Seeing celebrated all-female punk-pop band the Donnas at a swank nightclub is like dropping by the fanciest "room" in Las Vegas to check out your teenage cousin's garage band.
The setting may be nice and the music may rock, but there's something intrinsically just-not-right about listening to teenage-angst-fueled punk-pop while drinking expensive cocktails in a room with plush carpeting and velvet curtains.
Leave it to the Donnas to make it right.
It happened Thursday night, when the quartet stormed the stage at Bimbo's 365, one of the nicest venues in San Francisco. The show was a record-release party for Get Skintight, the group's latest collection of three-chord, three-and-a-half-minute songs about boys, cruising and rock 'n' roll.
The show also marked the beginning of the Donnas' U.S. tour to support Get Skintight. The 28-date outing picks up June 30 in Portland, Ore., and then does a lap around North America before wrapping up in the Donnas' hometown, Palo Alto, Calif., on Aug. 12.
They may have been in a venue more appropriate for swing bands, but the Donnas didn't play up or down to their surroundings. They just got up there and rocked, playing 15 songs -- including an encore -- in an hour.
Aside from a joke about a Jordan Knight lookalike contest being held that night ("Just suck in your cheeks and you might win!" singer Donna A. -- born Brett Anderson -- exclaimed), there was little verbal interaction with the crowd.
Like many a great rock act, the Donnas prefer to let their music do the talking. From the opening notes of Get Skintight's "Hyperactive" to the closing rumble of The Donnas' "Let's Go Mano" 60 minutes later, guitarist Donna R. (born Allison Robertson) put the power in power chords. Bassist Donna F. (born Maya Ford) and drummer Donna C. (Torry Castellano) kept the rhythm thundering and steady, while vocalist Donna A. delivered lyrics like "Rock 'n' roll all weekend long/ Doin' donuts on my neighbor's lawn" (RealAudio excerpt of "Doin Donuts") with a smile and a slight swivel of the hips.
The crowd didn't move much to the unfamiliar "Hyperactive," but they started pogoing from the first note of the second song, American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine 's "Checking It Out." They continued dancing for the rest of the evening. The only time the pace slowed at all was during the ballad "You Don't Want to Call," and even then, band and audience kept moving briskly.
The evening's set was neatly balanced between new songs and old favorites -- not that there's much difference between the two. "Hey I'm Gonna Be Your Girl," for example, from the group's self-titled 1998 full-length debut, segued neatly into Get Skintight 's "Hook It Up."
Donna R.'s guitar riffs continue to draw equally from the buzzsaw sound of classic punk-act the Ramones and the metalized glam-rock of Mötley Crüe, while Donna A.'s perky, rebellious vocals sound like those of Joey Ramone and Runaways-era Joan Jett.
But no one in the audience seemed disappointed by any lack of artistic growth. In fact, fans probably counted on it.
"The Donnas always deliver," Wendy Lofton, 22, said. "You're not gonna hear some prog-rock jazz odyssey at a Donnas show. At least I hope not."
"They know how to give the pit a good workout," Eric Tucker, 23, said after the show. "It's just rock at its purest -- teen lyrics and three chords. People always say they rip off the Ramones, but I say they're doing a good job at it. So be it."
Donna R. encouraged comparisons to the Ramones on Thursday by styling her hair like Dee Dee Ramone: a triangular, Cousin It/bangs-in-the-face look that only showed her face during a number in which the rest of the band donned sunglasses. At that moment, she flipped one side of her hair a bit to reveal that she wasn't wearing sunglasses.
In an evening filled with highlights, the most interesting occurred before the Donnas even hit the stage. When the stage lights dimmed to indicate that the show would be starting soon, the speakers filled the room with the sugar-sweet pop of 'N Sync's "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You." A few couples slow-danced to pass the time, but the message seemed obvious: The Donnas are here to save us from slick, yet completely bland, teen-pop groups. The difference between the message in 'N Sync's saccharine "I Need Love" and the Donnas' gritty "Hey I'm Gonna Be Your Girl" is minimal, but presentation is everything.
On the other hand, by playing "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" before their set, the Donnas may have meant that God spent a little more time on them when he was making teen rock bands. There's no arguing with that.