The post-Garrison Keillor “A Prairie Home Companion” commenced Saturday evening with new host Chris Thile dancing to the music of longtime pianist Rich Dworsky.
For the next two hours, Thile kept dancing. His feet bounced to the music of Lake Street Dive’s hip jazz-soul. His tongue boogied triple time delivering Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” His mind improvised steps while interviewing quick-witted guest Jack White, the indie-rock god.
Thile, a native Californian who isn’t moving to the Twin Cities, waltzed around with all things Minnesotan such as the Vikings, Lynx, Prince, Dylan, the St. Paul Hotel and the sad, sad Twins. In perhaps a nod to “Prairie Homes” of the past, he talked about fall and what it meant with apple cider, leaves and what hijacks autumn every fourth year — the U.S. presidential election.
Like his predecessor was wont to do, Thile took a jab at both major-party candidates, admitting that he, too, had used an unsecured e-mail account once and he, too, had not paid income taxes for 18 consecutive years — “after that I graduated high school.”
Thile, 35, knew his place and predicament. Early on Saturday, the Grammy-winning singer/mandolinist, who’d been a guest host a few times last season, acknowledged that he could never take the place of Keillor, who invented “A Prairie Home Companion” in 1974 and built it into a public-radio institution. But Keillor was mentioned only once by Thile. And the words Lake Wobegon, the fictional home of “Prairie Home,” were never uttered.
There was no News from Lake Wobegon monologue, Keillor’s signature. There was, however, a commercial for Powdermilk Biscuits, another figment of Keillor’s imagination, and holdover actor Tim Russell and sound-effects man Fred Newman participated in a few skits. But the house band, the First-Call Radio Players, had all new musicians except for music director Dworsky.
Thile wants to put his stamp on the show — more music, less talk. He wants to enter the modern world with Twitter, millennial musicians and stand-up comics. He promises to write and perform a new topical song every week (this one was about fall and the election). He’ll do a weekly shout-out to music figures who had birthdays such as Thelonious Monk, Verdi, Pavarotti, John Prine and Paul Simon, whom he honored by singing “Loves Me Like a Rock” (dedicated to his mom, who was in the audience.)
Next week Thile plans to add an audience-request tune that he and the band will instantly perform. That’s radio without a script or a seven-second delay button.
Unlike Keillor, Thile is a host who can actually sing duets with authority, not just aspiration. And he is a master musician, who can burst into a Prince song when the Purple One’s name comes up in conversation, accompany a guest with or without rehearsal, and fill time with his fancy finger picking.
Furthermore, Thile’s name has gravitas so he can comb the contacts in his phone and invite rising acts like Lake Street Dive (their highlight was a version of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” with trumpet as the featured instrument) and superstars like White, who favored his acoustic pieces including “Carolina Drama,” a tale of a preacher, milkman and murder, and a falsetto-leaning “City Lights,” by his rock band White Stripes.
New York comedian Maeve Higgins told jokes as if she were in a club, delivering a PG routine clearly catered to millennials. When she asked how many single people were in the audience and only a few folks clapped, she quickly had to recalibrate, like Thile being told that he had only 90 seconds to do a song.
As “Prairie Home” was signing off Saturday, the announcer read that Keillor was executive producer. That gave a listener pause: Whoa, he’s gone. On Saturday, Keillor was not even standing in the wings at the Fitzgerald Theater but rather performing a solo show in the most un-Minnesotan of places, Green Bay. He’s really gone.