At their Sing-Along at the CAC tonight and Wednesday night, Judith Owen and Harry Shearer celebrate the complexity of the season.

Photo of Judith Owen and Harry Shearer

For Judith Owen, Christmas music is a full-contact sport. It doesn't exist on records and CDs sung by Crosby or Cole or Carey or Bieber; it's made to be sung, preferably loudly with a large group of people. It's a personal and social phenomenon as much as a musical one, and the Judith Owen and Harry Shearer Holiday Sing-Along is all about participation tonight and tomorrow night at the Contemporary Arts Center. They bring musical guests including The Pfister Sisters, David Torkanowsky, Leah Chase and Matt Perrine (who one year performed a remarkable solo sousaphone version of "Sleigh Ride") for an evening of music and comedy, but the sing-along portion of the show presents their vision for the evening. It's most fully realized during an anarchic version of "Twelve Days of Christmas" that asks the audience to develop appropriate - or in some cases, inappropriate - gestures to correspond to each day, and it's a tribute to the good-natured vibe of the show that the least-loved Christmas carol gets the quantity and quality of witty participation that it does.

The show's the natural extension of a Christmas tradition that Owen and Shearer started during the season in their Los Angeles home years ago. They decided to take the communal fun that they had singing and joking with musician and actor friends and recreate on stages around the country and, up until this year, London. Since the two share an irreverent sense of humor, the sing-alongs are very funny, but there is also a profoundly emotional component as well.

"These songs are our folk music," Owen says. "Any other time of the year, you might think, 'This is corny' or 'This is trite,' or they're so on the nose emotionally, but at this time of year, it's absolutely okay to be emotional and sentimental. It's a time when you can be naughty and silly and rude and all the rest of it."

In life and in the show, Owen embraces what she calls "The two sides of Christmas: bloody awful and wonderful." Christmas is a celebration of hope and joy, but its cyclical nature also reminds us of the people and years no longer with us. This Christmas is particularly poignant for her since she lost her father earlier in the year, but music helps her deal with his passing. "Folk music is what we rely upon to feel deep emotions," she says. "They're all about yearning. They're about missing home. They're about missing people. Songs like 'White Christmas' and 'The Christmas Song' are about yearning. 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' is one of the saddest songs I've heard in my entire life."

Sharing these songs has always been her favorite part of Christmas since she harmonized with her family as a little girl. Singing together is an expression of community - another thing we yearn for - that we rarely get outside of church, and she attributes the success of the Broadway musicals Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages to the desire to sing en masse. "People get to sing along," Owen says. "They're not just sitting there as part of the audience; they're in the show." She enjoys the phenomenon of singing with people so much that she has started encouraging the audiences to her non-Christmas concerts to sing the harmonies that appear on her albums. She gives the crowd a quick run-through, and the results have made her performances more enjoyable for her. 

"You'd be amazed how many people would love to join in. The good chemicals start coming in the brain when you start singing."

Judith Owen and Harry Shearer's Holiday Sing-Along takes place tonight and Wednesday night at the Contemporary Arts Center. Tickets are still available.

My Spilt Milk is giving away a gift package of holiday music including Olga's North Mississippi Christmas, The Eastern Sea's First Christmas, The Polyphonic Spree's HolidaydreamHolidays Rule, Tracey Thorn's Tinsel and LightsA Charlie Brown Christmas and more. To enter to win, subscribe on the home page to "Condensed Milk," My Spilt Milk's weekly email newsletter. If you're already a subscriber, you're already entered. Contest closes December 20 at 7 p.m. CST.