No Doubt, Paramore and The Sounds May 27 Fiddler's Green
Not so long ago, major bands in their prime, not past it, would seldom tour without a new album to promote, since recordings represented a -- and often the -- major profit center. But times have changed. In the age of downloading, multi-platinum sales are becoming as rare as dudes with their own copies of the Mama Mia! DVD, and acts like No Doubt and Paramore, which have already established a following, make most of their dough touring. Granted, the bands are working on new releases -- Paramore's is supposed to come out at summer's end, while No Doubt's is mostly in the theoretical stage. But both are taking advantage of the improving weather to bring in some bank. As a result, last night's gig at Fiddler's was a de facto greatest-hits show for the top two outfits -- and if each of them delivered on that score, only one transcended the concept's limitations.
The festivities began right on time, with The Sounds representing the chosen band-lineup demographic of the night: a female lead singer supported by a gaggle o' guys. In this case, the frontwoman was Maja Ivarsson, who wore fuck-me heels, fuck-me tights, fuck-me short-shorts, a fuck-me top, and a Farrah Fawcett-style feathered hairstyle that seemed to say, "Fuck me like it's 1978." And while she's from Sweden, she clearly knows her way around American profanities -- although the way she said "motherfuckers" at one point suggested that she'd learned the word phonetically.
As for the music, songs such as "Hurt You" offered a flashback gloss on the danceable fare that dominated early period MTV -- a retro shtick that was certainly appropriate given the tuneage played between sets (stuff by Depeche Mode, the Smiths, Duran Duran and so on). Too bad it lacked anything resembling inspiration. Ivarsson kept going back to a single stage move -- sinking into a squat with her legs spread wide, in order to give the teen boys in attendance something to do with their hand lotion later in the evening -- while the rest of the group hammered away anonymously behind her.
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The trend would continue once Paramore stepped into the spotlight. With each time I see the group (I caught them at the 2007 Warped Tour and last year's KTCL Big Gig concert), it becomes even more obvious that frontwoman Hayley Williams -- the subject of a recent Westword profile and Q&A -- has outgrown her band. She stood out from the man squad by dint of color scheme: All the fellas wore dark clothing, while she stepped forward in a white T-shirt and shorts, not to mention her trademark flame-hued coiffure, which dozens of girls I saw tried to duplicate for the occasion. But even if she'd donned a burka, she still would have commanded the lion's share of attention. She was the spark, the focus, the magnet in every song. The only exception came when bassist Jeremy Davis turned an impressive flip during "Pressure." But even if he'd managed to execute an Olympic-quality floor routine, he would have been fighting a losing battle.
The Paramore set was loaded with fan faves: "Misery Business," "Crushcrushcrush," the Twilight soundtracker "Decode." But the combo did offer a couple of new cuts that underscored the limitations of Williams' supporting cast. The first, "Ignorance," was a chugging grinder whose monochromatic melody didn't give Williams many opportunities to soar. Davis and company seemed to be digging the number, but it represented a creative dead end. In contrast, "Where the Lines Overlap" offered enough movement and space for Williams to shine, and that's precisely what she did.
Prediction: A couple of months from now, modern-rock radio will be pounding this last track like a chef trying to tenderize a tough piece of steak. The resulting hit will provide an argument for Williams to stick with Paramore, which is populated by players she's known since she was thirteen-years old -- and she obviously feels a great deal of loyalty toward them. But if she's ever going to take her career up a notch, she'll eventually have to move on.
And it doesn't have to be forever, as No Doubt star Gwen Stefani has proven. After touring behind 2001's Rock Steady, the last ND studio album, she took time off to record a pair of highly successful solo recordings. But No Doubt never officially broke up, and given that her mates -- bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young -- have far fewer options than she does, they eagerly rejoined her for the current jaunt. Hence, Stefani is able to maintain a connection she values with the people who have been there since the beginning without feeling trapped by them.
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Of course, the mere fact that No Doubt is still around, and still a commercial force, after nearly a decade and a half since busting charts with 1995's Tragic Kingdom qualifies as a surprise. Back then, the group was part of at least the second major ska revival -- a trend that wasn't expected to last (and didn't) -- and Stefani was widely regarded as an Orange County pop tart whose notoriety was based largely on her big smile and shapely bod. Yet she's proven to be a savvy performer able to tweak her image on a regular basis. If her material is still lightweight, by and large, she sells it so winningly that it seems churlish to complain. And unlike the men of The Sounds and Paramore, her masculine associates boast plenty of personality, with Kanal hopping and air-kicking while maintaining an expression of effortless cool, Dumont delivering licks and dance steps with equal aplomb, Young embracing the role of the loony drummer sans the slightest self-consciousness, and brass accompanists Stephen Bradley and Gabrial McNair bringing the right amount of Jamaican skank to the proceedings.
The stage set-up consisted of a series of interlocking white arches that matched nicely with the No Doubters all-white garb. (Naturally, Stefani didn't stick with her outfit: She changed costumes twice along the way.) And the graphics projected on the screen behind them were almost too good. Indeed, the spy-movie-inspired sequences that accompanied "Ex-Girlfriend" proved so riveting that I had to keep reminding myself to occasionally watch the live musicians instead of remaining glued to the video. Stefani must not be a great actress when she's required to actually talk, or else someone would have given her more of an opportunity at this point. (Her main part to date was a virtual cameo in Martin Scorsese's 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.) But she's a tremendous music-video actress -- a talent akin to emoting on camera during the silent era. As such, she commanded clips despite the fact that her compatriots are mighty telegenic, too.
In large part, the renditions of "Spiderwebs," "Hella Good," "Underneath It All" and so on were pretty standard -- the closest thing to a revision came with the Talk Talk cover "It's My Life," which was given a more driving keyboard underscore. Nonetheless, the pace never flagged, and neither did the musicians' energy. They all looked far younger than their years -- the platinum hair coloring they used served as the equivalent of Kiss' face paint -- and if playing old material bored them, they never let on. Indeed, Stefani didn't seem the slightest bit uncomfortable leading the crowd in a chant of "I'm just a girl," even though she's not anymore -- she's a 39-year-old married mother of two. That's another kind of acting at which she excels...
Of course, the question of new songs continues to linger. The only ditty debuting on this tour is a fairly rote cover of Adam and the Ants' "Stand and Deliver," originally assembled for a cameo on Gossip Girl. (During it, Young descended from his kit to play a snare drum while prancing around in a ballerina tutu he later supplemented with a Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt. Bastard...) But these days, who needs a new album? The road beckons -- and so do the accountants.