Garrison Keillor brings the prairie to the Berkshires
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., June 30, 2002) – If anyone wandered into the Koussevitzky Shed unaware of what was about to take place, signs for “Guy’s Shoes,” “The Catchup Advisory Board,” “The American Duct Tape Council” and “Powdermilk Biscuits” hanging over the stage on Saturday night were a sure tipoff that Minnesota Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor was back again, broadcasting live from Tanglewood in what has fast become a summertime ritual as reliable as James Taylor, the Boston Pops and the “1812 Overture.”

Keillor’s variety show of Americana and assorted other arcana seemed a perfect fit on a gorgeous summer evening at Tanglewood, and the host and author did his part to fit the show to the place, with plenty of jokes and observations tailored to the immediate surroundings and the vicinity.

One can only wonder what listeners across the nation thought of Keillor’s references to the great cottages of the Berkshires that “would have been the Czar’s summer palace if not for the income tax,” and that have now been turned into “b&bs, meditation retreats and odd, small private schools.” Or of a Stockbridge “ferociously defending itself against commecial intrusion,” where, however, due to the tourist-based economy, “the shops don’t sell many things you’re likely to use in your daily life.”

So what if his observations of life in the Berkshires weren’t totally consistent? Keillor obviously did his homework, and spoke plenty about Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony and particularly Leonard Bernstein, about whom he talk-sang an original lyric to the tune of “Officer Krupke” from “West Side Story.”

In addition to playing several movements from the “Sunrise Quartet” by Haydn, the members of the Juilliard String Quartet gamely joined Keillor and company in a Guy Noir skit, in which Noir’s assignment was to find the quartet’s missing violist by show time.

Apparently the viola enjoys a status similar to that of the banjo in folk music, as the instrument and the player were the butt of jokes by the musicians. Noir finally found the missing Samuel Rhodes valiantly impersonating a comedian in a local comedy club called “The Berserkshires” (why hasn’t anyone ever thought of that?) that caters to “a blue-collar clientele of spa workers and Volvo mechanics.”

Keillor also acknowledged Tanglewood’s role as a training ground for young musicians by turning over the microphone several times to 16-year-old Bulgarian violin prodigy Bella Hristova, currently studying at the Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York. Accompanied by pianist Robert Conway, Hristova played a piece by Debussy and another based on an Eastern European folk idiom.

This week’s episode of “Prairie Home Companion” was a variety show ranging the gamut from Hristova’s and the Juilliard’s classical music to the bluesy jazz and bossa nova of singer Karrin Allyson to the Irish fiddle music of Peter Ostroushko to the Chet Atkins-style country guitar of Pat Donohue to the western swing of pedal-steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, whose “Hillbilly Bebop” was a rollicking highlight. In an opening skit, sound effects wizard Fred Newman played them all, from Bach to hip-hop, using a minimum of gadgets and mostly his own mouth and voice box.

The show flowed effortlessly from one segment to another. The stage was set functionally, not for maximum visibility of the performers by the audience but for getting the various performers on and off the stage with maximal efficiency and minimal fuss. After a brief intermission halfway through, concertgoers stood in front of the stage handing Keillor messages to read to loved ones listening around the country.

And then, of course, there was Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” monologue, this one centered on a tomato-growing contest. Keillor made some apt observations about homegrown versus store-bought tomatoes – “you might as well dye styrofoam balls red” he said about the latter – but what was most spectacular was to see him work the 15-minute monologue without any script or notes (unless he had them scratched on his fingernails, which he seemed to stare at for long periods of time).

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 1, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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