ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Thile makes 'Prairie Home Companion' his own

ST. PAUL--Chris Thile was psyched. When Garrison Keillor asked him to succeed him as host of "A Prairie Home Companion," Thile said he felt as if he'd been asked to be "a Jedi master, Shamu the killer whale and a starting pitcher for the Cubs." B...

New “Prairie Home Companion” host Chris Thile, left, joins Jack White on a rendition of the “Carolina Blues,” a song by White’s former band the Raconteurs, on Saturday night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Companion
New “Prairie Home Companion” host Chris Thile, left, joins Jack White on a rendition of the “Carolina Blues,” a song by White’s former band the Raconteurs, on Saturday night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Companion

ST. PAUL-Chris Thile was psyched. When Garrison Keillor asked him to succeed him as host of "A Prairie Home Companion," Thile said he felt as if he'd been asked to be "a Jedi master, Shamu the killer whale and a starting pitcher for the Cubs." But he knew that, instead of the dulcet tones of the amiable raconteur from Lake Wobegon, audiences would be encountering "an excitable mandolin player with a voice that no one can prove puberty actually changed."

Nevertheless, Thile is indeed on the job. His career as the host of American Public Media's "A Prairie Home Companion" officially began late afternoon Saturday at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater, the show's primary home since 1978 ... or three years before Thile was born.

And excitable he was, clearly wound up about the opportunity, a hum of energy exuding from him that was palpable. He faced the challenge of trying to keep up the traditions (and maintain the audience) of one of America's most beloved radio programs yet somehow put his own stamp on it.

Nothing about Saturday's program was an affront to the memory of Keillor or the homespun program he started in 1974. Heck, Thile and his expert house band even kicked off with "Tishimingo Blues" and jammed on the "Powdermilk Biscuits" song before intermission. If there's a significant difference between Keillor's version and Thile's, it's that a show that used to be about stories, skits and songs is now more about songs with some skits and a dash of storytelling.

That stands to reason, when you consider that Keillor once said that he invented "A Prairie Home Companion" so a non-musician writer like him could hang out with musicians. Thile, meanwhile, is a musician, a bluegrass mandolinist who's branched out into other genres so inventively that he received a MacArthur "genius grant" a few years ago. So it's no surprise that this show was far more focused upon the music than the comedy.

ADVERTISEMENT

And what music it was. The house band is full of outstanding musicians, but Thile also wisely invited Jack White and Lake Street Dive as guests. So, even with his picking on the mandolin, this was not a show that Thile was entrusted with carrying musically.

The first of several memorable musical performances came from Lake Street Dive, a group that - although born in Boston when its four members met at the New England Conservatory of Music - was indeed named after South Minneapolis' main drag (guitarist/trumpeter Mike "McDuck" Olson is from here). The band's sound is something like an acoustic version of vintage soul, with the expressive voice of Rachael Price at the forefront. They proved enjoyable on their own "Call Off Your Dogs" and Prince's "When You Were Mine."

But White's performances seemed more exciting to the crowd. The former voice of the White Stripes performed four songs as part of an acoustic quartet, the sound of his metal resophonic guitar complemented by a fiddle and bass also made of metal. A tune from his band of late last decade, the Raconteurs, provided a thrill with "Carolina Drama," White's hoarse, urgent tenor making the ominous tale an engrossing short story in song.

A much lighter tone arrived in a countrified version of the White Stripes' "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" with surprise guest Margo Price, a Nashville traditionalist who's one of this year's most celebrated newcomers.

Audiences will have to adjust to some changes. The news from Lake Wobegon is gone, and Keillor's absence from the comedy writing team might have something to do with the weakness of the skits. While there was an imaginative bit in which longtime cast member Tim Russell played a shaving cream critic, there were others about Donald Trump hosting a public radio pledge drive, a grammar-correcting Coast Guard radio operator and a chat with astronauts on a Mars mission.

But if the music remains good, "A Prairie Home Companion" should remain an early-Saturday-evening tradition in American households for quite some time yet.

If you go:

What: "A Prairie Home Companion" with host Chris Thile

ADVERTISEMENT

When: 4:45 p.m. Oct. 22 and 29

Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul

Tickets: $49-$20, available at 651-290-1200 or prairiehome.org

Capsule: It's more about music than storytelling now, but what music.

What To Read Next
Fundraising is underway to move the giant ball of twine from the Highland, Wisconsin, home of creator James Frank Kotera, who died last month at age 75, 44 years after starting the big ball.
Mike Clemens, a farmer from Wimbledon, North Dakota, was literally (and figuratively) “blown away,” when his equipment shed collapsed under a snow load.
Volunteers lead lessons on infusing fibers with plant dyes and journaling scientific observations for youth in Crow Wing and Olmsted counties.