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Rock Steady

Photo by Chris Cuffaro

NO DOUBT at Universal Amphitheater, June 30

No Doubt are the greatest live pop band on Earth, and in Gwen Stefani they have a heroine who’s honed moderate gifts into a relentless, peerless entertainment machine. If you’ve never witnessed No Doubt’s semichoreographed, reggaefied new-wave master class, you are not ready for this.

As Stefani enters through the crowd, N.D. have enough faith in the depth of their material to open with the breakthrough single “Just a Girl,” still one of their most effective blasts of neon-vaudeville, Two Tone–tinged candy. What follows is a greatest-hits magic lantern: the loss and longing of 1995’s mega-seller Tragic Kingdom, the musically and lyrically insecure follow-up Return of Saturn, and 2001’s triumphant dancehall-delving opus Rock Steady.

Stefani — part punk rock aerobics addict, part vintage USO pinup — apparently exists in a different gravity from the rest of us, pulsing with an otherworldly verve even during the weepies. She’s a mass-appeal contradiction: a vulnerable goddess who’s remote yet relatable, empowered yet effeminate, comely yet uncompromised. And this perhaps 60 percent female audience responds with off-the-scale hysteria. While N.D. would be playing bars without Stefani, this is no solo act: Drummer Adrian Young’s grinning, maniacal diligence, Tony Kanal’s spaced ’n’ paced bass lines and elegant adrenaline, and guitarist Tom Dumont’s metal-trained musicality transcend mere backdrop.

What makes this all the more charming is that it hasn’t come easily to N.D., as there are no virtuosos aboard. Stefani has turned her limited Cyndi Lauper whimper into a pouting trademark, and the rhythm section are a victory for style over shredding. Their 17-year soap opera–ish struggle to reach and remain at the top is reflected in their glowing demeanor and Stefani’s choked-up fan appreciation. Unusually, the backstage open bar was deserted throughout No Doubt’s performance — even Hollywood’s ultracynical, see-and-be-seen gannets wouldn’t miss a moment of this.

THE RICHARD THOMPSON BAND, DAYNA KURTZ at House of Blues, July 2

Richard Thompson returned to House of Blues Friday night with what played like an original cast recording — or, as he put it, “incredibly old musicians” — including Danny Thompson on upright bass and legendary Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks (along with the standard multitasking Pete Zorn), and it felt so right you almost wanted to cry. Old songs that had become frenetic or rare (“Wall of Death”) settled back into their natural rhythms; new ones (“Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen,” from his latest, Old Kit Bag) revealed themselves as enduring classics. And Thompson, his increasingly refined tenor clear and confident, seemed happier onstage than he had in years, generously devoting attention to crowd favorites he sometimes trots out reluctantly: even “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” on which he sang and soloed with newfound conviction.

Opening for the band, Dayna Kurtz earned her place in the pantheon of fine singing-songwriting women Thompson has introduced on other tours, with gifts to rival the inspired and underappreciated Amy Correia, who opened for Thompson a few years ago at the Troubadour. In a luscious drawl the timbre of Correia’s cello, Kurtz tilts her head back at an angle and spins melodic, earthbound poetry that sets loose demons only to dismiss them into the ether. Her large frame squeezed into a short, pink-frilled party dress, she performs with obdurate abandon, and what she lacks in genre-busting originality she renders moot with the expressive power of her sonorous alto. On songs like “Love Gets in the Way,” from her first studio release, Postcards From Downtown, and “Music Box,” from her upcoming release Beautiful Yesterday (“If I could say one thing, I’d tell time that he’s a bastard”), Kurtz makes ordinary misery voluptuous, and sings other people’s songs (Prince, Leonard Cohen) as if she knows better than their authors what those songs are about. (Judith Lewis)

KNOC-TURN’AL, SECRET SOCIETY, KONFLIC at the Key Club, June 23

Promoter Sean Healy has been presenting the best rap acts in L.A. lately, and Knoc-Turn’al at the Key Club seemed like it had a lot of potential, but aside from Knoc’s short performance, it was a looooong night. Secret Society went on around 9 p.m., followed by Konflic, featuring DJ Dense, and then what seemed like an endless slew of acts. I thought this would be a West Coast night, but these crews were representing St. Louis and the Deep South (with that crunk attitude), and countless Georgetown jerseys onstage overshadowed the L.A. gear.

Skunky bud filled the air as the Damizza, Butch Cassidy and a group of Knoc’s L.A. Confidential label homies overfilled the stage — I mean, there were more homeboys onstage than on the floor. Butch, who’s worked with Snoop Dogg, Xzibit and other West Coast cats, had a half-perm, half-weave look going and an old black Adidas jump suit on; he looked like he came out of the film Colors, but dude can sing.

Knoc-Turn’al entered the stage chaos after midnight with drink in hand and looked, let’s say, a little lit up. Wearing a black Al Pacino Scarface T-shirt, saggy jeans and shell-toe Adidas, he went on the attack, throwing up the dub “W” and ripping into songs from his new album The Way I Am, including “Peepin’ Tom,” in which he raps classic West Coast songs from the D.O.C.’s “The Formula” to 2Pac’s “Dear Mama.” He rapped “You pop lock/We pop glocks” on “Love L.A.,” and the crowd went into a frenzy when he launched the heater “The Way I Am,” whose album version features Snoop. The show was really poppin’, and Knoc even freestyled a couple of times to old Cube/Westside Connection songs. But not even a half-hour had passed when Knoc and his entourage walked off. It was a shame the night was spent showcasing everyone other than Knoc-Turn’al. He is, after all, the next generation of West Coast. (Ben Quiñones)