Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Fine Saturday Companion

About a year and a half ago, I wrote on this blog that when Garrison Keillor came back through Wisconsin, I’d be in his audience.

I’d just attended a book tour event down in Milwaukee for his latest Lake Wobegon novel, and had quickly become a fan of his columns that I’d been reading for a few months prior, at the suggestion of a buddy of mine.

Saturday night, he brought his popular public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center for a live broadcast and an encore performance, and my parents and I had tickets for the encore performance, as the live show must have sold out long before I even knew he was coming for a visit.

Prairie_Home_Companion “A Prairie Home Companion” is part monologue, part humor skit, part musical act. Keillor and his group of actors, and one very busy sound effects person, moved around on a stage decorated only with mic stands and copy stands, a piano and a drum set, and the facade of an old two-story farmhouse in the background, a dim light shining through its dirty bay windows, and another light on the tiny front porch.

The show has been on the air since 1974, with a two-year hiatus in the late 1980s. It’s heard by more than 4 million people each week on almost 600 radio stations, and abroad on America One and the Armed Forces Networks.

On the show’s Web site, Keillor says, “When the show started, it was something funny to do with my friends, and then it became an achievement I hoped would be successful, and now it’s a good way of life.”


Keillor’s sometimes odd mannerisms are part of his charm, as he’ll often sit with his eyes closed as he tells a story or sings a song, and insert a well-placed smirk when he knows the audience is going to react to a line.

He came out in his trademark red socks and shoes again (not Sauconys this time, but Adidas, so I doubt he has an endorsement deal), and a black suit with a red tie tied a bit too long.

He’s been introduced as a master storyteller, and certainly deserves that designation. His slow, deliberate, baritone voice, his audible breathing into the microphone and the little whistle when he pronounces his esses, and his great attention to detail, all keep you eagerly focused on his voice as he speaks or sings.

The group performed, “The Sounds Of Sickness,” with original lyrics based on Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, “Sound of Silence.” And another hilarious song based solely on the one ingredient that makes a man a father, and its miraculous journey. I think that one might have been the crowd’s favorite.

Add in a few two-song sets by some local musicians who were lucky enough to get exposure on such a broad stage, and a couple great skits including one where Keillor had a phone conversation with his mom about Easter brunch that somehow took a turn to his mother advising him to keep his Facebook profile updated, and the evening turned into nearly three hours of music, humor, and great celebration of the details of storytelling and the English language.

Toward the end of the show, Keillor gave an update on Lake Wobegon, where he spun the tale of him and his sister out walking in the garden, and while she looked for a perfect pumpkin, he found fascination in huge rotten tomato that he scooped up and examined, and then…instinctively flung at his sister.

As she chased him, he raced down the street and snuck into the corner bar to hide, encountering his Uncle Jack. So of course, the tangent turned to Uncle Jack and all his faults.

Twenty solid minutes of Keillor, on a stool, in a lone spotlight. Leg crossed, red shoes and socks on display, eyes closed. Reminiscing about days gone by on Lake Wobegon.

Quite a friendly companion to have on a Saturday night.

“God writes a lot of comedy...the trouble is,
he’s stuck with so many bad actors who
don’t know how to play funny.”
—Garrison Keillor

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