America’s favorite raconteur cast his spell from the minute he walked on stage. There was no preamble to the act, no “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”, no “Hello Seattle”, no bonhomie. He just walked to the center of the stage, picked up his microphone and started to sing. You could hear a pin drop.
The rich baritone seemed oddly out of place coming from the figure before us, a crumpled man of 71, with a shock of unruly grey hair that a lifetime ago his mother would surely have licked and flattened down with a Kleenex. The red sneakers and red tie were quite a shock too, a signpost of rebellion against formality and convention and a vivid contrast to the sober, grey suit.
It wasn’t long before a murmur of suppressed audience humming became fuller-throated participation, encouraged by Keillor’s invitation that “hymns weren’t meant to be sung alone”. And with that, the bond was established.
What followed was two hours of unbroken performance; rambling stories, schoolboy smut (“As a boy I always liked Saturday…because it contained the word turd”), limericks, anecdotes, songs and reminiscences – all delivered without notes and without ever missing a beat.
Keillor’s a skillful storyteller who knows his audience and knows his stuff. He has a fund of great material and even when he lapses into weaker one-liners his timing and delivery get him off the hook.
Some of the humor dates back to the music hall era: “My mother used to say it’s best to marry a woman with a great sense of humor…because she’s going to need it later on”. That gag was old even then and might have drawn an invitation to “kindly leave the stage”, but taken on its own it misrepresents the wider arc of Keillor’s show.
It was a night of nostalgia and shared values, of humor and sentimentality, of life as it was and life as it is, with a sharp eye on the shuffle towards old age: “They start calling you ‘sir,’ and they start taking your elbow as you go down the stairs.”
Keillor’s observations come wrapped with reassuring warmth, like a favorite blanket. Be grateful and be cheerful, he exhorts, think how lucky you are, he says, and goes on to tell how lucky he was to have escaped severe brain damage after suffering a stroke.
He spoke, too, in typically self-deprecatory terms, about how he got his first job in radio: there was no formal interview; they just needed someone to drive 40 miles in the dark of the Minnesotan winter to turn on the station transmitter at 5am.
Forty years later and A Prairie Home Companion is still going strong and a legend of America broadcasting continues to hold us in his thrall.