CHICAGO No Doubt returned to the concert stage Friday, with a tour kickoff set that showed the outfit is still able to fire its pop, punk and ska cylinders.
"We've been working on a record for you," frontwoman Gwen Stefani said early in the gig at the Riviera Theater.
No kidding, No Doubt. It's been quite awhile: two years since the band toured extensively, five since the group released its smash breakthrough, Tragic Kingdom.
In Stefani's absence, a new regime of pop queens Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore have assumed control of the charts. But judging by the number of Stefani-esque bleach-blondes sporting white tank tops in the audience, plenty of young girls have been itching for the return of a frontwoman who mixes infectious tunes with doses of punk empowerment.
The singer has updated her look since the last go-round: Her hair is dyed pink, and the white top has lost a strap and gained a bunch of sparkles. The industrial Dickies pants have been replaced by black trousers covered with something that suggested a gladiator's loincloth.
Stefani's stage presence blended as many elements as did her appearance. On Tragic Kingdom's "Sunday Morning," she threw her arm in the air like a voguing Madonna; strutted, shoulders back, like Whitney Houston; and leaned on her monitor à la Courtney Love.
At times, she worked the lip of the stage as aggressively as a hardcore singer, while other moments found her pandering to fans with Las Vegasstyle schtick. "I don't remember the words to this, do you?" she asked before performing the hit "Just a Girl" (RealAudio excerpt).
Meanwhile, the band Tom Dumont (guitar), Tony Kanal (bass) and Adrian Young (drums), plus Gabe McNair (keyboards, trombone) and Stephen Bradley (percussion, trumpet) played ably on a "Laugh-In"styled stage, set with a drum riser and amp coverings that looked as if cut from the same cloth as Sonny and Cher's white, furry vests.
During the 80-minute show, the SoCal outfit played the obvious hits "Don't Speak" and "Spiderwebs" as encores, in addition to Tragic Kingdom fan favorites such as "Excuse Me Mr."
But they also had the less enviable task of hawking the material from Return of Saturn, which doesn't arrive in stores until April 11. At several points, the eager-to-please Stefani asked for permission to play the new work.
She must have taken heart that the new single "Ex-Girlfriend" (RealAudio excerpt), with its semirapped verses, was embraced as eagerly as any number that night, although other new cuts, such as "Bathwater," "Too Late," "Simple Kind of Life" and "Six Feet Under," earned polite, if tepid, receptions.
The band also made brief excursions into its catalog, notably with the quasi-hardcore cut "Total Hate" (RealAudio excerpt), penned in 1987 by the band's earliest incarnation.
"I like the old, old stuff," said Janette McDaniel, 41, of Chicago, who was mildly irked by the pauses between songs. "It was the first show [of the tour]; it seems like it's not as pulled together as it should be. But they do have a lot of energy."
No Doubt continue their 11-date outing in Toronto on Monday (March 27). Proceeds from the tour benefit environmental organizations the Surfrider Foundation and the Raincoast Conservation Society, as well as the Orange County Child Abuse Prevention Center and the Pediatric Cancer Research Center.