Gwen Stefani - Birmingham N.I.A.
No doubt about it, if cool-as Brazilian party-starters CSS are the support act then the headliner better be good. With the effervescent and sparkly catsuit-clad Lovefoxx front and centre, this flirty and filthy bunch cannot fail to do the job. One has to wonder whether Fuck Off is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show is a sensible choice of song when there are a number of kids in the audience, especially as this could be the big chance to widen their audience, but ultimately their electro-infused anthems are a suitable warm-up. In fact, when Alala and ultimate nu-disco standard Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above are in the offing, it would be quite alright to forego the headliner and witness a full-length set from these pesky foreigners. So, how about that headliner then?
You know you're in for one hell of a show when the main act emerges from a gold cage. During her opening rendition of poptastic The Sweet Escape, Gwen Stefani makes it clear that she is not one for subtlety. Her live show is all the better for that very reason. Backed by her trademark Harajuku girls who, along with a quartet of male dancers, rival Madonna's backing troupes for 'wow' factor, Stefani delivers a set overflowing with cuts from her two solo endeavours.
An early highlight is the innovative urban pop of Yummy, sadly devoid of Pharrell in this instance but still so essential it makes one wonder why Stefani keeps her best tracks back while releasing mediocre singles like Now That You Got It and 4 in the Morning. However, the latter is much more worthy of attention in a live arena, showcasing Stefani's more than capable vocals. Having catched her live on TV before, I was expecting her to struggle as a live performer; in actuality, her voice is as strong as any female artist I've seen live, and deserving of extra praise seeing as she refuses to mime while travesing the length of the stage in high heels. You think Britney can do that? No siree.
Stefani is a born star. Witnessing the spectacle of her solo show, it's hard to imagine her returning to No Doubt as she plans to do, such is the way she demands attention as a bona fide pop artist in her own right. She has the whole of the N.I.A., even those high up in the cheap seats, in the palm of her hand during enthusiastic performances of singles Wind It Up and Hollaback Girl, all the while looking like the fashion icon you see on a weekly basis in the glossy mags. Ticking the ballad box, she delivers powerhouses of Early Winter and the track accompanying her new perfume ad, the Linda Perry-penned Wonderful Life.
Throughout, though, there's a sense of saving the best until the latter stages of what is quite a lenghty show. Cool sees Stefani risking life and limb as she leaves the stage, accompanied by a band of security muscle of course, and travels into the murky depths of the higher tiers to prove her commitment to all those who've paid to see her. Unfortunately, there's no sign of Bubble Pop Electric, the greatest pop single that never was, a crying shame considering Stefani does give us a ballad to sway to, The Real Thing, made all the more sickly-sweet when she dedicates it to son Kingston. Such cringeworthy moments have to be expected at an arena gig, and this one at least can be forgiven when all the stops are pulled out for a high-energy swansong of What You Waiting For?
It's over in a flash, although it is a glorious flash that restores this boy's faith in silly but solid pop music, as well as larger venues. Granted, the seats were brilliant but the general atmosphere was one of leaving behind the mundanity of the working week and taking advantage of Gwen's so-called sweet escape. There were about ten people who refused to stand up and dance, and I can honestly say I haven't had this much fun at a show for ages. Whether this is due to the crowd, the venue itself (thumbs up to the N.I.A., that's for sure) or Stefani's magic touch, I really don't know. Nor do I care. No pop fan needs a Spice Girls reunion when quality productions like this are doing the rounds. Everybody: 'this shit is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!'