Pop Rocks

Los Angeles

Left: Petra Haden and the Sell Outs. Right: Stephen Prina “live.” (All photos: Tamara Sussman)

It was a beautiful summer Friday evening in Los Angeles as I arrived at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre for the world premiere performance of Petra Haden’s a cappella remake of The Who’s 1967 album, The Who Sells Out, presented by the Society for the Activation of Social Space through Sound (SASSAS). Encircled by lush flora, the Ford is a handsome, vaguely medieval fortress, its idyllic charms heightened by its proximity to the decidedly un-idyllic 101 Freeway. I reached the stage in time to hear the end of the sound check. Petra was the sole performer on the recording, but is joined for live renditions by nine female vocalists—including her sister, Tanya, and Carla Commagere, who on this night looked nine-and-a-half months pregnant and was the undeniable center of attention. Throughout the sound check, I sensed some obvious nervousness, probably attendant to the word “premiere,” but the rich harmony sounded great.

I can’t reach you
I strain my eyes
I can’t reach you
I split my sides
I can’t reach you

After the sound check, I followed Tanya into the backstage bowels of the Ford, and—just as I was thinking it—she jokingly referred to the scene in This Is Spinal Tap where the band gets lost in the backstage labyrinth. But this backstage scene was very mellow: No rock star shenanigans here. I said hello to opening performer Stephen Prina before heading to the patio to watch the audience arrive.

Reflecting the overlapping interests of the art and music communities, about half the crowd looked familiar. There were contingents with connections to Prina’s alma mater CalArts (James Welling, Thomas Lawson) and to Art Center (Taft Green, Julian Hoeber, Joel Tauber, Lindsay Brant), where Prina taught before taking a job at Harvard. Dave Muller, chatting with Alex Slade and Mungo Thomson, showed off the tiny Ozzy logo on his black satin jacket. I was told that Dan Graham, who literally wrote the book bridging art and music, might show. He didn’t, but I was somewhat placated by the appearance of honorary Professor of Rock Jack Black (who is dating Tanya) and Miranda July, whose film Me and You and Everyone We Know was debuting in Los Angeles and New York on that night.

Around 8:30, SASSAS organizer Cindy Bernard welcomed the crowd, and Prina, nattily attired in matching plaid vest and pants, took the stage, armed with an acoustic guitar. After a simple “Hi,” he launched into Magnetic Fields standard “I Don’t Want to Get Over You,” which generated a few appreciative laughs at the line “I could dress in black and read Camus.” Even Prina chuckled, uncharacteristically. With Prina’s nods to Petra’s Who redux, and his selection of a few choice cover songs, his admirers could contextualize the performance in relation to his larger, post-conceptual practice of quotation and, uh, contextualization. But, it became clear that art-world fans weren’t alone in the audience. For the uninitiated it might be difficult to know how to handle the oblique poetry and unadorned presentation of gems like “Galveston,” “You Are My Sister,” or “No One Calls Me Friend,” and I’m sure a few classic rockers were befuddled by the performance (like, who are you? Who, who?). One guy audibly expressed his dissatisfaction. Prina, somewhat taken aback, nevertheless responded quickly to the heckler: “And I thought the Taco Hideout Lounge was a rough venue.” (After the show Prina tells me he used to perform at said lounge in Galesburg, Illinois when he was sixteen. “And I used to do my chemistry homework there too.”)

Left: Jack Black and Tanya Haden. Middle: Petra Haden backstage after the performance. Right: Becky Stark and Miranda July.

Then, with impeccable timing, Prina performed “All The Young Dudes.” Dedicated appropriately if tautologically “to all the young dudes,” Prina’s, rather, um, straight rendition of the glam rock staple seemed to freak a few people out, especially when he picked out a young dude (with glasses) in the audience and expressed his interest in wanting him on stage, right then. The cover beautifully exploited the immanent tension between the art and rock audiences, implicitly asking: What’s the difference between an “appropriation” and a “cover”? Or, between “Conceptualism” and “concept” album? (Of course the album cover of The Who Sells Out from 1967, with its giant can of Heinz baked beans and Oldenburgian Odorono deodorant, is an early example of pop-music sampling of Pop art.)

These questions hung in the increasingly chilly summer air as Petra and the Sell Outs took the stage and...hesitated. Petra announced that she was nervous, and took a swig of yellowish liquid from a plastic jug. “This is not pee—it’s Throat Coat,” she assured the audience, dashing any hopes of rock-star outlandishness. Nudged out of the procrastination routine by her Sell Outs, the nervous jitters suddenly gave way to the anthemic “Armenia City in the Sky.”

Blame it on Roger Daltrey, whose voice and hair and ego never did it for me, but I’ve never liked The Who, so I had high hopes for Haden’s a cappella album when I heard Daltrey hated it. (Pete Townsend, for the record, totally digs it.) Somehow it makes sense that a group of ten women could get past macho rock star posturing in order to tease out the best parts of The Who’s concept album, particularly the complex vocal harmonics, nutty Radio London jingles—“Drink easy, Drink easy, Drink easy/Puh-lee-zee”—and mild-mannered psychedelia. Petra’s vocalized versions of Townsend’s back-masked guitar solos were flawless paeans to the master, and she was amusingly prone to erratic air guitar gestures, as if Townsend’s spirit had suddenly taken over. The group blasted through the first side of the record, putting “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” “Odorono,” and “Tattoo” through their paces.

With the opening notes of “I Can See For Miles” the crowd burst into honest-to-goodness arena rock adulation. Lighters were lit and, uh, glowing cell phones were held aloft. (Puh-lee-zee.) The group nailed the expansiveness of the epic hit with their sublime harmony, but for my money, the highlight of the evening was the charmingly dated and goofy “Silas Stingy.”

Money, money, moneybags
There goes mingy Stingy
There goes mingy Stingy

The set concluded and enthusiastic applause ensued. The group seemed flattered and a bit relieved. For an encore, they performed “Look Both Ways”—a Petra original, which the singer dedicated to her grandma Trudy. I walked out of the theater with “Silas Stingy” on the brain, and while waiting for my ace photographer to collect some parting shots, I tracked down a low-key Jack Black and pestered him for his post-show reflections. “I’m not so good at spontaneous, out-the-door-quotes. Um, I think it was great!” Not exactly the Face Melter I was hoping for, dude, but it will do in a pinch.

Michael Ned Holte