Judith Owen & Harry Shearer’s Christmas Without Tears At Largo – Live Review

About fifteen years ago, singer-songwriter and Welsh transplant Judith Owen came to the realization that the Christmas season in Los Angeles was making her homesick – all those images of Santa Claus in shorts can really do a number on a person who grew up in a place that’s cold. And she says it didn’t help when, “after about three years I realized I’d married a Jew, and not one of those happy go lucky Jews we all know and love but… an Old Testament sort of Jew.” With the help of said OT Jew, comedy superhero Harry Shearer, she began putting together Christmas parties in their home where guests would gather around the piano, each one taking a number or two, and then they’d all sing “Joy To The World” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” together. These annual gatherings soon moved into clubs and small theaters, and this year, Owen and Shearer mounted a five-city tour, benefiting local charities at each stop.

The Saturday night performance at Largo at the Coronet was typically festive from beginning to end, maintaining a unique house-party vibe. It’s one of the only variety shows I’ve seen where the performers hang out on couches at the rear of the stage following their performances, clinking glasses and cheering each other on. As usual, Owen opened the program with an original song, with Shearer adding a politically-themed holiday tune of his own – this year, we got the cumbia-flavored “The Day Santa Claus Went To Guantanamo Bay” with Jane Lynch adding an interpretive dance- and then the parade of guests began.

Tonight’s program was the most impressive I’ve seen yet, with appearances from jazz singer Julia Fordham, Amy Engelhardt from a capella superstars The Bobs, indie songwriter Tim Minchin, New York-based “Soul Gooddess” Dona Oxford, comedic musical duo Schoolcraft & Murray and tight-harmony trio the Song Birds, doing a mix of holiday-themed originals and familiar carols. An expected treat was Owen’s piano-jazz take on Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With The Devil” featuring original Tap bassist Derek Smalls. Silent comedian Godfrey Daniels was a surreal visual delight, and comedian Rebecca Corry spoke of seasonal misadventures. Peter Asher, longtime producer and onetime member of Peter and Gordon, noted that he had no Christmas songs in his repertoire but figured the message of “A World Without Love” was close enough, and gave the show one of its highest high points. Continue reading

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Random LA: Subway Stories of the Socially Circumspect Strata

Ahhhh, a true night of diversity involving people from all walks of life in the Hollywood and Vine subway station on a briskly festive December evening… Seems the woman in the slinky black dress has at least two flower – laden, desire-ridden admirers.  That drunk guy passed out on the stairs…? Not so much…

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat


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The Streets Ran Red With Santas: The Topsy-turvy World That Is Santa-Con!

Santa-Con erupted out of San Francisco in 1994 and was sponsored by the The San Francisco Cacophony Society. Santa-Con has inspired many and has been the topic of ridicule by others for the last 21 years. It is unquestionably a polarizing topic and event for those in the know. Santas running roughshod and amuck through the streets can be shocking and, at times, a disturbing juxtaposition of two fantasy worlds in conflict, one of the traditional Santa Claus colliding with a new impish street pranksters in bright red suits frolicking irreverently like Pan. For those who are uninitiated and unaware of the joke it feels like a bracing slap in the face. The early days of Santa-Con were intended to be disturbing agitprop, Balkanizing the concept of the ideal Santa Claus is and what Christmas in general was to be. You can read about the early Santa-Cons in the article Santarchy History: The Early Years.

To address the detractors of the Santa-Con experience represented in Foster Kamer’s article “We’re Killing Santa-Con“, which is a poorly thought out blog regarding Santa-Con and filled with misinformation and bitterness. For what it’s worth The San Francisco Cacophony Society hasn’t been associated with Santa-Con for nearly 8 years. The photos used in Kamer’s article are very old and don’t represent anything contemporary of the Santa-Con event in San Francisco. Kamer was speaking to a New York audience and that scene may be completely different from what takes place in San Francisco. Kamer refers to these Santas a “knuckle-dragging mouth breathers.” While my father wasn’t a knuckle dragger, he was a mouth breather. My father raised us, provide handsomely for his family and left a legacy of kindness I fear that Kamer can’t remotely understand. Kamer says, “No greater a public demonstration of white privilege exists than you and your friends taking to the streets and covering them in bile, booze, and sometimes, your seed, with nary a worry for criminal consequence, all in the name of the whitest motherfucker ever: Santa Claus. 

I beg to differ with Kamer, our St Nicolas, the person, of which our Santa Claus is modeled after was from North African roots. Santa Claus was a European Moor. Although, our contemporary version of Santa resembles a fat Odin the tradition of Christmas and Santa Claus embarks for the deeds of a Moorish Christian Saint. Oddly, you’ll see from my photos that Santa-Con is multicultural and very inclusive. So I think Kamer misses on a number of levels what Santa-Con is and who is a party to it, with a slightly insulting racist slant. Lastly, Santa-Con is similar to a meme. It has permeated our society with its whimsy and clever takes on the Christmas theme. It will travel unhampered culturally, like William S. Burroughs “Language is Virus” meme, without an arbiter’s observation or permission.

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Retro CD Mailbag – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen

dylan basement thumbBob Dylan – The Basement Tapes Complete (6-CD Deluxe Edition)/ The Basement Tapes Raw (2 CD) Legacy Recordings

This restoration of Dylan’s home recordings with the Band, made during his post-motorcycle accident retreat from public work in 1966-67, is handily available in two different configurations to suit your personal level of fanaticism.

Dylan never meant for these sessions to be released, they’re working tapes of new songs, meant to be sent to other artists to cover them, literally recorded in his basement in Woodstock, NY, with organist Garth Hudson doubling as recording engineer. But even the casual fan will get a lot out of the affordable, 2-disc Raw edition, which contains all the major songs from the period, performed with a casual grandeur by one of the greatest of all rock ensembles at its most relaxed. These sessions have an intimate, unrehearsed vibe that stands in contrast to the crackling electricity of Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. What you hear instead is the instinct of great musicians, reacting to new ideas and forming arrangements on the fly, playing for each others’ pleasure rather than fretting over a perfect take. It’s a joy to hear, and at over two hours, a generous amount.

However, the bootleg-savvy music historian with a sufficient love for Dylan to justify a $100-ish investment should seriously consider the handsome 6-disc Complete edition, which arrives in a sturdy 8 1/2-inch box containing two hardbound books. It’s immersive in a way that few archival releases are. We the audience have rarely had such an opportunity to follow an artist of Dylan’s magnitude through their day to day creative process (only the dozens of hours of leaked raw footage from the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions and the 5-disc set of Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions come to mind), and this set adds over thirty tracks to the most comprehensive bootlegs previously produced. Both editions are free from the overdubs and later-period Band tracks added to the 1975 double-album The Basement Tapes, where some of this material first saw release, as well as a noticeable sound quality upgrade from all previous pressings.

The set is arranged chronologically, and the first two discs contain almost all covers of old American songs, spirituals, blues and country standards, even doo-wop. Listening to the whole thing, a picture begins to emerge in the mind of what Dylan was going for when he set out to work in this manner, a natural ease and comfort between all the players that would allow him to work quickly when the originals began to flow. Once the flow begins, around the beginning of disc three, it continues at a rapid pace with “I Shall Be Released”, “This Wheel’s On Fire”, “The Mighty Quinn”, “Tears Of Rage” and “Nothing Was Delivered” coming in quick succession. Most of the major songs from the period get two versions, sometimes revealing a major re-haul. You also get takes of older Dylan songs like “One Too Many Mornings”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” that one friend of mine suspects represent the arrival of Levon Helm, playing familiar tunes to get him into the groove. Continue reading

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The Ahmanson Theatre’s Blithe Spirit: A Near Spiritual Experience in Dry Wit, Deathly Divorcees and Maladroit Daze-Induced Dancing

L-R: Susan Louise O’Connor (standing), Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry and Simon Jones; Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus

L-R: Susan Louise O’Connor (standing), Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry and Simon Jones; Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus

It is a temperately brisk night on the terrace of Los Angeles’ eminent Music Center betwixt The Ahmanson Theatre and The Mark Taper Forum. Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy saunter arm in arm, towards The Mark Taper but if they are not simply taking an invigorating jaunt around the plaza before circling back in the direction of the theatre from whence they came, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!  For tonight…tonight is but the first and only opening night of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles starring Angela Lansbury and Charles Edwards!

In grand tradition of nearly any and all opening Angeleno evenings, there is a red carpet (right next to the rather modest little press Will Call table of all places) sporting a rather Continue reading

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Phil Stern

REPENTOn Saturday, I lost one of my best friends, my teacher, my mentor, my photoshop tutor, my jokester, my favorite noodle eating partner, author of terrible, nasty, foul-mouthed letters and diatribes … and my inspiration. We spent nearly a year together as I archived his collection, which was strewn all over in his unique filing system, ranging from a shed to kitchen shelves (I once climbed up to retrieve a box of “In Cold Blood” photos next to a box of Cheerios.) Phil’s achievements are beyond impressive and yes, he did have the ego that goes with guts. Guts that didn’t end with a Purple Heart: he exercised at the VA three days weekly; opened his own gallery at 91 and, after not shooting for years due to his eyesight (feeling it would compromise his work), he started earlier this year after getting a digital camera at the VA, spending hours learning Picasa and demanding I learn.

He taught me Photoshop and I taught him selfies, which he delighted in, whether at his desktop or on my phone in restaurants with various apps, which he wanted to know all about. He’d preface my morning arrival with emailed articles from The Daily Beast or a new outlet to pitch his work. We’d spend hours talking about everything from Sam Goldwyn’s croquet games, The Police Gazette, Burt Lancaster, Darby’s Rangers, and jazz, which he called “the purest American form of music,” although he played classical music nonstop as I dug through boxes and files.  (My favorite file folder was labeled “Noisy Neighbors,” –  all typewritten copies sent to unlucky recipients. Being a nice guy didn’t appeal to him – he preferred words like “legend,” and kept every article and fan mail, which ranging from aspiring photographers to teenaged James Dean fangirls.) Whether through a loupe, pointing out a photograph’s composition or at his beloved AstroBurger, he painstakingly shared ways of viewing the world around us. A proud atheist (we once watched Ricky Gervais for hours on youtube) we’d say “I bless you,” to each other on sneezing, with him something switching it up to “Dog bless you.” He was thrilled that we shared a dislike of Christmas (on finding an especially hideous Santa-praying-at-Jesus’-manger ornament, I emailed with the caption “How did HE get there?!” and his reply was classic Phil: “God brought him!”)  This was the Christmas card that he worked on every year, and we sat for days as he tinkered with numerous versions (the photo is one of his war shots).

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Love & Salt: A First Look


We stopped in to check out Michael Fiorelli’s new Manhattan Beach restaurant, Love & Salt, earlier this week. We have been watching its progress on social media, so it was exciting to see everything come together. At 2,600 square-feet, the space is large and open with high ceilings and a simple palette of muted blues and grays. A granite bar runs the length of the restaurant, as does a communal table of natural wood for walk-ins. The simple interior design makes the large open kitchen with its wood-burning oven the focus of the restaurant. On a Monday night at 6pm the place was already packed, only three weeks after opening.

Chef Michael Fiorelli and Chef de Cuisine Rebecca Merhej teamed up with the former Café Pierre owners to open Love & Salt. Chef Fiorelli first caught our eye at Mar’sel at the Terreana Resort with his casual friendliness and penchant for cooking entire lambs whole. He continues his culinary showmanship here with the offer of a whole roasted glazed pig head. The server informed me that an order consists of half of a pig’s head – and yes, it comes to the table uncarved. We weren’t that brave, so I cannot report as to whether or not its mouth holds half of an apple.

The rest of the menu is casual Californian with a heavy Italian accent. It is mostly small plates and family-style large main dishes. Love & Salt dares to challenge Chef David LeFevre’s famous bacon cheddar biscuits served only a few blocks away at MB Post with their own house made English muffins. I have to say, the light and airy English muffins with house made butter win hands-down. It was a smart move to sprinkle the rosemary on the butter rather than baking it into the muffins, so the diner can control the strength of the fragrant herb.

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The Historic Cat & Fiddle has Closed

The Cat & Fiddle (Steve Armitage. Used with permission).

The Cat & Fiddle (Steve Armitage. Used with permission).

This is a very Dickensian Christmas story about a cruel landlord willing to take away the soul of a society for a few shekels more. The closing of the Cat and Fiddle Pub is a huge loss for our community. For 32 years, this historical place in the heart of Hollywood served as a home away from home for expats and patriots alike.

I used to go to the Cat and Fiddle in Laurel Canyon back when I first arrived in Los Angeles in 1976. It was a wonderful place to be. The pub was always filled with rock stars, famous actors, and people who loved art and film and music. You could play darts, eat dinner and socialize. People were born, people died, people became friends and lovers, people married and people divorced. Entire cycles of life happened there.

This year was their 32nd anniversary in the Hollywood location. Now, thanks to the gentrification of Hollywood (aka ripoff of Hollywood), they have lost their lease. A franchise came in with an offer that was too good for the son of the owner to refuse. It is said that the Cat and Fiddle actually read that they had lost their lease online — what a way to go.

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Black Velvet Christmas

Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin, owners and curators of Velveteria at their A Very Tiki Christmas exhibit (photos by Judy Ornelas Sisneros)


Celebrate Christmas with a touch of kitsch culture at Velveteria’s A Very Tiki Christmas exhibition. Aficionados of velvet paintings will welcome the gallery’s presentation of previously unseen paintings, plus their new additions: two paintings by velvet painting pioneer Edgar Leeteg, the notorious womanizer and drunk who helped popularize the artform in the late 40s.

Entitled “Tahitia”, Leeteg’s rendering of a half-naked Polynesian woman—who is likely to be his wife, Jacqueline—is the quientessential WWII-era velvet painting: beautiful, lush, sexy and deeply enticing.

Co-founder and curator, Caren Anderson tells us that “Tahitia” rejoins Velveteria fresh from Tiki king, Sven Kirsten’s Tiki Pop exhibition in Paris.

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A Few Favorites of 2014


Here is a Year End list of favorite music, movies and books. I generally don’t read books the same year they are published, partly because I borrow from libraries more than I buy, and partly because I just tend to be behind, so only “The String Diaries” is actually a 2014 title. Happy Holidays!

Favorite albums:

Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – Dereconstructed (review)
Rachel Thomasin – Microforms
The Drums – Encyclopedia
Tom Vek – Luck
The Pixies – Indie Cindy
The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi (review)
The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
Chrissie Hynde – Stockholm

Favorite movies:

“Frank” (review)
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”
“Housebound” (review)
“The Monuments Men”
“Under The Skin”
“Song of The Sea”*
“Only Lovers Left Alive”*
*Still need to see these but pretty sure they’d be on here.

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