On a dare by bassist Mike Watt, Petra Haden, a Los Angeles singer and violinist, re-created “The Who Sell Out” as an a capella showcase, mutating her voice into guitars, horns, even Keith Moon’s manic drumming. The Bar/None release is one of the year’s most unexpected pleasures. In its live premiere at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater on Friday night, the work was even more charming than the album.
For obsessive Who fans, the kind of guys who populate the novels of Nick Hornby, “The Who Sell Out” is the band’s finest moment. The apogee of high Carnaby Street style, it’s as much a pop artifact as album, a re-creation of mid-’60s top 40 radio that looked toward both Warhol and Billboard, complete with actual jingles and IDs from Radio London; Pete Townshend-penned “ads” for products including Heinz Baked Beans, Premiere Drums and Odorono deodorant; and the band’s first American hit, “I Can See for Miles.”
Friday night it was nearly impossible not to fall in love (at least a little bit) when 10 attractive, elegantly dressed women leaned into their microphones and went “bah-dah-bit” when they wanted to sound like a drum. Or when Haden, a sweetly ingenious bundle of nerves onstage, given to unself-consciously miming air guitar or drums, put her finger to her lips to imitate a heavily vibratoed guitar or formed her face into a scowl when she sang the “oh yeahs” during “Miles.”
Haden is a self-confessed agnostic on the Who, and her work is less a labor of love than of devotion. She hews remarkably close to the arrangements, but doesn’t feel so reverential that she can’t find new avenues and byways in the songs. And the arrangements touch on almost every vocal style imaginable. Touches of the Beach Boys (Townshend and, especially, Moon were surf music fans), gospel and barbershop quartets can be heard throughout. “Our Love Was” effortlessly glides from an ensemble motet to Haden’s scatted growl for a guitar solo to a few lines of classic girl-group harmonies.
“Silas Stingy” is a knockout, filled with counterpoint singing that wouldn’t be out of place in a madrigal — an apt choice given the song’s tale of a miser come to no good, a story as old as Chaucer; “Sunrise” takes on the lushness of a ballad from a Broadway musical; “Rael” becomes Gilbert & Sullivan operetta as befits its boys-playing-pirates lyrics. If all this sounds like a stunt, well maybe it is, but the original was a stunt as well.
In this, some credit must go to Watt, who chose a perfect album for the project — it’s vocally rich and filled with playful humor. In taking Watt’s challenge, both on album and -stage, Haden has made anyone who listens a winner.