The Donnas/The Smugglers/The Plus-Ones

I had this dream after seeing the Donnas last night: I was sitting at a table at The Bottleneck (already, you can tell it’s a dream) with the band, and I confessed that I wouldn’t be able to stick around for the second set. So Donna A. beat me up.

I know from where this dream originates. Both opening bands referred to physical altercations with various members of The Donnas, the rambunctious, tube-topped, eight-legged entity that writes dumb-catchy odes to cruising and French kissing. Clearly, traveling with The Donnas is not a voyage on the Love Boat. Sure, the Smugglers and the Plus-Ones were joshing about the alleged fisticuffs, but one taste of the Donnas’ stage attack leaves little doubt that you shouldn’t fall asleep when one or more Donna is in the room. Not in a Runaways will-I-wake-up-with-a-tattoo-or-a-knife-wound way — more like, “Will I wake up with my hand in warm water and my pants soaked with urine and with lipstick all over my face?”

Sleep was impossible during all three sets. The Plus-Ones won the night with a tight set of hummable power-pop songs. They were quick and loud, with a sure stage presence and better material than either travel buddy.

The Smugglers were merely loud. The main trouble with the apparently prolific band (which has several albums and EPs available) is that it’s a power trio with five members. Singer Grant Lawrence suffered from vocal split personality, shredding most lyrics but crooning others with Popeye’s clinched larynx, resulting in a shouting delivery that aims for “Oi!” and comes up with “Hey, Olive Oyl.” Both guitarists jumped, spun, stabbed, dove, and generally behaved like Anthony Michael Hall at a school dance, forgetting completely to play a lead. Poor bass player John Collins’ already sludgy parts were drowned out by the guitar monitor’s shrill complaints. The Smugglers burrowed into the stage, stubbornly refusing to leave for a whole endless hour. They may have fit 20 selections in (I lost count), but few could be described as songs without undue charity. On the plus side, the Smugglers demonstrated that they are Canadians — or as George W. Bush might say, Canadianites — (from punk haven British Columbia) by favoring thin-lapel suits and new-wave ties.

That leaves The Donnas, who suffered no visible embarrassment yelling, “Are you ready to rock?” at the start of their gig. Clearly, the young Palo Alto, Calif.-based band was the attraction for the majority of Thursday’s crowd. By the time they turned on, just after midnight, the room looked like an uneasy halfway house of Girl Scout camp refugees and paroled sex offenders. To varying degrees, they were ready to rock.

The Donnas drove their point home with a brief set that didn’t keep the high schoolers out too late. But The Donnas’ point is less musical or political than personal. The novelty of their age and appearance, which has (on Thursday’s evidence) already visibly declined, is a great excuse for a minor label to assemble some junky garage notes. But the band members will have to work harder than they did at The Bottleneck to evolve into Sleater-Kinney rather than Shonen Knife.

The Donnas’ aversion to long rehearsing (they have said they practice about twice a week at most) doesn’t hurt them too much, though, because they play the simplest stuff possible. Donna A. was an effective screecher, cupping the microphone in a business handshake and making the most of being the most turned-out-seeming group member. (That said, the other reason I knew I was dreaming was that she wasn’t chewing gum. Given the choice between actually singing professionally and chewing gum, there’s no question which she’d choose.) They were good for a cheap pop thrill over a couple of songs, but it would have been more fun to watch The Donnas get Roadhouse on the Smugglers than to see either group stretch its lean ideas over a set.

Categories: Music