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.
Following a brief intermission, we reconvened, opened our programs and sang, audience and performers as one, with a house band made up of some of the greatest musicians in the world; guitarist Steve Lukather, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Joe Pusateri and Musical Director/ pianist CJ Vanston. It’s kind of remarkable how this simple act really does melt the barrier between audience and performer, putting you right there on that couch with them, feeling like you want to invite Peter Asher over to the house next weekend. I might be wary of going anywhere with Owen though; like Mr. Burns, she likes to make her guests do embarrassing things for her own amusement. She got different sections of the audience to re-enact every gift named in the “12 Days Of Christmas”, and as you might expect, a West Hollywood crowd contained more than one lord-a-leaping. Those who cracked her up the most got valuable prizes from the 99 Cent Store.
Owens and Shearer get a lot of credit for putting together such a special event and imbuing it with such a generous spirit, a Christmas concert that really and truly does remind me of childhood.