Let’s clarify: Garrison Keillor’s current stage run isn’t mellow — it’s three steps beyond mellow. Not boring, mind you, but meditative; the comedic equivalent of maintaining child’s pose for the entire duration of a yoga class.
Keillor’s touring show, the not-for-broadcast America the Beautiful production (which stopped at the Fair Wednesday night), is all about words and music, not showmanship. Keillor rambles about the stage while he’s speaking, a guitar tech will stroll nearly into the spotlights while swapping out instruments, and a blown line or a missed cue isn’t a problem so much as an odd extension of Keillor’s worldview, which is essentially: “Things could be much worse, after all.”
There’s no choreography per se, and the vibe, as ever, is homespun and off the cuff — in fact, Garrison Keillor may be the answer to the question “What is the opposite of Beyonce?”
Keillor’s fans weren’t there for a laser show, of course. The writer and broadcaster — who recently announced he’s retiring after a four-decade run of his iconic NPR show A Prairie Home Companion — has turned this tour into a farewell singalong. This performance is even more sparse than his radio program — the company has been stripped down to the host, sound effects man Fred Newman, heavenly singer Sarah Jarosz and an incredibly tight backing band led by keyboard wiz Rich Dworsky.
Over the course of nearly three hours, Keillor waxed sentimental about family and his awkward embrace of the positives of modern technology, marveled at the rare “exhibit of Indiana Liberals” he’d stumbled across at the Fairgrounds, cracked wise on the field of Presidential candidates and revisited regular characters such as Private Eye Guy Noir. The Noir sketch skewered the Minnesota dentist who shot Cecil the Lion, painting him as a dude so clueless he’d murder Smokey the Bear and Winnie the Pooh. The segment morphed into a classic Prairie Home bit: stacking tongue-twisters amongst the dialogue as Noir met with a member of the “Progressive Methodist Feminist Dental Anesthetists” (Jarosz).
Between the funny bits, Keillor and company played Prairie Home’s signature set list — parodies, fictional product jingles and the slow solemn hymns of the “sanctified brethren,” the north-country farm families that Keillor grew up with. Garrison’s audience, of course, was prepared for a marathon wave goodbye — his fans, mostly white and middle-aged, were completely engaged with every stutter and random gesture. Keillor could tank a bit or a lyric and still get a pass: This is a 72-year-old national treasure saying farewell, after all.
The most touching moment of the program, though, was the intermission. As everyone else on stage took fifteen, Keillor meandered through the audience, leading the crowd through standards like “My Country ‘tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.” With nothing more than a follow spot, a torn suit and a hand-held mic, Keillor managed to enrapture the throng at the Coliseum while merging with the crowd. He’s ultimately the perfect American radio host — his every utterance seems to reinforce the notion that you’re hearing a story or a tune from a very dear, old uncle.