If you go to a Judith Owen concert not knowing a thing about her, you will leave feeling like a longtime friend. That’s not something that can be said of every musician.
The British-born Owen recently released Mopping Up Karma, a refined version of some early recordings, on her own label, Courgette Records. Her September 5 show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop was made up mostly of songs from this album.
Taking the stage dressed in a long gray glittery tunic and black boots, Owen sat down at her Yamaha keyboard and remarked that the staircase down to the stage wasn’t easy to descend wearing high heels. She joked about having had breasts implants. She explained that Mopping Up Karma had originally been recorded at a time when she was “not as mentally well” as she is now, and that it was “bizarre” to revisit the songs.
Not to take any of this too seriously-Judith Owen is indeed a funny lady-not so much stand-up comedy as sit-down at the keyboard comedy-and when she began to play and sing the “bizarre” songs, this reviewer was knocked over.
In a music world where singer-songwriters use tinkling piano arpeggios to back up overly pretentious self-pity, Owen’s songs draw upon classical motifs and surprising interpolations of jazz and rock, creating a dark, lush, musical world centered around her beautiful voice. At the same time, she sings of serious situations and injects her irrepressible humor at the most unexpected times. She brings to mind both the incomparable Laura Nyro of the late 1960s and the tragic Judee Sill of the early 1970s, but without the religious overtones of those songwriters. Her style is more grounded in the down-to-earth world.
Owen explained that the first number, “Ruby Red Lips,” was about how when she came to America and met her future husband (Harry Shearer, aka Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap), “I wasn’t used to guys who treated me nice.” The song had an eerie sound like music from a horror film, which suited the theme: “Somewhere, somehow, there’s a bastard waiting for me.”
The issue of a woman’s need to value herself popped up again in “Message From Heaven” in which Owens wished that a female friend would like herself more, and “Who’s That Girl,” about a woman who loves married men.
These aren’t the kind of songs usually heard on the radio (except on stations like Santa Monica’s KCRW-FM), but then again, they are not made for casual consumption. They are capable of penetrating deep into the listener’s personal experience. And just when it seems that the songs will move one to tears, there will be a line that provokes a laugh-for Judith Owen can’t keep from seeing the funny side of the dark side.
She later brought out hubby Shearer to play bass, Lenny Castro to provide percussion, and her good friend Julia Fordham to sing a couple of duets. One of these was “1709” composed about the hotel room in New York where Owen and Shearer first shared their love.
Owen played almost all of the songs on Mopping Up Karma and when she announced that she would play her “last song,” the audience audibly groaned. Not to worry, she said. Instead of leaving to come back for the encore, she remained on stage (those heels-those stairs) and performed some more songs, including a jazzy cover of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” And she did her “Lucky Draw,” picking, from among a list of audience emails, three winners who would receive signed copies of her CD.
After the show was over, people gathered in the front room at McCabe’s to meet Judith Owen and to tell her how much they loved her. That’s because they had become her friends.