Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Garrison Keillor's Farewell Tour in Atlanta

My friend Suzanne's thoughtful Christmas present was a pair of tickets for us to see Prairie Home Companion, a variety show broadcast live on radio since 1974.  Adding my voice to the roar of a packed house in Atlanta's Fox Theatre June 4, I could at last express my gratitude for the 32 years of Saturday nights I've listened to the cast of regulars and auteur Garrison Keillor.  

A quarter-hour ahead of the show, we heard Keillor hum a pitch; the curtain parted, and he stepped forward with a handheld microphone.  He invited us to sing "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies," then,  "My Country 'tis of Thee."  For Baptists, he included "How Great Thou Art"; for Episcopalians, he led the Doxology.  Before launching into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," he asked, "Can we sing this one?  We are still one country, right?"  He included the verse that begins, "In the beauty of the lilies...."  With Keillor singing bass, we sounded great.  It was surprisingly emotional to hear the packed theater sing.

Americana and religion are the bedrock of Keillor's brand.  We trust that he's decent, that he's committed to "the better angels" of our American nature, and that, if not a believing Christian, he's at least sympathetic to Protestant experience.  We remember solemn songs, funny stories that ended not with a punchline but wistful reflection, and tributes to late entertainers and writers.  (His tributes to John Updike back in 2010, and to Prince this year were the best I heard for either artist.)

Because we trust him, he can make barbed political commentary and mock popular trends; he can go highbrow with poetry readings and Chopin piano recitals; he can recite fart jokes or blue limericks: he won't alienate us.
Upstage, there was the facade of a farmhouse with front porch and working screen door, its "yard" a carpet, where the band was settling in around a baby grand. To Keillor's left at a bank of blinking electronic instruments, technicians with headphones monitored sound and signal; to his right stood microphones to be used by actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell, and a table  where Fred Newman creates sound effects with virtuosic coordination of woodblocks, bells, horns, broken glass, and vocal mimicry.

Everything's timed to the second.  Keillor had just time enough to mention some hot-button local topics that he'd be mocking before the words "on the air" flashed red, we heard Minnesota Public Radio's station identification, and the show began as we've heard it begin for decades, with applause -- this time, us! -- and Keillor singing, "O hear that old piano / from down the avenue."

For years, Keillor wrote all the material, fine-tuning a template that now gives him and his staff room to play with local and current topics while giving us what we expect.  So, in Atlanta, Keillor addressed the elephant in the room:  He'd made national news that week suffering a brain seizure.  He did a skit on different kinds of brain seizures, saving for last a "Caesar Seizure" that interrupted Tim Russell's spot-on imitation of Donald Trump mid-rant.  The "sound effects" script got laughs for Fred Newman's impressions of different sprinklers on Atlanta's vast green lawns; the "Guy Noire, Private Eye" script involved the Braves' unpopular move to a new stadium in very Republican Cobb Country north of Atlanta, and a freak 1/2 inch of snow that paralyzes the city (as really happened in 2014).

The rest of the show followed literally like clockwork:  Keillor has to finish skits and songs on the half hour, in time for station breaks around the country.  We had straightforward performances of bluegrass music by Ricky Scaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and a lovely rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" by saloon singer Christine DeGiollardano. At 7, we all know that Keillor will give us "time to stretch," and then will read out messages that audience members wrote on index cards.  We know what to expect for the second hour.

There's a high wire element to the show.  To fit things in on time, Keillor sometimes prolongs his introductions, and I imagine bits get cut on the fly.  Keillor carries a sheaf of typescript around, dropping pages as he finishes reading them, sometimes shuffling them.  Even during numbers, an assistant rushes out to pick up the stray pages.  Music director Rich Dworsky sometimes jumped up from his piano to run around back of the band to play organ, or to communicate with a player.  While Keillor spoke-sang a kind of recitative in free rhythm, Dworsky conducted the violin accompaniment, phrase by phrase.  Mid-way through a group number, Keillor handed a page of lyrics to Ricky Scaggs, who seemed a bit surprised to be singing the verse solo.

Keillor duetted with DeGiollardano on Cole Porter's "You're the Top," with new lyrics by Keillor.  He sang superlatives about her; she sang about how he was a better singer than most middle-aged authors with public radio programs.  Somehow, Keillor squeezed his new words into Porter's tight rhyme scheme.  It struck me as a microcosm for Keillor's achievement, all these years, fitting new ideas into the tight corners of his template.

The climax of the show, as all the fans know, comes around 7:20, usually following a guest's performance of a song in a reflective mood.  Keillor says, "Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone...."  As predictably as Episcopalians will say "And also with you," the audience applauds over the rest of Keillor's line, "my home town, out on the edge of the prairie." Musicians and actors leave as Keillor meanders about the stage, looking mostly at his feet, improvising his story about a fictional version of his real - life Minnesota home town. This story always mentions the weather and catches up on gossip about characters we've known for decades.

For us, he told a story about graduation at Lake Woebegone's high school, and Keillor didn't have to remind us that the seniors there have a tradition of the annual graduation prank -- after so many years, it's a part of our memories, too.  As time drew near for the story to conclude, band members and singers returned to the stage, cuing Keillor to bring his tale to its familiar tag line, "That's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."  Cue wild applause and music. 

Keillor will retire after the broadcast of July 1.  Next season, the show's host will be mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, whose first appearance on PHC at age 18 made me his fan back around 2000.   Thile is charismatic, verbally clever and musically eclectic; he will doubtless take the show in a new direction.

For over four decades, Keillor has sustained this balance between template and topic, repetition and variation. Originally a gentle parody of radio shows that young man Keillor remembered from his childhood in the 1950s, Keillor's creation has accompanied so many of us through stages of our own lives, that Prairie Home Companion has become itself an object of nostalgia.

{Photo: Rich Dworsky at the piano}

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