HOLLYWOOD — "All I wanted to do was make a dance record," a humbled Gwen Stefani confessed to the capacity crowd at her fourth-ever solo show Friday. "Not even that — a stupid dance record. Cut to the Hollywood Bowl. Weird!"
The whole thing — an Orange County ska chick reinventing herself as a multicultural hip-hop pop phenomenon — does seem a little weird, doesn't it?
But what's the point of going solo if you still sound like your band, right? And this Gwen Stefani is a completely different Gwen Stefani than the one we've watched rock stages for the past decade. Indeed, her 14-song set included all 12 Love, Angel, Music, Baby tracks, two new songs, and nothing by No Doubt.
A more accurate frame of reference for Stefani's newly launched Harajuku Lovers Tour is perhaps the dame of dance herself: Madonna. From the eight costume changes to the dancers to the theatrics to, hell, even the music itself ("The Real Thing" could have been titled "Lucky Star 2005"), every element of Gwen's show owes at least a little to the Material Mother.
Stefani made a royal entrance for her triumphant return home Friday — or as she put it, "Orange County, Hollywood, same f---ing thing." She arrived onstage in the throne from the cover of Love, Angel, Music, Baby to the tour's title track, "Harajuku Girls."
Those faddish Japanese Harajuku girls were a major part of the show from the start. They served mainly as Gwen's dancers and, though she made a dance album, Stefani doesn't pretend to be Madonna, or even Britney, in that department. Although not always in sync, the girls' choreography had a gritty street edge, and their constant posturing was the show's theatrical focus. Still, with her confident strut and dead-on vocals, Gwen remained the most captivating thing onstage throughout the evening.
After "What You Waiting For" (which Stefani began as a ballad before kicking it up to its recognizable pace) and "The Real Thing," Gwen and the girls were joined by a breakdancing foursome for the hip-hop party-starter "Crash." While monitors depicted a car hood bouncing to the beat, Stefani had the guys and gals in the audience take turns chanting "back it up, back it up." Surprise, the girls were way louder!
After one of several instrumental interludes, Gwen reemerged in black-and-white gangsta gear (complete with bandana) for "Luxurious" and "Rich Girl," high-fiving fans while prowling a catwalk that extended into the crowd.
Minus the dancers, "Danger Zone" had an intimate feel that set up the night's most serious song, the Andre 3000-produced "Long Way to Go."
Stefani then performed back-to-back unreleased tracks, beginning with a barnburner reminiscent of the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps." While Gwen got her rap on, the Harajukus and breakdancers created a carnival vibe.
The show went multimedia for the second new tune. Video monitors showed a montage of childhood photos and items mentioned in the song, such as Prince's Purple Rain album and "The Sound of Music." Stefani sounded a bit like a female Kanye West as she effortlessly strolled through her life stories to a head-bobbing beat. "I'm just an Orange County girl," went the chorus.
Gwen returned dramatically after another musical interlude in a silver sequin dress for "Cool" before changing quickly back into her drumline gear for "Hollaback Girl." With her band forming a drumline, Stefani again ran into the audience, returning with fans as the crowd sang every word — arguably spelling "bananas" louder than it had ever been spelled before.
The Harajuku girls wheeled Gwen out in a stretcher for the encore, reviving her with a little heart massage to sing "Serious." After Stefani introduced her band and the dancers, a Willy Wonka world of bubbles began shooting across the Hollywood Bowl to kick off the show's grand finale, "Bubble Pop Electric."
Before Stefani, the Black Eyed Peas revved up the crowd with an adrenaline shot of a show. Their 45-minute dose of radio favorites ranged from "Where Is the Love" to "My Humps."
The Peas were playing to a hometown crowd, too, complete with shout-outs to family and friends. "Today's my mom's birthday and I'm just so glad she can get retarded with us," Taboo said midway through their closer, "Let's Get Retarded." Could any mom really wish for more?
Gwen Stefani and the Black Eyed Peas hit Salt Lake City on Tuesday (see "Gwen Stefani To Launch Tour In October, With Black Eyed Peas In Tow").
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.