An Evening With Garrison Keillor

18.jpgIt was a feeling akin to the one that comes when you meet someone — a long, lost relative, let’s say — whom you’ve never met but always heard about. It was the flesh-and-bone version of the silky, baritone voice that previously existed only in myths we joined as they unfolded between six and eight on Saturday evenings.

This was my make-a-wish moment.

With just a few rows of chairs separating me from radio icon Garrison Keillor on Wednesday evening, it was as if my story was finally intersecting with those of radio “private eye” Guy Noir, the emotionless Lutherans of Lake Wobegon and the rest of the Prairie Home Companion variety ensemble. But as Dorothy might have said were she in my seat on Wednesday, “We’re not in radio anymore, Toto.”

Wednesday’s live show at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset was one of many stops on Keillor’s current cross-country gallivant lovingly named “The Rhubarb Tour” after the garden vegetable he has so shamelessly promoted on his show through the years. The tour also includes the traditional live recordings of A Prairie Home Companion in different U.S. cities each Saturday night, including Saturday’s season finale and Independence Day Special at the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood in Western Massachusetts.

For me, seeing the live show on Wednesday meant much more than just seeing how Fred Newman creates a world with sound effects during radio theater segments, though this was fascinating. Let me offer a couple metaphors for what this night meant. It was the first time I walked through Gate B on Yawkee Way after years of listening to Sox games on the radio. It was a week in the home of my grandparents, about whom I had been told countless stories. It was me as a twentysomething colliding with me as a five-, ten-, and 13-year-old boy.

I have never grown tired of Keillor’s affinity for the four-part harmony, skillful instrumentation and hauntingly beautiful gospel that have remained the backbone of the show for 32 years. The variety show is really an extension of its host, of course, seen in Keillor’s gliding across the stage during a tune he fancies or his lulling but passionate tales about life in small town Minnesota.

This fact is crystal clear, though: Keillor clearly enjoys each performance as much as the capacity crowds at each venue he plays. It is as if he himself travels to the “better-than-reality” worlds he helps create each Saturday night, and at times one sees his eyes close and head start to sway to a particularly gripping song, and one wonders if he will snap out of it in time to finish the show.

For so many Saturdays over the last 23 years and for two hours on Wednesday in Cohasset, I was transported into this world of Keillor’s — a good world — where hope replaces faithlessness, where laughter replaces tears, and, of course, “where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It’s A Prairie Home Companion — the last substantive American radio program and a snapshot (and sound bite) of heaven, on Earth.

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