Gwen Stefani at the First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre, 2007

By Mark Guarino

Ordinarily, news that a very famous pop singer will return to the band she once fronted starting 12 years ago, is good news. The public generally likes familiar music franchises more than misguided solo careers — just ask Steve Perry.

For Gwen Stefani, who is reportedly returning to the Orange County ska-pop band No Doubt after a highly successful two-album solo break, it appears like a step backward.

The evidence was her headlining set at the First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre in Tinley Park Friday. Before a crowd of about 20,000 fans, Stefani demonstrated that although she is not the greatest singer, she is one of today’s most unpredictable, charismatic and entertaining pop stars.

The show was a rarity for what it wasn’t: cynical, trashy and lewd. Stefani sidestepped songs from No Doubt’s lengthy band career and instead stuck to 16 songs from her two solo albums particularly “The Sweet Escape” (Interscope), released late last year. Backed by a six-member band positioned high on a riser and a legion of dancers, Stefani re-imagined her weird, schizophrenic pop tendencies as minature Broadway musical moments, complete with storylines (Stefani as prison inmate, Stefani as high school cheerleader, Stefani as bakery chef). In this show, each song was presented like an animated cartoon — except without the animation.

A child of the 1980’s MTV era (she is 37), Stefani is intent on making pop music that retains a contemporary edge but also brings back bubblegum melodies, glossy synthesizers and irreverent musical references, like melodies built around Broadway chestnuts like “Fiddler on the Roof.”

She is also a creature of the power ballad, and in this environment, she returns such respectability to that passionate and sentimental subgenre, Bonnie Tyler would be proud. “Early Winter” was a highlight of the night, but as Stefani dashed off for a costume change, her bass player continued the lead vocal — not a smart choice as the singer’s ending flourish into the upper octaves trumped Stefani’s flat, often nasal delivery.

The show also managed to bring to life her songs that rely less on melody than fast, interchangeable rhythms — and, in the case of “Wind It Up,” a dose of yodeling. These songs became furious dance exercises that involved frantic storytelling. It was mostly — as Stefani would say, “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” — but so is the circus and that was all right.

Stefani surprised the crowd near the end by running to the back of the pavilion to play directly to the masses stuck on the lawn. It proved that although she appears larger than life, she is an artist who can earn that reputation even on a small scale.

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