Gwen Stefani Electrifies a Damp Houston Audience
Photos by Jack Gorman
Gwen Stefani, Eve
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
August 14, 2016
Leading up to Sunday night’s Gwen Stefani concert, fans were frustrated that the show may not happen. As storms blew through the Houston area, lightning strikes caused concern of canceling the show, and necessary precautions were taken. At 5:50 p.m., the Cynthia Woods Pavilion advised all concertgoers to remain in their cars and off paths until further notice. Fans started posting comments online, some urging the venue to cancel the show, but most upset and wanting the show to continue. At 6:15, fans were given the all clear to enter the venue. Sheets of rain cloaked the amphitheater; fans on the lawn were wrapped in layers of ponchos, taking cover under massive umbrellas. Does this sound like the recipe for an amazing outdoor concert? Maybe not for another artist. But most artists aren’t Gwen Stefani.
Opener Eve and her DJ did an impeccable job of getting a soggy and irritated crowd insanely excited to see the headliner. Eve’s dancers had so much energy, it would have been no surprise if they sprouted wings and flew. The DJ kept hyping the crowd: “Who is ready to see your favorite artist?” “Who is ready to see one of the most unique artists of this generation?” With each question, the crowd became more and more excited.
At 8:40 p.m., Stefani strode out in vintage Gwen fabulousness: plaid pants, bare midriff, badass hair, and approachable attitude. She is a punk-rock pinup/pop-reggae princess, something that makes absolutely no sense but somehow completely works. Her backdrop was a small screen and two smaller triangular side screens, tons of lighting, and a stage show of talented musicians and dancers. She opened with “Red Flag” from 2016’s This is What the Truth Feels Like, followed up by the frenetic hit “Wind It Up” from 2006’s The Sweet Escape. The song is a lot like Gwen herself: there is so much going on at once, from yodeling to hip-hop to street drums to big-band. It shouldn’t make any sense all together, but somehow in its uniqueness and creative curation, it just works.
Stefani played three newer tracks, “Don’t Lie,” “Obsessed” and “Where Would I Be,” revealing that fans had clearly taken the time to dig into the new album, as everyone in the arena was singing along. Gwen shared that she had not toured in seven years and was absolutely dying to be here with her fans. Stefani radiates a genuine feeling of appreciation for her fans; she is emotional and grateful for those who have backed her. She somehow takes every bit of energy that the audience gives her, channels it, and explodes it back to her audience with pure delight.
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Next came “Cool,” from Love. Angel. Music. Baby., a song about moving forward in love. “Time always heals the pain” seems to be true for the singer, who has for all intents and purposes had a year that could have made her a misery-laden depressive. Instead, Gwen is like some cartoon pop phoenix who has risen from the ashes of public hell, written a successful new album, and found happiness within herself and her performance. The progression from “Cool” to new hit “Make Me Like You” was a nice emotional transition; coincidentally, by this time the rain had almost completely let up.
“Underneath It All,” from No Doubt’s 2001 Rock Steady, showcased Gwen’s affinity for blending reggae and surf rock into her music. She is a true music fan who gushes over her favorite artists the way fans gush over her: This song exemplifies the SoCal chick who loved The Police and reggae and just wanted to share that love with others. Between this and “Misery” was a costume change, which did not seem at all fussy or arrogant. Stefani's fans love her fashion, and it seemed more that she was doing this for them than for herself. “Luxurious” from L.A.M.B. blended hip-hop vibes back into the set; immediately following the mildly self-indulgent “Harajuku Girls,” Eve was reintroduced for fan favorite duets “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and “Rich Girl.”
Throughout the show, Stefani did an impeccable job of appealing to Texans: She goaded the crowd with requests for more cheers because “everything is bigger” here (it worked), claimed that the previous night’s show in Dallas was one of the best of the entire tour and that we should be proud of that (Houstonians roared and then cheered louder), and appreciated the crowd for braving this weather, saying this was the only night of the tour with rain and what a memory it would be for her (this was met with applause – the crowd was part of her memory!).
Back-to-back hits “Hella Good” and “What You Waiting For?” came next. The latter was originally written by Stefani when she felt insecure about becoming a solo artist and touring alone. This feels like it was ages ago – the artist today exudes natural confidence. “Rare,” “It’s My Life,” “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” “Asking 4 It,” the No Doubt classic “Don’t Speak,” and “Naughty” (as well as an additional costume change) all rolled forward. Next came the poignant and powerful “I Used to Love You,” Stefani’s ballad about realizing the root of sadness in a breakup. The crowd roared along with this song, surely something that Stefani appreciates. It’s deeply personal and yet universal all at once. The regular set ended with a rousing and energized rendition of “Hollaback Girl,” which made everyone feel like the star of her own circus.
Houston made it happen last night: The calls for Stefani to encore were ravenous. Everyone in the crowd screamed at the top of their lungs, lit their cell phones, clapped, jumped and waited patiently. This is what the truth feels like! Fittingly, Stefani, in a new outfit, reclaimed the stage to play the title track from her new album, followed by seminal classic “Just a Girl.” To say the crowd went wild is a staggering understatement. Gwen closed with “The Sweet Escape,” loving every last note as she ended her show.
Gwen Stefani is a true original, an icon and an inspiration. She blends so many different influences into an interpretation that is completely unique to her and her alone. Despite her larger-than-life persona and style, she is likely one of the most appreciative and humble artists of our time. Houston is happy that nothing, rain or otherwise, could hold her down.
So, How Was the Opener? The crowd could have been a nightmare given the weather they traveled through in order to attend a show at an outdoor venue. Eve and her DJ saved the night and set the tone for a loose, fun evening with a slew of hip-hop classics, taking everyone’s mind off the rain. The biggest highlight was getting to see Gwen and Eve perform their duets, a rare treat that fans absolutely loved. And sidebar: Eve looks GOOD.
Personal Bias: The first time I crowd-surfed was in 1996 at a now defunct alternative music festival in Minnesota. The song? “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. Being carried across the crowd to the sound of Gwen singing those lyrics is one of my most memorable and impactful ’90s moments. Twenty years later, it was awesome to watch all the 14-year-old girls in the crowd scream each word.
The Crowd: Sometimes at “all ages” shows, there are young kids who were dragged by their parents or parents who were dragged by their kids, forced to attend as chaperones. Not here. This crowd was legitimately “all ages,” and everyone was there voluntarily. Because of Gwen’s long career in No Doubt, as a solo act, a fashion designer, a duet artist and most recently starring on The Voice, she has a major cross-generational appeal. The old phrase "9 to 99" actually applied here.
Random Notebook Dump: I absolutely loved the family sitting in front of me. “Dad,” who had to have been about my age, was bonding with his two teen daughters over Eve and teaching them about Ruff Ryders. How cute is that??