By Michael Katz
Back in the late seventies I was living in Minneapolis, finishing up a nondescript career in corporate finance while scratching out fiction under the auspices of a writer’s community called the Loft. At that time, Garrison Keillor’s notoriety was just gathering steam. He’d been publishing short stories in The New Yorker for most of the decade, but the Twin Cities’ principle literary light at the time was Judith Guest, from whom I was taking a course in novel writing. Guest’s book, Ordinary People had been made into a movie directed by Robert Redford, provoking the kind of local excitement that Keillor must have slyly catalogued for future reference.
Meanwhile, I kept getting phone calls from my friends in Chicago asking me if I’d heard Keillor’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. I must admit, after repeated listenings, I didn’t quite get it. “I live here,” I’d say. “People really are like that.” Here’s a quick fact. In Minnesota, on opening day of the fishing season, 25% of the population of the entire state goes fishing (or at least did back then.) And the Minnesota state fish is the walleye, which although good tasting is, in terms of excitement, the equivalent of hauling up a submerged log.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. I’m sitting at the Hollywood Bowl to see A Prairie Home Companion for the first time live. Keillor and a younger singer (and fiddler) named Sara Watkins are strolling through the crowd, singing duets, Keillor’s understated just-south-of-tenor melding with Watkins’s lovely voice. “Let It Be Me” reaches a crescendo as they ascend the top of the Bowl, and they segue into “America The Beautiful” as they return to the stage. I have long ago recognized the genius Keillor has for mining humor out of the stubborn ordinariness of life in Lake Wobegon, and the aches of longing and regret that are sprinkled through the aspirations of its residents. Attending as a music critic, there’s a particularly laudable ethic that bears mentioning as well.
Keillor’s musical tastes are eclectic, though they lean toward a kind of cheerfully lumpy, wryly funny style that can veer off without warning into the artistically sublime and then back again. He doesn’t need recognized pop stars to fill the Hollywood Bowl; after nearly four decades of this, he’s the star, and the audience will follow him. Most of the people sitting around me have no idea who will be in the show. I’m not suggesting to the folks at the LA Phil that anyone can do this. Still, it’s a concept.
The musical stars of this edition, besides Keillor’s own PHC troupe, are Sara Watkins, gospel singers the Steele Sisters and opera soprano Elie Dehn.
Watkins is a revelation. She starts out plucking her fiddle and singing a lithe version of Roger Miller’s “In The Summertime.” Over the course of the evening she will play the fiddle and the guitar, duet with Keillor on Bob Dylan’s “Satisfied Mind,” give a delightful version of John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Day,” and engage in one hot fiddle chorus with Richard Kriehn, from the show’s own The Guys All-Star Shoe Band. (Not all of this makes the actual radio show. The performance was taped Friday night and ran about twenty minutes long). It turns out that I haven’t made the Nickel Creek connection – that’s the band that featured Sara and her brother Sean. She’s working as a solo act now, and had to leave the show early to start an East Coast tour opening for Jackson Browne. I don’t think she’ll be an opening act for long.
Elie Dehn, from the New York Metropolitan Opera, is from Keillor’s home town of Anoka, about twenty miles north of St. Paul. Sadly (or maybe not) my versatility as a music critic ends a little short of the opera. But I can say confidently that Ms. Dehn has a beautiful, expressive voice. I could tell you that my favorite number of hers was the waltz from Romeo and Juliet, though the only song I actually understood was the ersatz ad she did for Anoka Jewelers to the tune of the aria from Bizet’s Carmen. Of course, it was typical of Garrison Keillor’s sense of decorum that he would follow Dehn’s back-to-back operatic numbers with his own poignant composition, “Don’t Scratch Your Butt.” Just to make the uncultured among us feel right at home.
The Steele Sisters, Jearlyn and Jevetta, are originally from Indiana but have resettled in the Twin Cities and are part of PHC’s revolving musical roster.
Like everyone else on the show, they combine their own specialty with funky good humor. Their highlights included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and a sultry, gospel tinged version of the standard “Without A Song,” that was quite unlike any version I’d heard before. “This Little Light Of Mine,” which featured the whole cast but most prominently the Steele Sisters, brought the show to a closing crescendo.
The aforementioned Guys All Star-Shoe Band had outstanding musicians as well, most notably the leader, Richard Dworsky, whose hard swinging, bluesy piano was the backbone of the group, and guitarist Pat Donohue who moved from gutsy blues to bluegrass to ballads, adding a growling vocal accompaniment to “Goin’ To California Blues.”
I’ll steer away from the sketches, several of which featured Martin Sheen. Listening to Keillor poke fun at LA, after living here all this time, gave me a similar feeling to hearing the original Lake Wobegon material when I resided in the Twin Cities — it was all just a little too familiar. But then, about halfway through the “News From Lake Wobegon,” Keillor had one of his characters make an abrupt career change to designing walleye lures (Lazy Ikes!) and then had him dragged around a lake by an 85 pound muskie. This harkened me back to my six glorious summers as the Fishing Counselor at North Star Camp For Boys in northern Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time in those days thinking about walleyes and muskies. I spent, in fact, considerably more time thinking about them than actually catching them. So there I was, cackling out loud at Keillor’s yarn, pretty clearly the only one in my section of the Hollywood Bowl who had ever harbored dreams of being dragged across a north woods lake by an eighty-five pound muskie.
I went home and looked for the Lazy Ike in my tackle box.
Things had come full circle.
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To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.
To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.