A Prairie Home Companion, Vienna, VA 5/27/11

As a public radio fan, I’d been wanting to see a live version of A Prairie Home Companion for a while. My chance came on 5/27, at the Wolf Trap, just outside of DC. There were actually two shows planned for that weekend; the usual 5:45 PM “live” show on Saturday, and a Friday night show at 8 PM. I sent out the usual mass email to all I thought might be interested in going with me, but even if no one else was interested, I was going to go regardless.

Happily, my step-aunt-in-law (yup, that’s how my family rolls) was interested in attending, and once I had confirmed that (and that all the others I emailed weren’t interested), I started looking for tickets, which brought up some interesting questions. APHC is a live show, and most of its shows (like the Saturday show) are scheduled to start live at 5:45 PM, and air nationally at 6 PM (the fifteen minutes I assume is a constant tape delay in case something crazy happens during the show that needs to be edited). What, then, was the Friday show? A rehearsal? A different show entirely? The Wolf Trap and APHC descriptions of the Friday and Saturday shows were almost identical; almost literally, the only difference was that one said “live broadcast” and the other didn’t. I called Wolf Trap ticketing, and they basically said the same thing. The impression I was getting was that the Friday show would be mostly the same as the Saturday one, just not broadcast.

It turned out that since I had found out about the show late, the Saturday show was sold out by the time I was ready to buy tickets, so the decision of which show to attend was made for us. It also turned out that, as far as I can tell from my memory and the audio from the Saturday show online, the shows were very similar; there were some substitutions and changes (most notably Roy Blount Jr. was in the Saturday show, but not Friday’s), but the only big difference was that the Saturday show was broadcast.

The cheapest tickets were $20, and most expensive were $56. Having suffered long enough in the cheap seats at concerts, and with the price difference between the two so small, I and my concertmate decided to splurge on the most expensive ones, and it turned out we made exactly the right choice. The cheapest tickets were on the (uncovered by a roof) lawn overlooking the amphitheater portion of the seats, and a powerful thunderstorm battered the people in that area. Ours were in the amphitheater portion, but even better, were close; our seats were in front of stage right, but were were less than ten feet from that part of the stage. They were the best seats I’ve ever had at a show.

And we were glad to have them, as one of the main reasons to see a live APHC show is to get a sense of what goes on in them visually, in addition to the audio broadcast version with which most people are most familiar. And we could see everything.

The show started with a Keillor/Andra Suchy duet, which didn’t make it into the broadcast show (much from the Friday show had to be cut; it clocked in at 2:44, and could be no more than two hours for broadcast). I could see why the duet wouldn’t make the audio-only cut, as it only worked if you could see the performers: singing the whole time, the two came down into the audience and walked the aisle all the way up to the lawn, then back down again. It must have lasted fifteen minutes, and the audience watched, transfixed, in amazement that the two would attempt such a thing, and in hope that they wouldn’t get lightninged by the still-threatening storm.

Then it was on to the rest of the show. All the usual skits, songs, and stories were there, and one of the things that struck me about it all was the talent of the sound effects guy (Fred Newman, as they were away from St. Paul). Watching him create the sounds I’d heard so many times, I was amazed by his speed, cleverness, and quick humor. In some cases, it looked like Keillor was just saying whatever popped into his head, challenging Newman to come up with a sound for it. He always did, and it was always either accurate or funny.

I was also struck by how much goes on in the skits and stories that one can’t (consciously) hear on the radio, like the background hubbub supplied by Sue Scott and Tim Russell.

An extra treat at this show were The Wailin’ Jennys, who I would have (and have, and want to again) paid $56 to see just by themselves. They performed three songs that night, all off their latest album, Bright Morning Stars. As usual, they seemingly effortlessly sang some of the best three-part harmony I’d ever heard. (At one point, Ruth and Heather sang a long note in unison. If it weren’t for the visual cues that they were both singing, it would have been impossible to tell that two voices were singing the same note, instead of just one. They’re that good.)

Also on the subject of musical awesomeness was Paul Appleby, an opera singer. He did an operatic selection, then Paul Simon’s “American Tune”. Having a world-class opera singer perform one of the best songs ever penned by the English language’s arguably greatest living songwriter was impressive indeed.

When I started listening to APHC, Keillor was transitioning away from the tight, thematic, story-based “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues to his current wider-ranging observational style. I did like his previous style better, but that night’s monologue certainly was a perfectly acceptable instance of his current style. Again, there was a dimension to the performance I didn’t get in the audio broadcasts: Keillor’s arch expressions, which did much to enhance whatever emotional or humorous point he was trying to make at the time. He had the best line of the night in the monologue, noting that a kid with lots of piercings looked as if he had “fallen face-first into a tackle box”. Ouch. Also ouchifying was his entreaty for young adults to treat their relatives well, especially when bringing food to family events, admonishing them to make something instead of buying it, as relatives can tell the difference, and cooking is just following directions. The seeming waste of spending two hours buying ingredients, cooking, and cleaning up just for a dish that will be eaten and forgotten about anyway has always been my objection to making food in general, but Keillor, alas, is probably right; if nothing else, it’s a sign of respect. My sweetie has a similar antipathy toward cooking, but she’d also like to cook more with me; hopefully we’ll do so, and hopefully Keillor’s next monologue won’t be guiltifying.

On second thought, hopefully it will be; the pervasive guilt of the life of the Northern Plains (Lutheran) is a recurring theme of his. I doubt if I’d prefer it any other way.

Once the monologue was through, there was a final song, and the show ended. The rain had stopped by then, so the walk back to the car was much more leisurely than the dash-under-downpour of the sprint to the amphitheater. All that was left to do a that point was wait to leave the parking lot (made much longer by two intermeshing roads packed with cars, with no-one or -thing directing them, odd in an amphitheater that one would think would have been good at dealing with traffic by now), drop off my concertmate (who had a similarly wonderful time), and head home. I didn’t get back until 1:30 in the morning, and was quite tired when I did, but it was still very much worth it. Hopefully I can do it again soon.

This. Is. Marketplace.

Marketplace is coming to West Virginia Public Radio! I first started listening to NPR in 1998 after moving away from the state. In every place I’ve lived since then (California, Florida, Ohio, Indiania, Louisiana, and Arizona), Marketplace, with its sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always interesting coverage of financial news has been there.

But it’s never been in West Virginia Public Radio’s schedule, and that’s the only way to get NPR in Morgantown.

Until now. Even better, the World is going to 3-4 PM to free up space for Marketplace; I’ll lose an hour of classical music, but I’ll get an extra hour awesome NPR news coverage. I can always hook up my CD player or Treo for classical music in the car, but quality stories I had to wait until 4 PM to hear.

Not any more. Can’t wait, can’t wait…