Gwen Stefani brings Truth to BB&T Pavilion - WXPN
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Gwen Stefani | Photo by Wendy McCardle for WXPN | wendymccardle.com

There are a handful of adolescence-defining songs for which I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard them.  No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” is one of those songs.  I have vivid memories of sitting by myself in the family room of my childhood home, watching MTV’s Alternative Nation at midnight and seeing that music video for the first time.  There was No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani, a doe-eyed and pouty-lipped atomic force of energy shining like a beacon at the end of the tunnel that was my grunge-filled childhood.  Not too long after, I caught No Doubt at the Electric Factory and in turn, Stefani became the first female musician I ever saw perform live.  All I remember is trying really hard not to cry.  Back then I was far too young to understand those emotions or why they were happening, but it certainly wasn’t the last time I’d experience them in a concert setting.

Spring forward nearly two decades and I’m seeing Gwen Stefani again during her This Is What The Truth Feels Like tour.  In support of the album of the same name – her first in ten years – last Tuesday’s stop in Camden, NJ was only the fourth of a 27-city solo trek which was plagued before it even began by embarrassingly low ticket sales as critics continue to dismiss Stefani’s third solo effort as a mere vehicle to promote her new role as judge on NBC’s The Voice.  And so, baffling was the choice, once the house lights were cut, to greet the audience not with the guiltily pleasurable “Hollaback Girl”, the undeniably infectious “The Sweet Escape” or hell, even the current saccharine single “Make Me Like You,” but with a video clip of Stefani explaining how she believed she was finished with music a long time ago.

The video was the first of a series of Sophie Muller-directed clips designed to coincide with the setlist and projected on giant, diamond-shaped screens.  This introductory clip showed Gwen in casual interview mode at home on her sofa and elaborating that, “After the last record [2006’s The Sweet Escape], I thought that was it.  Done.  I never thought I’d tour again.  This wasn’t supposed to happen”.  Looking around an arena filled to an estimated 40%, I couldn’t help but wonder if it needed to happen at all, at least at this disproportionate scale.
Gwen Stefani @ BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ

Gwen Stefani @ BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ

Regardless, Stefani’s comeback statement seemed to fly right over the heads of the predominantly pre-teen audience and dampened the energy as Stefani came skulking out from behind her four-piece band to “Red Flag”, an otherwise sharp and sassy track from Truth.  Things kicked up a notch with the second song, The Sweet Escape‘s opening track, “Wind It Up”, during which Stefani was joined by a team of eight dancers, four of whom assisted on percussive duties, taking the marching band beat of “Wind It Up” over the top.

That momentum built with each passing song, but the setlist was driven along by No Doubt material peppered in  — and it was more than obvious it was Stefani’s team of dancers and multi-tasking band carrying the weight of the show.  Sure, Stefani was ebullient, charming and interactive, stopping to autograph someone’s shoes and pulling audience members onstage to take selfies with her. But performance-wise, her Cali coolness was lost under gargantuan production and multiple costume changes.

Stefani’s finest moments came when she scaled things back a little, relying only on the strength of her voice rather than image to move the audience.  She soared during the No Doubt classic “Don’t Speak”, during which I’ll admit I felt those same tears welling up as I did at age 15.  Chills were induced with the simply pretty melody and New Wave edge of “Rare,” which Stefani introduced as “my favorite song off the new album.”  Still, “Rare” was accompanied by yet another video clip of a fresh-faced Stefani posing alongside images of rolling ocean waves and dramatic panning shots of barren winter trees.  As the low attendance made the view of the stage unobstructed, it was still difficult to decide where to train our eyes – upon Stefani herself or the two-dimensional plasma version.

Stefani finally hit that anticipated high with “Just a Girl” and “The Sweet Escape,” just in time for the show to end.  Perhaps that didn’t matter, as was evident as I made my trek out of the arena weaving through tiny throngs of kids, their faces glowing brighter than the giant LED screens onstage.  If some of them may grow to become musical connoisseurs or maybe even music critics, that night was their introductory course.  That detail alone is Gwen Stefani’s most profound truth.

Gwen Stefani @ BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ

Gwen Stefani @ BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ

Stefani was also joined by hip-hop artist Eve, who opened the show and rejoined Stefani later for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and “Rich Girl”.  Her own set, while consisting mostly of her radio hits of the early Aughts, felt fresh, modern and perfect for summer thanks to some solid dancehall and reggae vibes.  Still tough as nails, both Eve and her hype man didn’t bother censoring their language for the younger crowd, which was very necessary during tracks like the anti-domestic violence anthem “Love Is Blind”.  But that didn’t stop a few dads in the audience from hollaring, “Yo, there are kids here!”  But you can’t hold it against her.  Eve is a Philly girl after all.

Eve @ BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ

Eve @ BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ

Setlist

Red Flag
Wind It Up
Baby Don’t Lie
Obsessed
Where Would I Be?
Cool
Make Me Like You
Underneath It All
Misery
Luxurious
Harajuku Girls
Let Me Blow Ya Mind (with Eve)
Rich Girl
Hella Good
What You Waiting For?
Rare
It’s My Life (Talk Talk cover)
Asking 4 It
Don’t Speak
Naughty
Used To Love You
Hollaback Girl
Encore:
Truth
Just a Girl
The Sweet Escape

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