Anybody can assemble a group of musicians and go out and perform in front of an audience. However, to take an album on the road with a band and execute it to perfection and lose blood on stage in the process is the challenge. If you can consummate this, it makes you a great live band. In this history of live performance almost every great live act has been a band: The Rolling Stones, U2, The Grateful Dead, Phish, The Band, etc. Why is this? Because when the members of these respective bands hit the stage they have history behind them. These performers know each other so well that they can do more than just sleep walk through some songs, they can be spontaneous and surprise the crowd with rare delights or engage them in a way that would otherwise seem infeasible to the Britneys and NSYNCs of the world. Great bands dont just get out there and play, they have lived with lives with one another and therefore, there is a narrative behind the songs and the performances. No Doubt goes into my book of remarkable live performers after witnessing their astonishing live set this past Saturday night at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
No Doubt took to the stage in Chicago like season performers waiting to unleash their brand of pop-ska-punk music on the 4,500 amassed fans like they were preaching their brand of gospel. The band came onto the stage with 10 crewmembers dressed as Stromtroopers from Star Wars. As the band cranked into Hella Good, the crowd and the band became one. Their music is a combination of ska, new wave, pop, punk and rock. However, when performing live, none of that matters. All that matters is that they are a great set of musicians whose instincts rise above everything else. While some top pop performers (NSYNC, Britney) can garner sold out crowds, are their shows filled with energy? The answer is no. No Doubt however, at their core, is a multi-talented band whose musical gifts only enhance their brand of music.
As the show protracted they played a large selection of songs from their last three albums (Tragic Kingdom, Return of Saturn and Rock Steady). The songs meshed into one another without any hesitation from the band. Highlights included Ex-Girlfriend, Sunday Morning, Simple Kind of Life and Dont Let Me Down. Ric Ocasek produced the latter a song on their most recent album. In the live setting this song has transformed into a top-notch rocker, which kept the crowds interest and hands in the air. This simple song may be the best thing the band has ever recorded. It is just a pure rock-pop song done to perfection. One can only hope this will be released as a single in the near future.
The later part of the show included all of the big hits, including an all audience sing along to Dont Speak, the song that brought the younger fans out, Hey Baby and Ms. Stefanis anthem to female angst, Just A Girl. The encore brought about a slow and sweet Rock Steady which Stefani called her favorite song. The finale consisted of the Stormtroopers returning to the stage before the band kicked into pop-ska anthem Spiderweb. Shortly thereafter, the band left the stage with 4,500 Chicago fans screaming, jumping and yelling for more, just what they had done during the previous 95-minute show. In todays day and age of skyrocketing ticket prices, I usually take issue with any band who does not play at least two hours, however, No Doubts 95 minute set was so tight and well paced, I could not complain, they did more than just rock steady, they rocked hard!
No Doubt has been performing live for the better part of 15 years and just last fall, were the opening act for U2. From this experience I am assuming they learned a lot. While No Doubt on record, is very heavy on outside help (synthesizers, electronic and hip-hop help), as live performers they are as good as any rock band who plays bars, arenas or stadiums. Their unity as a group makes this possible. Leading the pack is Gwen Stefani.
Stefani is more than just a top-notch front woman; she is a born star. She prowls the stage like an animal and the crowd is her prey. When she appears on the stage, she is a goddess coming to rule over the thousands of people are in attendance. Very few performers are born with the ability to make a crowd their own. In fact the only other two performers who can seduce an audience as well as Ms. Stefani are Jon Bon Jovi and Bono. Like them, she engages the audience and makes them feel some sort of connection to the crowd. Stefani is not just a girl, but also a force to be reckoned with. Step aside material girl, someone is ready to take over your throne. Stefani is a mix of Madonnas potency, Joan Jetts punk attitude, and Courtney Loves visualization. However, Stefani exhumes these traits better than the previous three. Her live performances are physical, which, in turn, forces the crowd to become physical as well. No female performer can command an audience the way she can, not even Janet Jackson or Madonna can command an audience with the blood, sweat and tears Gwen puts through in each performance.
While Stefani is clearly the focal point of the group, without the other 3 guys, she would simply be a pop star. The rest of the band Tony Kanal (bass), Adrian Young (drums) and Tom Dumont (guitar) help flesh out the No Doubt sound. Kanal and Young is the spine of the band. Without them, none of the songs would have that driving rhythm which has made No Doubt so popular. Dumonts guitar gives us those luscious melodies that define the No Doubt sound. The difference between remarkable live acts and mediocre ones lies within their discernment of the other musicians. When studio musicians are put together on a stage, they may perform well, but the chemistry is not there. With a band, you have history behind them. This leads to a comradely and closer unit. If any of them were to ever leave the band, it would be unlikely that the same chemistry could be recreated.
There are performers who earn their respect through records (REM) and there are others who provide their stamp with their live shows (Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band). No Doubt is a band that bridges between the two. While their records are perfect polished gems with songs that you can sing along to, their live shows take on another form. You will go and jump up and down, raise your hands in the air, cheer at Gwen and Tony run the length of the stage, and even watch Gwen do push ups just to entertain the crowd.
So what differentiates No Doubt from the dozens of other flash in the pan bands from the last decade? Their talent. Not only are they first-rate songwriters and musicians, but they carrying a secret weapon. No, its not Gwens sex appeal or the other bands members cohesiveness, but rather their ability as a unit to shine in live performance. One can argue what kind of a band No Doubt is, whether it be pop, ska, punk, or rock, it does not matter. What does matter is that they are a GREAT band and there is little doubt in my mind that this band will be around years from now doing the same thing, rocking steady.