Garrison Keillor sauntered onstage at Bethel University Friday night softly singing “My country tis of thee.”
Although he often did such to begin the pre-broadcast of radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” this was not PHC. In fact, it was supposedly his first live non-PHC-related show in the Twin Cities since he signed off the radio in July 2016.
It was billed as “An Evening with Garrison Keillor.” He didn’t mention Lake Wobegon once, though he referenced PHC a few times. This was Keillor as humorist, a familiar commentator looking for a theme. He found two or three.
His premise was looking at life at age 75. The big reveal—the college nerds he’d scorned (those non-English majors with striped ties and plaid shirts) were the ones who became his neurologist, urologist and other life savers. He was foreshamed if not repentant.
He talked about growing up in Anoka, and some of the teachers and relatives who shaped his life. This was especially relevant because this concert was a benefit fundraiser for his cousin Doug Keillor’s Juvenile Justice Advocates program in Mexico City, and the famous cousin tried to point out truisms about their family.
Keillor telling stories about real life isn’t much different than him waxing about Wobegon -- except there are no Powdermilk biscuits or Guy Noirs but there are plenty of Lutherans.
He recalled his first triumphant moment in English class when, at age 14, he recited an original limerick and got a laugh from his teacher and thus his classmates, as well.
It went something like this: “There was a young man from Anoka who tried to write a great limerick. Some were not bad but something seemed to be missing.”
Keillor talked about one of his childhood dreams being singing duets with a tall woman who had a better voice than he. (Dream No. 2 was something about being a second baseman, and he couldn’t remember No. 3. After all, he said he’s 75.)
So Keillor spent much of Friday singing duets with Heather Masse, a PHC regular and regular touring partner who was part of his just-completed 28-city PHC victory-lap tour. They’ve got the routine down where he sings lyrics of poems by Robert Burns, William Yeats and others braided with her singing standards.
With the support of PHC music director Rich Dworsky on piano, they dueted on tunes by Greg Brown, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. When the latter’s name came up (Keillor and Dylan studied at the University of Minnesota at the same time), the man of letters mentioned the Dylan song “Lay Lady Lay.” “I meant to write him and point out that ‘Lay’ is a transitive verb. He won the Nobel Prize for literature.”
Keillor kept the crowd chuckling and singing for two hours and 20 minutes. The performance had the same rhythm and pace of PHC. But it was a lot funnier. And, for better or worse, the host never stopped singing, leading the crowd in hymns and harmonizing with the Murie-Wenstrom Family Singers.
Keillor filled the evening with song and corny limericks, some of which he admitted were in bad taste at a church college.
The host was full of self-deprecating comments, including telling Masse, “after you’ve been on 'Prairie Home Companion,' there’s no hip anymore.”
One particular story tickled the audience, which filled only about half of Benson Great Hall.
Mr. Red Tie, Sox and Shoes was discussing his daily routine at age 75. He gets up and takes a shower. Then he spent probably eight minutes detailing how he puts on his underwear – black briefs, he disclosed – and what, at age 75, little accomplishments like that can bring great pleasure.
“You don’t tell people about it,” he said. “But one more day you’re an independent person. Assisted living, go away.”