I had lunch at a place where a Mexican Mothership was landing, bringing to Earth the gift of Giant Cosmic Chiles. I’ve been cranking around the Wheel really hard lately. I landed a part-time job at an Urgent Care Clinic. It’s not enough work to get my wife back, but it’s a start. I needed a break. I took a bus to Seattle to see a show at the Paramount Theater, built in 1928. It was given by performers I’ve listened to and loved on radio for 35 years.
If you like storytelling as much as I do, you’ll like A Prairie Home Companion. If you haven’t heard of it, APHC is a weekly two-hour variety show with music, guest performers and original comedic and dramatic stories. It’s done LIVE FOR RADIO, from either the home stage, the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota or from the stage of a theater wherever they’ve taken the show. The radio show has been on NPR since 1974, with a five-year break between 1987 and 1992. Like Star Trek, the fans wouldn’t let it die. Back in 2006, a fictionalized farewell concert became the subject of Robert Altman’s last feature.
Each week an elite cadre of repertory voice talents known as the Royal Academy of Radio Actors (Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and Fred Newman) play parts in the sketches, and Newman provides sound effects using only his mouth and a few simple props. This delightful troupe of players is led by droll, mellifluous Garrison Keillor, a tall, low-voiced, slow-talker who is a national treasure in the pantheon of American folk humorists. Although Mr. Keillor does use his own name when publishing books or magazine articles, he writes APHC under pseudonymous pun..er, PEN names including Sarah Bellum, Pete Moss, Sandy Beach, Norman Conquest, Warren Peace, Lou Tenant, and Hugh Jass. The shows include recurring sketches like the detective satire Guy Noir, Private Eye and Lives of the Cowboys. I saw the gentleman perform wearing a Tennessee Williams ice cream suit, accessorized by matching red tie and sneakers.
One of the most popular features of each broadcast is an original story that is part absurdist memoir, part confessional called News from Lake Wobegon. This fictional Minnesota locale serves the same kind of purpose as Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri. It’s a way to frame issues topical and timeless in a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” You never know where the Lake Wobegon story will go. It might be wildly funny, wistful, sentimental, reverently spiritual or any combination of those. You can expect two things; it will be beautifully written (and spoken), and it will be entertaining.
One of this week’s stories was about that fleeting moment after childhood’s end, before the juggernaut of puberty runs us over. GK recalled a day in spring he spent with a girl who was a sole female sibling with brothers. She invited him to wrestle. He described their gymnastic rolling around in the grass, the feeling of her breath against his cheek, and having her arms and legs wrapped around him. The punch line was that he lost interest in winning the wrestling match. Keillor transported us back to innocence without once glancing at the papers he had on a music stand nearby. For all I know those papers contained notes on upcoming articles he’s writing. I’ve often wondered what his writing process is like, and so has cartoonist and author Chris Monroe:
Live acoustic playing and singing in a wide variety of styles have been important to the show since it began. The one I saw was no exception. The leader of the versatile onstage band is Rich Dworsky, an inventive and indefatigable pianist and arranger. Dworsky and Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band played for three hours straight without a break, and they were still boppin’ away merrily as the crowd exited the theater.
The guest stars included Nell Robinson & Cary Sheldon, two women billing themselves as The Henriettas, performing a tribute to an earlier female duo known as the “Cackle Sisters”. Where else but APHC could you hear rapid, harmonized comedic yodeling?
The Henriettas – “He Left Me Standin’ There.”
Another artist held over from the previous week by popular demand, and because she’s poised for major stardom was local girl Brandi Carlile, who was backed by twin guitar-playing brothers. Here’s an earlier performance of a song she sang at this concert:
Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth Brothers – “Dying Day”
Because this concert was performed on Doris Day’s birthday, a dreamy vision named Nellie McKay wafted over to the grand piano, wearing a peach-colored evening gown. Ms. McKay’s current album is a tribute to Day entitled “Normal as Blueberry Pie”. Here’s an old familiar song from the album that she also performed in concert. Nellie’s approach to the re-interpretation of songs previously recorded by others is simple and fresh. Just listen to her ROUND TONE!
Nellie McKay – “Do Do Do”
I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed the show, and list more of the jokes and stories, but in a few days you’ll be able to hear the show for yourself online. Here’s the link:
HAPPY EASTER, EVERYONE!
(I’ll save you some Swedish Pancakes.)