If Republicans, “Dukes of Hazzard” reruns and an abundance of heavy metal weren’t enough to convince you, No Doubt’s Rock Steady road show leaves little doubt that the 1980s are back. On the tour’s opening night, the Orange County ska-popsters mined flavors from across the retro-’80s spectrum, mixing driving hardcore and rasta riddims with slap-bass funk, new wave synth and pop queen balladry. With a punked-out rhythm section, two dread-stylie horn players, a guitarist straight out of a Duran Duran video and bare-bellied, necktie-wearing Gwen-just-wanna-have-fun-Stefani up front, they even looked the part.
The drum set glowed under the Memorial Auditorium’s gilded columns and arches as the band emerged, immediately shouting out to the Cali tweaker culture from which it sprang with the heavy dancehall chunk of “Hella Good.” The bandmembers bounced up and down as they laid into the groove, and the crowd happily bounced along with them.
While the popular Rock Steady (turned out with help from ’80s icons Prince, the Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Jamaican producers Sly and Robbie) sometimes betrays its Reagan-era aesthetic with thin sound or overwrought production, No Doubt’s energetic live show infused the new tunes with life and depth.
Wearing a red-and-white striped bra, a wicker-pattern necktie and black-and-white striped hiphuggers (not to mention the sparkling thong straps that arced out of them), Stefani prowled the front of the stage, working the crowd like an aerobics instructor with a dark side. The singer’s platinum blonde topknot nodded to Madonna, but the little girls in the hall, in their hand-painted pants and magic-markered faces, were full-on Gwen Stefwannabes.
Angled scrims overhung the stage, decorated with the black, white and red all over paintbrush graffiti of the Rock Steady album cover – a shout to the 1950s checkerboards and purposeful punk sloppiness popular when Generation X was in high school.
Shirtless drummer Adrian Young, with horns protruding from his Godzilla-like mohawk, started “Sunday Morning” with a freight train roll. Bassist Tony Kanal, sporting yellow spiked hair and plaid pants, ran across the stage as he dropped the band into the Tragic Kingdom tune’s roots-reggae rhythm.
Like a pair of bookends on either side of the glowing drum kit, skinny-dreaded trumpeter Stephen Bradley kicked up his heels while nappy-dreaded trombonist/synthesizer player Gabriel McNair dialed in dark, spacey synth sounds to intro “Ex-Girlfriend.” Kanal’s bass quacked out slap-pop funk as the tune switched between subdued and full-throttle.
Guitarist Tom Dumont hit the wah-wah pedal as the band laid back into the spare, UB40-esqe pop reggae of “Underneath It All,” giving Stefani space to ask, “Do you really want to love me/ Underneath it all?” The horn section filled out the sound with big band power, bringing even the lighter reggae down to its roots.
“Are you ready to show me why we’re here in Sacramento first?” Stefani begged the crowd, pumping the audience like a veteran cheerleader. “I want to see everybody jumping!”
Young stepped out front on percussion for the ooky “In My Head.” Stefani brooded, a jealous lover trying to keep her head straight. “I try to think about rainbows when it gets bad/… Long distance, don’t talk about/ Ex-girlfriends, don’t talk about/ You without me, don’t talk about/ The past/ In my head/ It’s only in my head.” Dumont’s black-and-white-circled guitar ticked, underscoring the paranoid lover’s descent into madness.
Kanal led the band back into the rave hall with the digga-digga-digga-digga bassline on “Making Out.” While the synthesizers spun out the sine waves, the audience hooted like rave kids (“Woot! Woot!”). Stefani pumped her fist, cheering the band as it laid into the danceable groove. No Doubt appeared to be having a ball with the new material, making even the angry jilt of “Detective” seem fun – albeit dark, fun-house fun.
Then the scrims fell away, revealing a giant, golden “ND” logo on the backstage wall (think Abba). Dumont, in floodwater pants, an unstructured sport jacket and a frosted Simon Le Bon bouffant, picked up the keyboard guitar (yes, the keyboard with the guitar neck) for the powerfully hooky hit “Hey Baby.” The very now-sounding dance-pop tune – an ironic ode to flirtatious groupies – sounded out of place, a departure from the rest of the set, but came across with enormous sound as Bradley and McNair came down off the riser to rap out Bounty Killer’s break in stereo.
The crowd ranged from 6-year-old kids to their parents – but even the “Hey Baby” teenyboppers, decked out in their navel-baring Gwenstefinery, knew the words to the empowering 1995 hit “Just a Girl.” It’s the kind of tune that demonstrates the difference between Stefani’s sexy-because-I’m-having-a-good-time persona and the sexy-because-I’m-humping-the-mic-stand approach of some other current pop tarts.
During the encore, Stefani crooned the slow-jam “Running,” and several fans raised their lighters in tribute. It was all that was left.