“Am I making myself clear?”
Gwen Stefani growled the question into her microphone at Chicago’s Douglas Park, but the thousands of concertgoers attending the first night of Riot Fest would not find No Doubt’s lead singer on stage. Instead, Stefani was approximately 30 feet above the crowd, having just scaled the metal scaffolding holding the Riot Stage together. Down at stage level, guitarist Tom Dumont was expertly plucking a guitar riff instantly recognizable to anyone who was alive in the mid-nineties.
“I want to hear all the boys sing with me, are you ready?” Stefani continued, atop her makeshift lookout tower. “I’m just a girl,” she sang before motioning to the men in the audience to sing the line back to her. When what sounded like only half of the guys joined in, Stefani scolded, “That was shitty! That was fucking terrible! Are you ready to try it again?”
The crowd cheered in affirmation, and the singer repeated herself: “I’m just a girl!”
More men joined in, and it was acceptable enough for the front woman to continue. Gwen Stefani had just baited thousands of men into yelling a pseudo-feminist proclamation at a punk rock festival––a proclamation which the singer insisted would be yelled louder by the females in the crowd.
“I’m just a girl in Chicago,” Stefani lead the women in the audience to sing these slightly altered lyrics in unison at a near-deafening tone, proving her point. “Because that’s all that you’ll let me be!”
Quite some time has elapsed since No Doubt last played a festival like Riot Fest. Twenty years ago, before their third LP Tragic Kingdom sent the band into the stratosphere of success making them a household name, music festivals made up a large percentage of their performance schedule. This weekend was undoubtedly filled with nostalgia for the foursome, as No Doubt shared the Riot Fest bill with old friends like CIV, Fishbone, & Rancid, all of whom played the same circuit in their hometown of Orange County, CA back in the early 1990s.
No Doubt have been making music for nearly thirty years, which balances out to around three-quarters of each band member’s life. Having been an underground music outfit for nearly nine years before they made it, punk purists have long accused the group of “selling out,” especially after Stefani’s incredibly successful arena-pop career. Friday night was different: little changed in the crowd closest to the stage during the one hour between Flogging Molly and No Doubt. Festival-goers were still enthusiastically pushing forward, albeit towards a dark stage, in a rush to get the best vantage point possible. Bodies were packed in so tightly that grazing an intimate body part of your neighbor was inevitable.
Music festivals of today often become a sea of iPhone screens and pole-mounted GoPros, which results in a lack of participation by the audience while they all try to capture the entire thing on their mobile devices. No Doubt’s set (and all of Riot Fest) was as close to an old-school crowd as one can get these days-–concertgoers actually engaging in the show taking place before them (there were some exceptions, including a point at which Gwen Stefani told the crowd, “Yeah! Get your fucking phones up,” leading into “Sunday Morning”).
No Doubt began their set with “Hella Good,” a single from 2001’s Rock Steady. The rhythm began first, punctuated with electronic beeps sampled from Star Wars’ R2-D2. Instruments were added one-by-one: first out, drummer Adrian Young, flanked by Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair: No Doubt’s touring duo who provide the back bone to their sounds: brass, keyboards and background vocals. “Hella Good” continued to take shape as bassist Tony Kanal emerged on one side, followed by Dumont on the other. On the first line of the song, Stefani entered from the shadows––her platinum-blonde hair accented by purple and black extensions.
Well into their mid-forties now, No Doubt still exudes the incredible stage presence and electric energy attributed to their live shows. Plainly said; nothing’s really changed since the world first met them––in fact, the four members seem more confident now than ever before––not to mention they’re all in incredible physical shape.
The night truly belonged to Gwen Stefani, whose strong vocals and lyric delivery sounded more cutting than normal. Stefani has had a rough year; Riot Fest was one of her first public appearances since filing for divorce from her husband of 13 years, Bush’s Gavin Rossdale. The mother of three is incredibly private in regards to the details of her personal life, but the emotion could be felt, even though never explicitly addressed. An obvious example––during “Happy Now?” (an awesome surprise from 1995’s Kingdom), the singer tailored her lyrics, confidently stating, “I’m by myself/ all by myself/ I’ve got no one else/ I’m by myself.” Stefani jumped into the audience during the breakdown of “Happy Now,” brought a fan up on stage for a picture before “Simple Kind of Life” (said fan was dressed like her in the video, meaning she wore a wedding dress into the pit at a muddy festival… kudos), and accepted a gift from a fan who’d flown from Argentina to see the band. The gift? A blanket emblazoned with the band’s original logo, which featured a cartoon Gwen mid-jump, yelling into the microphone.
The 15-song set mainly comprised No Doubt’s hit singles from Tragic Kingdom, Return of Saturn & Rock Steady, in addition to their hit cover of Talk Talk’s 1980s club hit “It’s My Life” released on their The Singles 1992-2003 compilation album. The tune “Sparkle” was the only track featured from 2012’s Push and Shove. A slower tempo version of “Excuse Me Mr” brought out Kanal’s intricate bass rhythms and gave a new meaning to the lyrics. The encore song was “Spiderwebs,” and when Stefani ordered the crowd to put their hands in the air, the result was a beautiful sea of swaying hands that stretched back into the dark Chicago sky.
The future is uncertain for No Doubt right now––while Stefani publicly stated the band was working on new material last year, Kanal denied that claim in April 2015. The group had one final festival performance this month at KAABOO in Del Mar, CA; Stefani then returned to her duties as coach on NBC’s The Voice, which coincides with early promotion of a new solo effort slated for release early next year. Bottom line: if you can catch No Doubt, do not take it for granted.