Retirement? Bah humbug, Garrison Keillor says. He may have retired from radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” this summer after 40-some years. But he’s not retiring from the stage any time soon.
After bringing his radio show to the State Fair 11 times, Keillor, 74, took to the grandstand Friday with what he called “The Minnesota Show.”
That meant Minnesota musicians of various stripes — including guitar hero Leo Kottke, choral veterans VocalEssence and the versatile Steele sisters Jearlyn and Jevetta — and songs by Minnesotans (Bob Dylan, Prince). And there were endless bits and reminiscences about the State Fair from Keillor.
This felt like Keillor’s other fair gigs, except “Prairie Home Companion” was hardly mentioned. The sponsors were for real — Viking River Cruises. And the concert will be broadcast at 5 p.m. Saturday on the usual public-radio stations.
Maybe the biggest difference is Keillor drew his biggest crowd ever to the grandstand — 12,115 people. (His old mark was 11,192 in 2004.)
As is his way, Keillor made fun of people who listen to public radio, teens who go to the fair (and stuff beans up their nose) and Donald Trump (who claimed that the butter sculptures were actually margarine).
Keillor sang songs about the fair with lyrics that seemed cut-and-paste from previous original ditties about the fair. Even his “News From Lake Wobegon” monologue seemed to recycle routines from past State Fair speeches. But how can you top his tale of going to the fair as a 14-year-old with Corinne (and her Shriner father) and having their first kiss on the Ferris wheel?
Keillor and the grandstand crowd seemed quite taken with opera star and Anoka native Ellie Dehn (that’s his hometown, too) and her arias from “Barber of Seville” and “Carmen.”
In his fair debut, guitarist Kottke impressed with his fast finger work, quirky humor and warm vocals on “Pamela Brown.” Thankfully, he did not do a vocal duet with Keillor.
Keillor did plenty of duets with New York singer Heather Masse, including Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and a misguidedly corny “Out in the Cornfield” set to the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.”
The bits with the Royal Academy of Radio Actors — “Prairie Home” staples Sue Scott, Tim Russell and Fred Newman — had the crowd chuckling but seldom guffawing. Keillor is a humorist, not a comedian.
His idea of funny is to have VocalEssence do choral renditions of quintessential 1960s Minnesota commercials for Hamm’s beer, Green Giant and Hormel (Keillor praised deep-fried Spam). And he insisted that VocalEssence director Philip Brunelle, who, like Keillor is a University of Minnesota grad, lead his ensemble in a choral rendition of “Minnesota Hail to Thee.”
Keillor’s “Minnesota Show” was hopelessly Minnesota-centric. Early on, he talked about what separated Minnesotans from, say, New Yorkers or Texans.
“Shootings in Minnesota are caused by someone saying for the 14th time, ‘Don’t go to any trouble for me.’ ”
However, that Gopher State approach didn’t always work. Masse didn’t have the gravitas to duet with Jearlyn Steele on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Still, after singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with Mr. Prairie Home just before the fireworks exploded, grandstand-goers left thinking nothing compares to Keillor.
By the way, this State Fair gig is hardly Keillor’s swan song onstage. He has 24 shows — from London to Lexington, Mass., and from Green Bay, Wis., to Greensboro, N.C. — scheduled between Sept. 13 and April 6. And who knows about next year’s Great Minnesota Get-Together?