Harry Shearer described his wife, Judith Owen, as “a Welsh woman prone to melancholia who could not stand the fact that, at Christmastime, Southern California was about 78 degrees and sunny.”
She confessed the truth in all that. “In a strange way, bad weather means Christmas to me.”
I learned that at last year’s New York edition of “Christmas Without Tears,” the annual holiday season pageant, a fundraiser for charity, that the couple hosts each year. There, Shearer, the humorist and actor—whose many credits include The Simpsons’ megalomaniacal Mr. Burns, Spinal Tap’s affably insecure bassist Derek Smalls, and former president Richard Nixon (who was, among other things, both megalomaniacal and affably insecure)—revealed his innate musicality. Owen, a magificently gifted singer, pianist and songwriter, flashed a biting wit that might well cast Harry as the straight man in the family.
The couple’s traveling Christmas show, now in its tenth year, began as a house party in Los Angeles, a way for Owen to “reinvent the joy and fun of Christmas” not long after losing her mother and moving to Southern California (with its oppressive lack of incelement weather). In 2005, they were invited to stage a version of their party at Walt Disney Concert Hall, which they turned into a benefit for musicians suffering as a result of the floods caused by the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. (The couple also owns a home in New Orleans, where, as readers of this blog know, Shearer has been a staunch advocate for post-Katrina truth telling and for support of an often-embattled culture.)
Last year’s “Christmas Without Tears” highlighted New Orleans musicians, some who brought moments of musical piety—especially clarinetist Evan Christopher’s lovely original song “Waltz for All Souls,” and pianist/singer Davell Crawford’s riveting version of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” It was also deeply funny, never more so than during Amy Engelhardt’s “How Did This Thing Get in Me?” sung from the perspective of a puzzled pregnant virgin.
It’s a spectacle that embraces its own trinity: joyous celebration of the Christmas season; the sort of cynicism we all start itching with around this time of year; and an authentic sense of giving—all proceeds go to charities, with performances from the 2015 Tour benefiting the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, My Friend’s Place, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic & Assistance Foundation, and the nonprofit Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.
This year’s lineup is silly with diverse talents. The New York edition, at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Dec. 1, features. among others: Alan Cumming, Mario Cantone, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Shaffer, Artie Lange, Fred Willard, Béla Fleck, Peter Asher, Davell Crawford, Godfrey Daniels, Jerry Dixon, Amy Engelhardt, The Gregory Brothers, Keith Nelson, Doña Oxford, and The SongBirds.
Plus a house band that includes bassist Leland Sklar, a legend to anyone who owns a record collection, and who I heard recently in spectacular duet performance with Owen.
The complete itinerary is:
December 1: Brooklyn Academy of Music New York, NY
December 4: S.P.A.C.E. Evanston, IL
December 19: Largo at the Coronet Los Angeles, CA
December 20: Largo at the Coronet Los Angeles, CA
December 23: Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre New Orleans, LA
But wait, folks! There’s more under that tree!
This year, Shearer and Owen have created a companion EP, also titled “Christmas Without Tears.” It features three studio recordings—two from Owen, another sung by Shearer and a cast of guests—and three tracks from a performance last year in Los Angeles: one each from Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard and Amy Engelhardt.
Isn’t there an over-the-top single to download and share with your friends, you ask?
What did you think?
“Too Many Notes” caricatures a world no longer safe for melismata, where embellishment crowds out melody and message. Actress Jane Lynch (“Glee”), soul singer Alice Russell, vocalists Ian Shaw and Davell Crawford, and saxophonist Dave Koz battle to outdo each other with such senslessness.
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