Spent a little over two hours last night in a packed movie theater escaping to St. Paul, Minnesota for the "live" broadcast of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on the big screen. This particular Fathom production of the long-lasting weekly live radio event included special guest Elvis Costello who, it turns out, makes a darn fine radio drama character actor as well as a unique and engaging singer/songwriter!
What is it about this whole Prairie Home thing that causes 4 million people a week to huddle up around their radios and give a listen to a bygone form of entertainment? What is it that has kept this phenomenon in full gear for 3 1/2 decades? Turns out to be a lot of the same factors I like about my church life right now: simplicity, focus and a heartwarming intimacy.
If you are new to the PHC experience, let me pause to explain. See, each weekend, Keillor assembles talented regulars and a guest or two for a two hour performance in front of a live audience in a not-too-large theater in St. Paul, MN. Things move swiftly between musical performances, a bit of spontaneous banter, humorous recurring mini-dramas like "Guy Noir: Private Eye" and "Lives of the Cowboys", the unlikely offerings of fictional "sponsors" such as "Powdermilk Bisquits" and "Be-Bop-a-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie and Pie Filling", and some fine, fine, superfine old-timey musical performances.
About the music: there's gospel, honky-tonk piano, a couple horns, folk, jazz stylings and more -- all done in a rather "unplugged" mode. But it is Garrison Keillor's gift for storytelling as the lights dim low that grabs you and just won't let you go. Yes, these are the fictional tales that make up his "News From Lake Wobegon" segment of the show.
Over the years I have been as up-close-and-personal with Garrison Keillor as he has breathed out one of these captivating storytelling segments as I have been with the finest of preachers I've heard. Last night was no exception as Mr. K talked about making peace with a brittle relative thanks to banana bread, Bailey's Irish Cream, and a pair of dilapidated old skis. I think it is safe to say that you'll never hear a finer description of what it is like for a young boy to pee in the snow on a bitter cold Minnesota winter's night than you will in Keillor's current flight of fancy.
But, back to the music -- it keeps coming on in a variety of shapes and styles -- all of it grand! The Hopeful Gospel Quartet (Keillor, Robin and Linda Williams and the hard-working vocalist Heather Masse), finger-style guitarist Pat Donahue, the spine shivering talent of the two singing Steele sisters: Jearyln and Jevetta and, of course, Mr. Costello.
There are instrumental jams, solo moments, and various other combinations of singers and musicians that keep the two hours light, sweet and fast moving. And it is all held together by the amazing musical director, Rich Dworsky, who burns up the keyboards in a manner that causes the HD image of his hands to blur just slightly as he cascades up and down the ivories.
It's all good fun, it's a getaway like no other and it makes the sorrows of this world melt away like snow in the Minnesota spring as -- for just a little while -- the PHC crew transports you a different kind of place and time than you can find anywhere else.
If you are fleet of finger, you might be able to snag a ticket for the February 9th encore screening in Irvine, but don't wait 'cause those tix are sure to go fast. And, if you do go, arrive early, get a good seat, and enjoy the pre-performance wanderings of Garrison and a cameraman as they wander around downtown St. Paul while the big Dane (Keillor) acts as a very informal tour guide. Otherwise, visit the PHC website for rebroadcasts of earlier shows or listen this weekend on your FM dial.
Thanks to my friend, Rob, for taking me to this wonderful world away and thank you for reading my recollections and reflections!