Pop queen Gwen Stefani leaves no doubt about her star power in RodeoHouston debut
Well, that was hella good.
Drawing songs from her 30-year career, the California-raised, girl-power heroine Gwen Stefani put on a show in front of 65,561 on Tuesday, March 15, making us wonder, why did it take so long for her to make her debut at RodeoHouston?
The pandemic is quite obviously the biggest reason for the delay — two years to be exact since her 2020 show was cancelled. But Stefani could have easily rocked out NRG Stadium much longer ago, achieving superstar status as a solo artist in 2004 with the seven-times platinum-selling, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. after selling 33 million worldwide with her ska-influenced alt-rock band, No Doubt.
Stefani has played Houston many times previously, way back to a early-years, pay-your-dues performance with her former band on the University of Houston campus in 1992, mostly ignored by students hustling to and from class.
This time around, she had a captive, much more appreciative audience there to see the pop queen fashionista who since then has topped of the charts and sold millions of albums.
It’s a remarkable success story. The bottled blonde singer, dressed in a gorgeous, bedazzled, gold, white and green cowgirl outfit finished with white boots, started with the pop radio hit "Sweet Escape," the title track of her 2006 album, igniting the first of many singalongs throughout the evening.
She was flanked by a gaggle of dancers who had choreographed moves for every song, backed by a four-piece band, including the standout trombone-keyboard player, Gabrial McNair.
"Sunday Morning," from the massive-selling 1995 No Doubt album, Tragic Kingdom, foreshadowed many songs from her time in that band and brought us back to when they ruled MTV and the radio. "It's been a two-year wait, but that’s okay!," said the 52-year-old, still stunning after decades in the game. "I can't believe it... I’m here at the rodeo in Houston!"
"Underneath It All" from 2001's Rock Steady brought some ska and reggae flavor, complete with some light ska dancing. Stefani served as her own hype woman, keeping everyone in the stadium engaged. “I really like you, Houston! I really like you!" she said. And we liked her right back.
A relative deep-cut, "Bathwater," the fourth single from No Doubt’s 2000 album Return to Saturn reached way back into the songbook while her dancers executed line dance-influenced moves. "I don’t want to disappoint you," she told us, alluding to her husband that has headlined RodeoHouston countless times.
"I’m married to Blake Shelton and I'm sorry he's not here right now, but he's at home being a good dad and babysitting!" "It's My Life" came next, the 1984 cover song by Talk Talk that No Doubt took to No. 10 when it was included on their 2003 greatest hits collection, The Singles, 1992-2003. It was one of the most rocking moments of the night and a great showcase from her extra tight band.
"Rich Girl" from the well-represented solo record, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., brought the crowd to their feet. The funkier, new wave No Doubt singles, "Ex-Girlfriend" and "Hella Good" followed, everyone jumping up and down at the singer’s command, a fun moment.
Back to Tragic Kingdom, the '90s power ballad "Don’t Speak" drew some of the loudest cheers and had cellphone flashlights in hands as Stefani ascended 20 feet into the air to serenade the crowd. Her voice never sounded better all night.
Known for mixing up genres in her solo work, Stefani brought something for everyone with "Wind It Up" from The Sweet Escape bringing yodeling to RodeoHouston next to Latin flourishes over a marching band beat. "Cool" from Love. Angel. Music. Baby. slowed things down to a couples-dance-at-prom speed, a hint of romance along with the slow-burn rock guitar licks.
"Luxurious," another single from the same album, veered into bedroom soul, a tune that wouldn’t be out of place at a Boyz II Men concert. "I'm feeling nostalgic because I’ve waited two years for this," she exclaimed. "[Back then], I had a life in Anaheim, California. Now I live in Oklahoma and I’m at a rodeo. I feel like we are family now!"
"What You Waiting For?," her timeless debut solo single kicked off and it was straight fire with rampant arse-shaking in the aisles, the most dance-music indebted song of the night with a thumping 4/4 bass drum groove. The energy now at level red, it was back to No Doubt hits, "Hey Baby" from Rock Steady, including more ska dancing and a toast by McNair.
Tragic Kingdom single, "Spiderwebs," had anyone who grew up in the '90s with a smile on their face. "We were a band for nine years before we got a song on the radio," Stefani stated before the penultimate track. "This song is bigger now than it ever was back then."
Debut Tragic Kingdom single, "Just a Girl," had all the ladies in the house up on their feet, a feminist anthem for the ages, the crowd practically drowning Stefani’s vocals.
The Neptunes-produced No. 1 song "Hollaback Girl" wrapped up the evening, making NRG Stadium practically explode. Everyone sung the earworm chorus — no clean version needed — and the applause at the end of the stone cold 2005 classic might have been among the loudest moments in NRG history.
With that, Stefani jumped on the back of a Ford truck, still hyping up the crowd until she wheeled into the tunnel. If last week's Journey show was for the Boomers, here was a performance for late Gen Xers and early Millennials, largely underrepresented at RodeoHouston.
One welcome surprise was the number of No Doubt hits included on the setlist, a dream come true to anyone that followed the Orange County band from the beginning. And while nostalgia did play a big factor in overall success of the night’s performance, this was the kind of fan service we were completely on board to see and experience.
Gwen — we’re on a first name basis after that performance — simply crushed it in what is in the running for the best concert of the RodeoHouston season, her neon-bright personality shining from start to finish, and her sing-shout vocals sounding excellent throughout.
Indeed, that s**t was bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
“Underneath It All”
“It’s My Life”
“Ex-Girlfriend”/“Hella Good” (Vegas Version)
“Wind It Up”
“What You Waiting For”
“Just a Girl”