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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

An Evening With Garrison Keillor

Or: The Secret of Persistent Kindness.

Garrison Keillor, the Bard of Woebegone and the Face of Radio owes Boise one good story. As he said himself standing on a stage overlooking Outlaw Field next to the Old Idaho Penitentiary and the new Botanical Gardens, waiting for the lingering summer sun to set, “We’ve had the best time time here, and I’ll be telling the story about these brave folks for along time.” Of course he will be obliged to make the day 114 degrees instead of 99, and paint his audience as rough pioneers, bravely venturing into the blast furnace of the day because they were too stubborn to give up the chance.

The heat and ‘the thousand natural shocks that outdoor seating is heir to‘ notwithstanding, we too had “the best time” with this American icon. It wasn’t a sketch show, or a musical event, or even a proper storytelling, but a long drawn out conversation of the best kind, punctuated every now and again but some recalled piece of musical excellence or a small script written for our consideration. I don’t know, dear reader, if you have experienced the simple minded joy of watching a stream of water pool and eddy along the sidewalk beside you, but it’s the best metaphor I can think of to describe the evening of “radio romance”. Keillor ambled his way down stories of sweet corn and Oregano, Prisons and Songwriters, The Angel Asphodel and one evil clown, pausing here and there to comment on the heat, the setting, to tie something from earlier in the evening to the present conversation. Each of these stories were prefaced by or led up to some advice on living a peaceful life (three standouts: Cheerfulness is a Choice, Be Kind to the Waitstaff, and Eat lots of Rhubarb and Strawberries as they offer you Persistent Kindness, which is all you need to get along with people).

This artless ambling, that might have sparked irritation in another performer, was lapped up by the audience who would have happily sat there till Dawn wrapped her rosy fingers round Night’s neck and squeezed. The stories and one sided discussions were gentle even at their most disagreeable and/or bitingly true, and each was slathered with a good deal of humor and extended as a gift to each of us in turn.

It was apparent, watching the stage that these improvised loop-de-loops, so comforting for the audience, set a certain wear on the cast. Stage management, baking in their blacks, scowled their way across the stage, handing out music and scripts for the rest of the company, broadcasting through their expressions and glances: “What the cuss is he doing? That’s not in the line up. Hurry up and get to ‘Under the Stars’ already. Sheesh, Talent”. More at home were the famous Guy’s All Star Shoe Band, master musicians who seemed as much along for the ride as the chance to play.

If you were looking for something a little more pointed and refined, the antics of Fred Newman, renowned voice actor and long time Foley Artist on A Prairie Home Companion. In addition to gamely providing sketch sound effects and characters like a Gunslinger with an aptitude for spelling and a Dolphin singing “Bring Him Home”, Newman also wowed us with his proficiency on the mouth harp and bull roarer as his remarkably smooth and sinewy voice coiled around old folk favorites.

This night, the official vocal talent was provided by the indie folk composer and performer Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced “Eef-ah” O’donovan. “Mallacht na hÉireann”). Fulfilling the cosmic rule that vocally versatile, well poised Birds are always best paired with melodious, big gangly Blokes, O’Donovan and Keilor are well matched together, swapping off melody and harmony on new creations and old favorites, such as O’Donovan’s own “Fire Engine” and the cap of the evening, Berlin’s “The Song has Ended, (but the Melody Lingers On)”. Their duet of “Gulf Coast Highway” was exceptionally lovely, treating this often belabored song with the sad reverence that it deserves. O’Donovan has a Viola voice, balancing between a country quaver and a classists clarity, neither pitched too high or too low. It blends well with Keillor, who’s voice when put to song has more of the character of a bass clarinet than anything else. Despite her skill, O’Donovan seemed more lost than the stagehands. Often we could spy her, perched amid the band, guitar in hand, eyes darting back and forth broadcasting: “We’re going into Guy Noir now? Where’s the Script? What am I to do with this Guitar? Garrison? Somebody? Help?” She got around to it, and like Newman and the band eventual learned to loosen the natural strings of live performance and take a mellower view of things.

(It is important, Dear Reader, to note that Aoife O’Donovan is a name to be praised and honored, not only for her own merits, but as the composer of “Lay My Burden Down” the song sung by Allison Krause at the end of the magnificent film Get Low. It is a peerless piece, and one of the best uses of song in storytelling these ears have ever heard. Just thought you ought to know).

It is troublesome for me to describe the effect of seeing Garrison Keillor. After years of listening to A Prairie Home Companion and three separate viewings of the film, along with his readings of his numerous written works (which I am sad to say are never quite as good as his spoken stories) Keillor is a artist who’s styles and tricks are well known to me. Yet his position as a professional raconteur takes on a new luster in the light of an Idaho summer’s evening. His performance is more personal, more immediate, and highlights again and again a stratagem that has kept him in business for nearly forty years. His talent and his ultimate goal is to make other people look good. His advice is brotherly, his stories generous, he is full of praise for the audience and the location, he surrounds himself with people “smarter or more talented” than he (like Mr. Newman, the Guy’s All Star Shoe Band, and the voices of O’Donovan and her many predecessors), and he always regards at himself and his offerings through a half-empty glass.

This illumination of his fellows, his Persistent Kindness and laid-back satisfaction, serves to increase his luster and underline his mystique as the voice of the people. Just before the intermission, he descended into ground-growth of chairs and blankets to wander through and lead us all in acapella renditions of “As I Went Down to the River to Pray” and “I’ll Never Dance With Another” and all three verses of “America the Beautiful” (which of course, descended into a lot of “Ner Ner Ners” toward the end). As he ambled passed my seat, so close I could have reached out and touched the hem of his jacket, I felt a kind of religious awe pass over me. Not the reverent fearful awe one feels in close proximity to the Pope or the President, but the same kind of wonder that must have been felt when Emerson or Bryant passed by our ancestors. The Learned Voice, who speaks to, and speaks for, looking you in the eye, breathing the same air. I know it is a story that I will cherish for many years and hope that a little bit of that awe flows back to the Bard of Woebegone’s tale of the city in the Valley, amid the cotton woods by the banks of the quiet river.

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