After witnessing Christina Aguilera's craptacular "Back To Basics" show less than a week ago, I found it difficult to muster a lot of enthusiasm for Gwen Stefani's "Sweet Escape" concert last night. I love Gwen but I secretly feared the worst. I had scary visions of Gwen rapping to shitty hip hop music floating around my head, fears that were only reinforced by the choice of Gym Class Heroes as the support act. However, as the lights went down and Gwen emerged from a golden cage looking like a genetically engineered doll, I knew that I was about to witness something special. "The Sweet Escape" tour has everything the "Back To Basics" experience lacked. It's professional, engaging and hugely entertaining.
Acer Arena is a complete dump. Apart from being located in the arsehole of Sydney, it's poorly designed and uglier than Amy Winehouse. It's only saving grace is the liquor lounge, which I'm probably becoming a little bit too familiar with. After downing enough alcohol to power a car, my friend and I ventured into the arena to catch the end of Gym Class Heroes' set. I must have been really tanked because I thought they were fairly amusing and rather enjoyed their craptastic hatchet job on Jermaine Stewart's "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off". It wasn't long before two Harajuku girls dressed as prisoners ran through the stadium and Gwen emerged from her golden cage to sing a fabulous rendition of "The Sweet Escape". The set, costumes and sound quality were all excellent but the most impressive aspect of the opening act was Gwen's stage presence. I found it difficult to take my eyes off her. Gwen exudes star quality like few other modern divas.
Unlike Christina, who thought it best to concentrate on obscure album tracks, "The Sweet Escape" setlist played like a greatest hits compilation. After a quick costume change, Gwen upped the camp ante by playing a cat burglar for her delightful rendition of "Rich Girl". Gwen took some time out to chat with the audience and instantly connected with her sincerity and humility. She could have just been pretending - but if her "acting" in "The Aviator" is any indication, I have a feeling that she was genuinely ecstatic to be there. The hits continued to flow with "4 In The Morning" and "Luxurious". You know that a performer is doing a good job when they give you a new appreciation for songs you previously disliked. I used to hate "Luxurious" but I've been humming the damn thing all day. One of the night's most amusing moments was Gwen's winning performance of "Wind It Up", complete with a mobile hill and glowing sheep!
About half way through the show there was a distinct shift in format. The first part was a highly stylised and well coordinated spectacle, while the second half reverted to a more traditional rock concert. The glamorous costumes were still on display, as were the omnipresent Harajuku girls, but the show now revolved around a singer performing with her band. The sets disappeared, allowing Gwen to prowl the stage like a panther - in fabulous heels, of course! Show stopping versions of "Early Winter" and "Danger Zone" sat well beside a lovely interpretation of "Wonderful Life". This was followed by one of the most unexpected and sweet gestures I've witnessed in a major concert. Gwen climbed off the stage and ran into the middle of the crowd to sing "Cool". By the end of the song she had climbed halfway up the arena and had the entire audience in the palm of her hand.
The show came to a close with a sentimental performance of "Orange County Girl" and a lengthy introduction to her dancers and amazing band. I was particularly delighted that my favourite Gwen Stefani song, "The Real Thing", was included in the encore. Gwen dedicated the song to her son and transformed it into a gorgeous ballad. "What You Waiting For" then concluded the show in fabulous style. "The Sweet Escape" is not a groundbreaking tour but it is a hugely endearing show. Gwen gives her fans what they want, while staying true to her own unique aesthetic. I can't wait for her next visit.