By sheer dumb coincidence, I bought tickets to see A Prairie Home Companion at New York’s Town Hall on December 2. That turned out to be four days after Minnesota Public Radio fired retired PHC host and creator Garrison Keillor for allegations of improper behavior.
I’d been a fan of PHC over the Keillor years, not rabid, but enough to appreciate his humor and inventiveness. I’ve spent much less time listening to the retooled version hosted by mandolin player Chris Thile. Still, I was eager to see the show live.
The Godzilla in the room as the show started at 5:45 pm (great timing for us 60-somethings) was what, if anything, would Thile say about Keillor. Business as usual, which would be ridiculous, or a statement. If so, when?
Thile, to his credit, came right out and addressed what everybody knew.
“It’s been a rough week,” he said, with a chuckle, not directly mentioning Keillor but the line made total sense. He soon turned to Keillor and called the situation “heartbreaking.” He also referred to the national movement to address the “harmful power imbalance that women have had to endure for so long in our culture.” Heartfelt and straight ahead, Thile said what was needed and got on with the show. This could be a model for upcoming awards shows for movies, TV, theater, journalism . . .
The show itself impressed me with the range of performers moving in and out of a crowded stage, with both PHC musicians and a set-up for the Austin band Spoon. Chanteuse Cécile McLorin Savant, whom I had heard twice before, did some saucy jazz numbers that seemed right for the times. Skit veterans Tim Russell and Serena Brook and sound effects guy Fred Newman came out to give the audience some of that old-time PHC humor religion.
Still, this reboot of PHC differs wildly from the original. While I’d estimate the Keillor version ran 70 percent skits and stories and 30 percent music, the Thile version at Town Hall was maybe 90 percent music and talk about music, 10 percent comic material. I looked at summaries of recent shows that featured more story-telling, so that mix could vary. I doubt we’ll be hearing about Guy Noir, Private Eye; cowboys Lefty and Dusty; reports from Lake Wobegon. The handful of skits carried on some of the tone and vocal stylings, but I sensed they are now the side dish, not the main course.
Thile himself sets the pace with a physical energy that reminded me of comedian Conan O’Brien. I had never picked up on that by hearing him on the radio. His musicianship on the mandolin is dazzling, as is his love of music across genres. Saturday’s show slammed through and explained bits and pieces of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” (recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969), Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (which Dylan performed at Town Hall in 1963), “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan (in honor of actress Mary Martin’s December 1 birthday) and “Teen Town” by bassist Jaco Pastorius and the group Weather Report. Along with Savant, Spoon and guitarist-singer Sarah Jarosz, Thile wove together a master class on American musical styles and history.
That’s fantastic if you’re seriously into music. If you want monologues and wacky skits, you’re mostly up the Wobegon Creek without a paddle, at least in this stage of PHC. Where Thile and Co. will take it is anybody’s guess; MPR says a new name is in the works. That’s both good and bad; good because it gets Thile out of the shadow of Keillor and gives the show its own brand identity with a built-in audience; bad because it severs more sharply the connection with a program that’s become an American institution since 1974. Seeing the show live, if nothing else, gives me more of a stake in whatever comes next.
With institutions crashing all around us, I’m curious about what emerges from this particular pile of theatrical disorder on the shores of Lake Wobegon.