In the mid-1990s, a curious sound infiltrated mainstream pop music: ska, the swingin’, pre-reggae dance style born in 1960s Jamaica. It was an odd turn at the tail end of the grunge era, and mirrored the rise of the late '70s British groups the Specials, Madness, the English Beat and the Selecter when they stormed British charts after the first wave of punk.
The so-called third wave of ska propelled No Doubt and its charismatic lead singer, Gwen Stefani, to stardom when its 1995 album, “Tragic Kingdom,” erupted out of Anaheim after three years of the band bubbling under. The group, which performed the first of a six-night residency at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Saturday night, rose amid a skankin' frenzy that included acts such as Reel Big Fish, Sublime, Rancid and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
But ska was just the springboard, and over the next decade, No Doubt went global. The energy generated from Stefani prowling and gangsta-leaning across big stages while delivering honest lyrics about her hopes, frustrations, heartbreaks and romances filled the hearts and heads of a generation.
On Night 1, that enduring spirit poured into the Gibson. Performing its first full set since 2009, in support of its first album in more than a decade, “Push and Shove,” No Doubt repeatedly showed why it, of all the groups to rise out of that curiously strong pop collision, remains.
From that ska seed rose a uniquely Californian sound. It and kindred spirits Sublime embodied the essence of the region's youth culture via a tweaked, rhythm-heavy varietal like few others coming out of the Southland before it, and in the process created a catchy, hummable brand of melting-pot pop that internalized rock, hip-hop and Latino sounds as well.
As evidenced by the giddy, electric crowd singing along to every line of 2000‘s “Simple Kind of Life,” and the furious joy of nearly every female at the Gibson screaming all the words to “Don’t Speak,” that sound continues to hit both with the core of the band's fan base moving into their mid-30s and the heavy population of teens and twentysomethings at the gig too young to remember the group the first time around.
From the rocksteady backseat romance of “Underneath It All” to the brash urban funk of “Hella Good,” the ska-punk of early jam “Total Hate 95” and the cheap come-on of “Hey Baby,” No Doubt illustrated how it has evolved over its life into a multifaceted musical machine. This is due not only to Stefani but also to the band surrounding her. Without them, she’s a strong singer with good pop sense and a way with words; with them she’s the emboldened leader of a unit that demands to be taken seriously.
Though bassist Tony Kanal grew up all over the place (England, Canada, Indiana and, ultimately, Orange County), his musical heart is in Kingston. You could hear it in his deep, dubby runs during “Sparkle,” from “Push and Shove.” One of the highlights, it was performed by the group semi-acoustically in a circle near the front of the stage, offering clear evidence that, even on the first evening of the residency, the band had locked back into place.
Skinny drummer Adrian Young, wearing only his skivvies and a mohawk, is a joy to watch, and banged confident rhythms throughout the night as touring members Gabrial McNair and Stephen Bradley pumped out keyboard and trombone runs. Guitarist Tom Dumont offered ska-inflected downbeat strums and tightly wound melodic dots. And to many, Stefani was the stuff of dreams.
“Have you had the fantasy of being Gwen Stefani,” asked singer Aja Volkman of opener Nico Vega, and all the girls -- and probably a few of the guys -- screamed a big yes. A little while later, a member of fellow openers Grouplove declared of No Doubt, “We’ve loved them our whole lives.”
This was truth. Even more than a singing voice, which Stefani proved is as steady as ever, her performance and its response illustrated how strong of a lyrical voice hers has been to the generation reared on it. “It’s all your fault I screen my phone calls,” she sang in “Spiderwebs,” the audience bouncing along with her.
If one of pop music’s key purposes is putting structure and melody to life’s many experiences, Stefani on Saturday showed that her questions and concerns have been pondered by millions.
Such resonance isn’t only in No Doubt’s past, though. As No Doubt showed on the infectious recent single “Settle Down,” it continues to document emotions that connect on a grand scale.
“Get, get, get in line and settle down,” she sang to an undisciplined other while her band disobeyed her with floor-shaking rhythms and the crowd shouted along: “I’m a rough and tough and nothing’s gonna knock this girl down.”
She left little room for argument -- not that anyone had reason to doubt her.