates across North America over the next four months.

Many of No Doubt’s songs revolve around love and heartbreak, subjects both universal and timeless. As the group’s chief lyricist, Stefani has channeled the woman’s point of view, specifically that of the young woman she used to be who often struggled to identify her place in the world.

Would a song like “Simple Kind of Life,” a fetching expression of her impulse for the domestic rewards of marriage and family in the face of the complex realities of relationships,  still fly now that she has kids of her own?

“I always thought I’d be a mom” she sang Saturday when the song rolled around in the set list, extending her arms, throwing her head back and accepting the congratulatory cheers from the female-dominated crowd in the 12,000-capacity arena (scaled back to about 10,000 by eliminating obstructed-view seating behind the snazzy stage setup).

When she offered the song’s next line — “Sometimes I wish for a mistake” — she quickly quipped “but not right now!,” fast-forwarding the sentiment to express her life at this moment.

Early on, Stefani turned the tables on the traditional musician-fan relationship in which listeners are after something for themselves, whether it’s as simple as a night of entertainment or something deeper like solace, illumination or transcendence.

No Doubt’s always been big on communicating the joy of playing music, and there was no shortage of that during a nearly 90-minute set chocked with hits. But Stefani, who has made no secret that the creative spark has been missing from the band’s recent attempts to craft new material for the next phase of its career, told the crowd that she and her band mates were looking to get something equally important back from them.

“The only reason we’re doing this tour is to be inspired,” she said, virtually throwing down a gauntlet after “Underneath It All,” with its opening line “There’s times when I want something more.”
“So it’s all up to you guys if we make another record.” No pressure there.

When the band offered up “Running,” from 2001’s “Rock Steady,” and Stefani sang “Be the one I need / Be the one I trust most / Don't stop inspiring me,” it became a plea both to those fans and to the people on stage around her.

This career step gives the group a bit of a window to connect with its audience, new fans and with its own musical foundation, before seriously grappling with the question of whether its raison d’etre entering a new decade will be creative exploration or nostalgia.

Right now the forward momentum is being fueled by a visually striking stage production overseen by tour creative director Ray Woodbury and veteran video director Sophie Muller, who came up with the arresting images for the large video screens behind and flanking the stage.

A sparkling white retro-futuristic stage setup features six spider-leg-like ramps stretching out from an inverted cone in which Young mans his drum set. All band members, including adjunct horn players-singers-keyboardists Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair, wore white outfits punctuated with accents in the form of black belts or boots.

Kanal and Dumont, who start the show with white instruments connected to white-on-white amplifiers, move to neon colored models as the show unfolds, and as the accompanying visuals introduce shades of shocking pink, electric blue, bright orange and sizzling green.

Stefani introduced costume changes into No Doubt’s vocabulary, switching well into the show from the white jacket over a shirt and crisp white jeans into a checkerboard mini-dress over black tights and boots, her bright red lipstick providing the only dollop of color in the ensemble. The whole production echoes a back-to-the-basics-before-moving-ahead theme.

By the time Dumont reeled off the pogo-ing notes of the guitar riff that opens No Doubt’s girl-power anthem “Just a Girl” -- near the end of a night of female-front rock that also included strong sets from Paramore and Sweden's the Sounds -- the crowd appeared fully committed to extending the group the love Stefani had invited earlier.

It made for a stirring and convincing welcome back.

-- Randy Lewis