No doubt the crop art exhibit, Hamline Dining Hall and Ye Olde Mill will all live on at the Minnesota State Fair next year, but as of Friday night, Ye Olde Blusterer will no longer be among the traditions.
Garrison Keillor, who made Minnesota an idyllic home to old traditions on his “A Prairie Home Companion” public-radio show for 43 years, broke the news from Lake Wobegon a week ago that this year’s grandstand performance would be his final appearance at the State Fair.
He didn’t really say why he wanted Friday’s show — his 13th fair gig — to be his last there. Age might be a factor (he turned 75 three weeks ago). So might his growing distance from the public-radio show he started in 1974 and retired from last summer (continuing on with new whippersnapper host Chris Thile in October). Or maybe he, too, is mad at fair organizers for shunning the Original Deep Fried Cheese Curd stand’s efforts to remain open this year (he’s always been stubbornly principled).
Keillor invited back many of his old castmates for the fair farewell under the banner “The Minnesota Show,” including Sue Scott, Tim Russell, Fred Newman and bandleader Rich Dworsky.
The “Prairie Home” crowd of old was the one missing ingredient. Friday’s attendance figure of 6,346 was conspicuously down from the 12,000 or so of Keillor’s prior two visits. That became a point of humor early in the show, when Russell donned a decent impression of Donald Trump.
“Biggest crowd in State Fair history!” Russell bellowed. “Look at the 55,000 people in the grandstand.”
Keillor got in a little self-deprecation himself later on when introducing the Tornadoes marching band from Anoka High School, a city “that has not produced any authors or comedians of note,” the Anoka native deadpanned.
Predictably, the host never broke from character to offer any self-congratulations or pomp because of the circumstances. You wouldn’t have known it was his final bow at the fair, which remained a bottomless well of inspiration for his dry and corny jokes — as in corn-doggy, of course. Like the commercial for “corn cats” (a healthier alternative made with catfish). Or the line he sang at the start of the second set: “The longest line I ever stood in was for cheese curds.”
Speaking of things that curdle, Keillor sang often during Friday’s show, starting with a 10-minute montage before the broadcast where he roamed through the crowd offering “This Land Is Your Land,” “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” etc.
The show was heavy on music in general, a good thing when guest singers Heather Masse of the Wailin’ Jennys and Aoife O’Donovan brought a down-home charm to Springsteen, Dylan and Greg Brown songs.
Best of all, Twin Cities gospel and R&B greats Jevetta and Jearlyn Steele paid tribute to their friend Prince with a lightly stirring “Let’s Go Crazy” and then turned heavy and timely with CeCe Winans’ “The Healing Part.” If there’s one tradition in Keillor’s fair shows that deserves to live on, it’s having the Steeles sing there every year.
Keillor’s usual skits made the rounds, too, starting with a short “Guy Noir, Private Eye” and ending with “News from Lake Wobegon,” which was the one part of the 2¾-hour performance where the Minnesota icon came the nearest to sounding sentimental.
A “Wobegon” story about his Uncle Louie being in the fair’s old freak show for his peculiar affliction — “he hadn’t spoken a word in 40 years” — turned glum as Louie died unexpectedly.
“I’m 10 years older than Louie was, and I’m still here working,” he said somberly, perhaps also reflecting on another death that befell his family this past year. “I’m here to tell you life is good. You need to be 75 to truly say that. There are plenty of people to point out the harm and crises in the world, and I support them fully. But I’m just going to tell you life is good.”
Keillor’s political views are well-known, but in the end he did not betray the spirit of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.