It is easier to find similarities between Chris Thile’s version of “A Prairie Home Companion” and Garrison Keillor’s than it is to find differences.
Thile (rhymes with “feely”) took over this past weekend from founding host Keillor, raising questions about what would change at the public radio warhorse, still one of the most popular radio programs in the country, with more than 3 million weekly on-air listeners, and one of the last, best exemplars of the variety-show tradition in American entertainment.
The short answer is that the show, while still relying heavily on an air of authenticity derived from its Minnesota locale, now leans a little more toward music, judging by Saturday’s Thile debut. A virtuoso mandolinist and member of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, Thile can punctuate a comedy sketch with an Elton John tune at the drop of a hat, and he can call on his musical past to help land guests of the caliber of Jack White.
Meanwhile, “Prairie Home Companion” now leans away from storytelling. With Keillor gone, except as executive producer, so too are his signature weekly “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues. In its place will be an appearance by a standup comic; Saturday it was the Irish comedian Maeve Higgins.
But a feeling of comfort is something “Prairie Home Companion” has long provided, airing live on most stations for two hours on Saturdays. And the new “PHC” remains an easy, graceful listen: There is, as there has been, some humor ranging from corny to cutting, a few old favorites such as faux sponsor Powdermilk Biscuits, and a killer musical repertoire in the Americana tradition.
Saturday’s broadcast was surely reassuring to public-radio programmers, the great majority of whom reportedly elected to stay with the new host (at a slightly reduced rate). To ease the changeover, the distributor, American Public Media, will in the first year mix in 13 Thile-hosted shows with Keillor-helmed reruns. (Keillor had been hosting about three dozen new shows per year.)
APM was so happy with the new host’s pitch to programmers at a public-radio conference in September that an executive predicted he would be able to maintain 2.5 million weekly listeners, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, up from an initial estimate of 2 million.
And, indeed, the credit for the not-too-jarring transition Saturday goes to Thile, who, in tipping his cap to Keillor at the outset, said he sees the show as “a beautiful oasis of wonder and celebration.” The 35-year-old California native has said he grew up listening to the show, and he seemed genuinely touched to be at its helm.
“Being the new host of ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ he told the audience at the show’s home theater, the Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota, “is like drawing a Monopoly card that says, ‘Bank error in your favor. Collect Garrison Keillor offering you a job that was your pretend game as a child, along with becoming a Jedi master, Shamu the killer whale and a starting pitcher for the Cubs.’ Uh, I accept, and I am psyched.”
“It’s just going to be a show of me being psyched all over the place,” he said later on. Indeed, his initial words were an “oh,” three straight “whoas” and then an “oh-kay!”
So who is Chris Thile as a radio host, beyond the mandolin chops and the star musician status with Nickel Creek, a band he began in as a kid? During the show he was pretty spot-on in calling himself “an excitable mandolin player with a voice that no one can prove puberty ever actually changed.”
The voice is far better than his self-deprecating implication, but that excitability, that enthusiasm, helped carry things through some so-so sketches, referencing the election, for instance, and notions of a mission to Mars. His eagerness is far removed from Keillor’s dry, slightly dour reserve. But people like to be entertained by performers who genuinely want to be entertaining them, and Thile had no difficulty in conveying that.
Replacing the Lake Wobegon monologue with a standup slot is a solid instinct. It’s hard to imagine Lake Wobegon coming from anyone but Keillor, already an accomplished writer when he founded the show in 1974.
But Higgins’ jokes on relationships Saturday felt ordinary. Why not honor the towering Lake Wobegon legacy by seeking out comedians who also tell stories, Mike Birbiglia, say, or Jim Jefferies? That would build on the show’s heritage and make it more than just another outlet for standups to do bits.
Thile’s own answer to the Keillor weekly story is to write a new song every week. Saturday’s was a pretty, topical number about the fall and the election that ended on a pledge to “treat this nation to a two-hour vacation right here on the radio.”
And indeed, where the proceedings really shimmered was in the music. “PHC” has been more progressive in that regard than people give it credit for, but Thile’s presence seems to be nudging it even more into modernity. Besides Jack White in the first week (accompanied on one lovely tune by Nashville up-and-comer Margo Price), the nouveau R&B outfit Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is featured on Saturday.
With Thile at the mic for most of the show, the musical fillips were extraordinary. Keillor was, at best, an enthusiastic duet singer. Thile’s pairing with “PHC” company member Sarah Jarosz, a gifted singer-songwriter in her own right, produced an exquisite version of the old Linda Ronstadt tune “High Sierra.”
So maybe this show now plays a little bit more than it talks, but it is still the oasis the new host said he sees it as, still a first-rate companion.
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