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At times, with her lipsticked grimaces, platinum blonde hair and clockwork-doll poses, Gwen Stefani looked like an expressionist painting come to life. Then her face would relax into a smile, she’d skip across the stage and the effect would dissolve into one of healthy Californian prettiness.
Originally singer with the ska-rock band No Doubt, Stefani has reinvented herself as a sleek yet idiosyncratic R&B-pop star. Her songs have got better and the outfits have got showier. Her first solo album Love Angel Music Baby sparkled; its follow-up The Sweet Escape faltered, though happily we were spared its lapses into soft-rock balladry at Friday’s show.
The concert’s atmosphere was one part glamour – a large “G” logo decorated the stage as if Gwen, who has her own clothing range, were an off-shoot of Gucci – and one part girl-next-door. The costume changes were frothy and fun. One moment the singer and her backing dancers were in glittery jailbird uniforms, the next they were rocking a curious pastry-chef-meets-Tiller-Girl look. Stefani may be a 38-year-old mother, but there’s something of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz about her passage into pop stardom.
Fake dollars cascaded over the audience during the song “Rich Girl”, underlining the themes of wealth and glitz in her songs. Yet the best moment of the set came when she jumped off the stage and raced to the back of the arena to sing “OC Girl”, picked out by a spotlight standing among fans in the cheap seats. Somehow you can’t imagine Madonna doing that.
The songs ranged from conventional stadium-pop such as “Early Winter”, a pounding piano anthem written by a member of Keane, to a series of inventive, ultra-catchy hits produced by hip-hop production team The Neptunes. The nature of Stefani’s appeal was summed up by the lilting pop of “The Sweet Escape”: she combines apple-pie cuteness with unpredictable, artful escapism.