Hot time, even from the cheap seats

Gwen Stefani ignites the Tampa crowd as smoke from distant wildfires clears.

Published May 9, 2007

TAMPA - Here's what was "supposed" to happen: Toward the end of Tuesday's show at Ford Amphitheatre, platinum-topped pop queen Gwen Stefani was scheduled to perform her hit "Cool" from a small stage at the soundboard in the middle of the venue.

But then lithe, lovely Gwennie, a puckish gal to be sure, had another idea. "I can't see the lawn!" she said of the folks in the cheap seats. "I can't see them!"

So she scrapped those plans, totally bamboozling security, and scampered to the back, dragging members of her band -and hundreds of tizzied, cellphone-toting fans - with her.

Oh yeah, she definitely earned that giant glowing "G" that loomed over the stage.

Funny thing is, coming into the show, the hottest storylines and I do mean hot had nothing to do with the star or her flash-friendly midriff.

First there was the smoke, a hazy shade of smog blown southward from the wildfires in Florida and south Georgia. For a while there, concert promoters weren't sure what they were going to do.

Then there was the sticky hullabaloo surrounding opening act Akon, the mad-selling Senegalese hip-hopper whose onstage grinding (and I do mean grinding) of an underage woman at a recent show in Trinidad caused aghast concert sponsor Verizon to ditch the tour.

But the smoke eventually cleared. (Heck, Gwen's from L.A., she sucks in cruddy air every day.)

Akon was relatively well-behaved, cooing out hits "Smack That," "Don't Matter" - and wisely letting the crowd sing the utterly nasty "I Wanna Love You."

And by the time the former No Doubt star, now basking profitably in the solo spotlight, hit the stage, Stefani was once again in position to draw all attention back to her.

Playing strictly her solo hits (sorry, No Doubt fans) from 2004's Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and last year's The Sweet Escape, Stefani worked her aerobicized tokus off for almost two hours in front of 16,500 screaming fans.

Opening with the hit "The Sweet Escape", Stefani first appeared behind a gold-glowing onstage jail, her infamous backing dancers, the Harajuku Girls, in the pokey with her. For the next cut, "Rich Girl" (which borrows a hook from, of all things, Fiddler on the Roof), that jail turned into a bank vault, and Gwen prowled around like a cat burglar, hamming it up the whole time.

A great part of Stefani's appeal has been her very public, very melodious emotional battle between being a pop star and being a mommy. (She has a little boy, Kingston). New hit "Yummy" was a randy come-on about a mother desperate for some romance. She also poked fun at her maternal instincts with the ferociously clever "Wind It Up", in which she merges a dance-floor beat with a yodeled cover of Julie Andrews' "The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music.

Then there was the loudest spelling bee of all time. For "Hollaback Girl", Stefani and her Harajuku Girls stomped around to that marching-band beat. Then the singer reared back and fired: "This [bleep] is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!" And every single fan spelled that sucker right back at her.

"That was a fun one," she chirped after the song.

Oh that Gwen: You just gotta love her.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.