The best thing about going to a live performance of a radio show is that you don’t need a good seat. Seeing is second to hearing when the whole point is to produce an audio adventure destined for the airwaves.
That was a good thing for Sunday evening’s presentation of Garrison Keillor’s public radio staple “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ outpost in Chatfield. It didn’t matter that the show was packed and so many of of us were pushed a football field away from the stage. It didn’t matter that Keillor spent much of his time wandering around in the audience, views of the unlikely pop star blocked by lighting equipment or other concertgoers.
It was enough to lay back on your blanket, staring at the gathering clouds, enjoying the high winds and just listening to Keillor’s hypnotically droning stories, his casual folk songs, the band’s easy-going musicianship, the crazy sound effects that give the show its nostalgic energy.
Attending the live performance did offer some revelations. Keillor, of course, is famously funny looking, but seeing him in person, in action, remains jarring. That smooth, confident voice comes from a gangly guy, slightly hunched over, with a scrunched up face. These days famous people tend to be less awkward.
More interesting, though, is witnessing just how much an of an artist Keillor really is. There’s no script in hand as he rambles on about his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon or other places. The man goes into a sort of trance.
His sense of what makes a good tale is keen. He improvs cannily into different directions, sometimes because he can tell how the audiences is reacting; other times because of his own awareness that the plot is getting rich.
Mesmerizing, eye-opening and dark. This show is cute on the outside, with its made-up sponsorships from the Catchup Advisory Board and Powdermilk Biscuits. Its soul, though, relies on Keillor’s tales of troubled marriages, religious doubts, questions about human existence. Keillor has a way of sneaking truths into his fiction.
Oh, it was fun too. Add in singer and fiddle player Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek, a “Guy Noir” skit, those sound effects from Fred Newman and a nice Colorado night. Who needs a good seat for all that?
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Ray Mark Rinaldi is the Arts and Entertainment editor of The Denver Post.