By Nancy Oliveri
Summertime, and the living is easy on a misty June evening in Lenox, Mass.
A strolling Garrison Keillor, cordless microphone in hand, circles the reserved seating section in the cavernous Music Shed at Tanglewood. He moseys onto the huge lawn, picking his way between folding chairs, picnic baskets and foldable tarps, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, just moments before he takes the stage for what may be his last Tanglewood performance.
We were lucky enough to secure two spots on the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton’s bus to see the 1,432nd live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion last Saturday (June 27), and it was well worth the effort.
While we were trying to find a way to access our seats in the middle of the final row, in the very back of the Koussevitzky Music Shed, Keillor himself walked within touching distance of my friend Mitch and me. It happened so fast and so unexpectedly that we didn’t have enough time to pull out our cameras. In no more than five or 10 seconds, the towering figure had walked toward us, swept by and made his way out onto the lawn, the crowd parting to let him and his singing companion, Sarah Jarosz, pass. It was very cool.
The folks on the lawn sat in a light but steady rain for the duration of the two-hour program. I was glad we were sheltered, but I would have stayed, regardless.
Keillor, now back on the stage which rendered him, for those of us in the back row, no bigger than a Lego man, officially opened the show. When he sang the familiar opening lyrics, “Oh, hear that old piano …,” the crowd went wild! Members of the Prairie Home Companion Band — Richard Kriehn, Chris Siebold, Larry Kohut and Jonathon Dresel — and music director Rich Dworsky helped provide the wonderful music.
With much to review in what had been a historic and poignant week (two important Supreme Court decisions and the South Carolina tragedy), Keillor kept this very New England audience riveted.
But true to form, he also poked fun at the decidedly wealthy, liberal Lenox crowd, imagining disenchanted but trendy executives relocated there to be mediocre artists and musicians. Through the vehicles of “Lives of the Cowboys” and “Guy Noir, Private Eye,” Lenox got gently lampooned, but with good humor. (For the uninitiated, thos e are two of the bits that A Prairie Home Companion is known for, and they’re always funny although they seem to depend more now on scatological humor than they used to.)
Keillor pulled no punches, however, for our neighbors to the south as he sang a cutting, clever version of “Dixie” about the logical demise of the Confederate flag. This got universal approval.
The Royal Academy of Radio Actors, aka Tim Russell, Sue Scott and sound effects wizard Fred Newman, were in top form, and the venue oh the venue. Never in my life have I heard acoustics so pure and true in such a big structure, open at the rear, with the occasional bird chirping overhead. But, after all, it is Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Traveling this year with Keillor and company is a 24-year old balladeer and musician, the talented and down-to earth, Sarah Jarosz, who sings and plays with the heart of a much older woman. Her “1,000 Things,” cowritten by Darrell Scott, is lush and beautiful. Jarosz sounds like a young Emmylou Harris, a PHC alum. I’ll be downloading that song on iTunes.
Pop singer Sara Bareilles, with her sister Nadia Digiallonardo at the piano, showcased a couple of songs from her upcoming musical, Waitress, which will premiere in August in Cambridge, Mass. Keillor said his 17-year old daughter had been begging him to bring Bareilles on for quite a while, and he was sorry he’d waited so long. He couldn’t say enough good things about her, all deserved.
From the songs she shared with the PHC audience, “Take it from Me” and “She Used to be Mine,” Waitress will be a show worth keeping an eye out for, especially since Bareilles has tapped Tony winner Jessie Meuller to star.
Peter Rowan, a contemporary of Jerry Garcia’s, whom Keillor introduced as “the grand old man of acoustics,” and for whose flowing locks Keillor expressed envy, sang a beautiful rendition of Odetta’s “Freedom,” a spiritual.
Ukulele player Rev. Rachel Manke, from a Malden, Mass., Lutheran church was funny with a friendly poke at Keillor who was asking her if there was nothing those Lutherans wouldn’t do to get people into the church. “You’re an Episcopaiian,” she quipped, They sang an adorable variation of “It’s a sin to tell a lie,” which they changed to “It’s a sin to not reply” (when someone texts you).
Keillor’s signature “Week in Lake Wobegon” touched on the power of the Northern Lights, tomato rivalries, love and tractor parades.
“It’s an awesome thing, 200 tractors rolling by, side by side. You can feel the ground rumble beneath your feet … it shakes your rear molars! If you had this parade and the Northern Lights on the same day, you’d be the spiritual center of the universe!”
As we left the grounds, heading back to the bus, we could hear the company singing a post-broadcast rendition of “Amazing Grace.” In the fading light and the misty rain, with the Berkshires in the background, it wasn’t the spiritual center of the universe, but it could have been.
Now in its 40th year, A Prairie Home Companion, a production of American Public Media, is in its twilight, which made this excursion particularly special.
NOTE: PHC is broadcast at 6 p.m. Saturdays and repeated at 2 p.m. Sundays on WSKG-FM public radio.