A cheery mandolin virtuoso and the co-writer of “The Real Slim Shady” may seem like an untenable team, especially on a playing field once managed by Garrison Keillor. But never underestimate the musical capability — and curiosity — of Chris Thile and Mike Elizondo.
When Thile kicks off the new season of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Live From Here” this weekend, it’ll be with Dr. Dre protégé Elizondo as musical director, the role long held by Richard Dworsky, a pianist more likely to break into ragtime than rap.
“I’m beyond excited about the team we have this year,” Thile said in a statement last month after dismissing several key players from Keillor’s reign, including sound-effects wizard Fred Newman, voice actor Tim Russell and Dworsky, who remains friendly with Thile and has voiced support for his former boss’ changes. “The new mix of talent further energizes our celebration of hearable beauty and hilarity.”
But don’t expect “Live” to suddenly transform into a Death Row Records after-party. Yes, Elizondo has worked with legendary hip-hop artists like Jay Z, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent (they collaborated on the megahit “In da Club”). But he’s also worked with Carrie Underwood, Pink, Ry Cooder and Alanis Morissette.
He often can be found sitting in at Largo, the acoustic-friendly Los Angeles club where Thile’s old bandmate (and “Prairie Home Companion” favorite) Sara Watkins is also a regular. It was at Largo where Thile and Elizondo first met a decade ago, jamming behind Fiona Apple as she performed “Fast as You Can.”
“I never put boundaries on musical genres I’m allowed to be in,” said Elizondo, speaking by phone this week from the L.A. home he shares with his wife and four kids. “I’m always open to any kind of experience, as long as there are musicians involved that will challenge me. If someone thinks I could bring something to the table, I’m there.”
Elizondo had played bass on a couple of episodes after Thile took over the show from Keillor in 2016, but the request in July to officially join the family took him by surprise.
“I probably took a good seven to 10 days to really think about it and talk it over with my wife,” he said. “On a creative level, I was extremely honored, but on a personal level, I had to figure out how to orchestrate my life. It’s a lot more traveling than I’m used to. I finally realized that the energy I’m going to gain doing these shows will help fuel my enthusiasm for all the other projects I’m working on.”
The 22-show schedule opens at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this weekend with special guests Lindsey Buckingham and Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Elizondo will make his Minnesota debut as music director the following week — but it’s not like he has to start scouring St. Paul for an apartment. “Live” has only four shows planned in the Twin Cities this season, a surprisingly low number considering it’s still produced by MPR.
“While we’re not talking about Lake Wobegon anymore, that sensibility is still carried on,” head writer Tom Papa told the Star Tribune in February. “If the show had started in New York or Chicago, it would have had a different tone. It still has Minnesota running through it.”
That connection seems more tenuous than ever. For his part, Elizondo is more focused on the music than the itinerary.
Since agreeing to come on board, he has been texting with the New York-based Thile nearly every day, assembling a wish list of guests and educating each other on artists. For the Bay Area opener, Elizondo has encouraged Thile to get into “What Is Hip” by Oakland veterans Tower of Power and deep cuts from Sly and the Family Stone.
“We’re very aware of what the show has been,” Elizondo said. “But my feeling is that when Garrison picked Chris to take over the show, he wanted him to do what comes naturally to him. Some of those old sounds will continue to intersect, but we’re going to focus on music that Chris and I would want to tune into every week.”
Does that mean Eminem or 50 Cent will pop by before season’s end?
“I don’t know if that’s in the cards,” Elizondo said. “But anything’s possible.”