Cool schmool

Jesus Christ, what happened to the Donnas? I kind of lost track of them after the first LP but agreed to go see them at the Fillmore in San Francisco last weekend because the Girls Drinking Team, Missoula Chapter (of which I have become an honorary member—don’t ask) needed an excuse for an outing.

The last I saw the Donnas play was maybe four years ago, when they were still Palo Alto High School students and the hometown favorites of the music department at KZSU (Stanford’s radio station). At the time they were also playing in a Raoul-ish girl punk band called Ragady Anne (later the Electrocutes) singing songs about how much they loved Elvis and hated the dentist. They became the Donnas when Darin Raffaelli from Supercharger “discovered” them and decided to play out his own Phil Spector/Kim Fowley fantasy by writing and teaching them catchy, dopey three-chord garage punk songs like “I Wanna Be a Unabomber” and “A Boy Like You” (“I don’t care / If you don’t wash your hair / ’Cause I wanna be with a boy like you”). One of the DJs liked them so much he put out the Donnas’ first 7-inch on a label financed by selling pot to Stanford kids. It was all in good fun and I liked them because they rocked, and they were girls, and they were a posse, and the fact that they could hardly play and didn’t even write their own songs didn’t seem to matter one bit.

Apparently a combination of San Francisco scenesterdom, media attention and guitar lessons has been unkind to the Donnas’ music; somewhere along the line their sloppy Ramones-punk slickened and “progressed” into big-guitar buttrock, reminiscent of a less-catchy and more Sephora-fied Runaways. At last Saturday’s show, which was a CD release party for The Donnas Turn 21, it became evident that they can now “play” their instruments, in the Guitar Center sense of the word, and have also garnered legions of adoring, Hot Topic-accessorized suburban fans. My “team” mates were properly impressed by their proficient rocking, but I couldn’t get the scowl off my snobby old-school face—because as much as I wanted to like them and be happy for their success, they just seemed to have turned into a lame Delia’s ad. Though I’ll admit to softening up for a moment when they played “Let’s Go Mano”—an old favorite—for an encore.

To me, opener Bratmobile clearly stole the show—I went there a casual fan and left a convert. The band exuded playful energy, poking fun at the audience’s jock quotient—not in an annoying, self-righteously political (read: Courtney Love) kind of way, but more like an in-joke between the singer and her female fans, who were mostly pooled up in packs at the corners of the stage. “I don’t think very many of you were at Ladyfest,” singer Alison Wolfe remarked coyly between songs, mostly from the band’s new CD Ladies, Women, and Girls. She also got in a few digs at George W. Bush. Bratmobile threw in a few older tunes, such as “The Real Janelle” and “Cool Schmool,” which ended the set way too soon. Where the Donnas were a study in self-conscious posturing, Bratmobile was the real rock ’n’ roll thing.