Change is inevitable as you grow up, but the one thing that stayed the same for me was Garrison Keillor. His radio variety show, “A Prairie Home Companion” was always a part of my childhood no matter what city I lived or how old I was. My parents loved the show, so on weekends, we listened to Keillor’s comforting voice on our car radio or in our living room. As a young kid, I didn’t pay much attention to the content. However, as I got older, I started actively listening and began appreciating Keillor’s comedic timing and storytelling skills. I particularly enjoyed the long standing skits such as his detective series “Guy Noir” and the radio commercials sponsored by the fictional American Duct Tape.
Image Source: Ravinia.org
When my friend told me that Garrison Keillor was going to tape a live show in hometown Chicago, I was naturally very excited. I was looking forward to seeing the person who was a huge presence in my childhood. I was also curious to see how the show created those extraordinarily sophisticated noise effects, which play a huge role in the show and are very effective in in helping listeners visualize the skits. Part of me also wondered whether I would still be able to imagine the characters and plots if I was seeing the actors perform them in person (where it would just be the actors without costumes/scenery) versus hearing voices on radio.
The show did not disappoint. My friend and I saw the concert in Ravinia, an beautiful outdoor concert venue right outside Chicago. My friend and I got seats in the stadium and not the lawn, which ended up being the best decision given the rain later. We also had a good view of Mr. Keillor and the other show performers. Prior to the actual taping started, the “Prairie Home Companion” band played its staple, upbeat bluegrass /blues music, setting a fun tone consistent with the show’s . About ten minutes before the live show started, Mr. Keillor appeared, singing classical patriotic songs (such as “O Beautiful,” and the national anthem.) He started with “O Beautiful” while walking down the aisle, venturing into the seated area and out into the lawn space. The audience joined in the singing. I appreciated his venturing into the crowd and giving fans the opportunity to see him.
The broadcast began at 5 p.m. CST , and I was excited just thinking that the performance was being heard across the nation at the same time we were seeing it in person. As the show progressed, I was relieved that my seeing the performances live didn’t distract from visualizing the stories . As expected, I loved seeing how the sound effects were created. I was impressed by the voice actor- Fred Newman- who did all the background noise and some of the character voices. In one particular skit, Mr. Keillor is telling a story that has no cohesiveness; he starts with a cowboy then takes the story to submarines, and then a jungle. Mr. Newman provides all the background noises as Mr. Keillor tells the story; over the course of the skit, we hear Mr. Newman’s talent displayed, as he imitates everything from horses to monkeys to the washing machine/dryer. My seeing Mr. Newman in person did not prevent me from automatically thinking about the object he imitated
I liked that the “Guy Noir” skit incorporated Chicago’s culture. Guy Noir was in Chicago, trying to help an elderly worker collect her pension. The skit did an excellent job mocking Chicago’s political issues. Among my favorite jokes: one character calling himself “self-identifying CPA.” Another favorite joke was on Chicagoans food preference; a separate character tries selling hot dogs to Guy Noir. He says to Guy –voiced by Mr. Keillor- that he’s “Free to have anything on the hot dog.” Guy responds, “How about ketchup.” The character responds “Not that free.”
As I watched and listened to the show, I realized the beauty of “A Prairie Home Companion” and other public radio/television broadcasts is that they feature a lot of gifted musicians that aren’t necessarily well known to general public. These individuals may not be as famous as Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, but are much more talented in my opinion. We hear their raw, unfiltered voices, while singers like Taylor Swift often have their voices enhanced by record label producers. In addition to “A Prairie Home Companion’s” wonderful band, the show featured singer John Fullbright, who sang songs that ranged from a rock/country feel to a sweet ballad. I love that his songs conjured up very specific images; one song made me think of a country bar while another made me imagine driving by an ocean, with a car top open and the cool breeze playing.
I absolutely loved Rachel Barton Pine, the violinist whose playing made me realize that what differentiates classical musicians from each other – who are often playing the same piece- is the feeling put into delivering the notes. Ms. Pine certainly put a lot of emotion into the notes she played. The first song he played was so haunting and bittersweet that it brought tears to my eyes. The third musical performer was Elvin Bishop, a blues singer whose songs contained very thoughtful lyrics. One of his songs talked about valuing old school techniques over technology, while another focused on how everyone ages.
Overall, everything about the show- the songs, the skits, the simplicity in execution- reminded me the joys of traditional entertainment. By traditional entertainment, I mean a form relying on raw talent and no marketing flash, one deeply rooted in the art form that’s the basis of human history/culture: storytelling. There’s a certain level of pure pleasure in returning to these roots and which phones and TV shows don’t necessarily provide
If you want to hear the broadcast I attended, here is a link to that show: http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/listen/full/?name=phc/2015/06/20/phc_20150620_128