It was not necessarily shaping up to be a great night for Gwen Stefani in Charlotte.
This past spring, the 46-year-old pop star turned to Groupon for help with the show here, which can be an indicator of lukewarm interest. Then Live Nation held a Fourth-of-July-weekend sale, offering four lawn tickets for a dirt-cheap $40.
And on Saturday night, as concertgoers came through the gates at PNC Music Pavilion, they were greeted by a Live Nation rep touting the opportunity to upgrade from lawn to pavilion seats for just $10. That, of course, could only mean one thing: There were too many empty pavilion seats for comfort.
For the first seven songs in her 25-song set, anyway, Stefani seemed to ignore the gaps in the crowd. But after a sprightly rendition of pop-oriented “Make Me Like You” – which, like multiple songs on her new album, “This Is What the Truth Feels Like,” is about boyfriend Blake Shelton – the platinum-blonde singer spontaneously (and unilaterally) decided to ask security to allow fans to come closer to the stage.
“I don’t think anybody’s gonna care,” she said, shrugging. Cue stampede. Within less than two minutes, the number of fans in the pit area near the stage about tripled in size.
“Just fill in anywhere you like,” Stefani told them. “Who cares about your lawn chairs? You can get new ones.”
By the time she launched into Song No. 8 – reggae-influenced No Doubt hit “Underneath It All” – the previously “OK” crowd had been elevated to another level. It was electric. Euphoric.
With a wave of her hand, Stefani had performed a trick that served as wish fulfillment, on the one hand, but that also managed to make the roughly three-quarters-full venue feel even fuller, and far more alive. Though in the process, she maybe ticked off the venue, just a little.
After a quick-change out of ripped red tartan pants and into a pair of jeans with at least eight or nine zippers, she slinked her way through new single “Misery” (also about Shelton) and its taunting bridge: “You’re in so much trouble/(You better watch out)...”
Turns out Stefani was the one in hot water.
“I got in so much trouble for telling you guys to come up here,” she said, sheepishly, after finishing “Misery.” “It was fun. ... But you guys kind of have to move out of the fire lane, or else I’m dead. ... So can you please get back to your seats?”
Of course, no one did. Which was fine, because the bursting-at-the-seams pit seemed to energize Stefani, as she ripped through two hip-hoppy songs with support from opener Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and “Rich Girl”); club-bangers like “What You Waiting For?” and “Just a Girl”; and bittersweet break-up ballads like “Don’t Speak” (about her No Doubt bandmate and ex-boyfriend Tony Kanal) and “Used to Love You” (about her philandering ex-husband, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale – the father of her three boys).
For someone who hasn’t toured in seven years, she certainly wasn’t off her game. Stefani seemed as comfortable as ever in her still-youthful-looking skin, and had support from a tight band (which shined brightest when the trumpet and the trombone showed up, most notably on yodel-friendly “Wind It Up,”) along with eight backup dancers.
The only time she seemed to lose her cool was when, late in her set, she waded into the pit area to mingle with fans and sign autographs – but abruptly cut the whole thing short.
“Up close you guys are really, really smelly, and really sweaty,” said Stefani, who was initially trying to make light of it. Then seconds later, having hardly signed anything, she panicked: “I’m out of here. Gross.”
Someone from her security team pulled her back onstage, and she immediately said, as if nothing had happened, “Alright, this is my favorite song on the new record.” (That’d be “Rare,” if you’re wondering.)
It was an awkward moment, but all was quickly forgiven.
Her version of No Doubt’s cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life” had pretty much every head bobbing to the throbbing synth-pop beat. “Hollaback Girl” and its “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” chant killed, as it always does. And as Stefani closed the night with 2006 solo hit “The Sweet Escape,” her fans were rapturous.
They’d gotten their money’s worth, or – in some cases – probably quite a bit more.
Gwen Stefani setlist
Wind It Up
Baby Don’t Lie
Where Would I Be?
Make Me Like You
Underneath It All (No Doubt song)
Let Me Blow Ya Mind (Eve cover) (with Eve)
Rich Girl (with Eve)
Hella Good (No Doubt song)
What You Waiting For?
It’s My Life (Talk Talk cover)
Asking 4 It
Don’t Speak (No Doubt song)
Used to Love You
Just a Girl (No Doubt song)
The Sweet Escape