Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Prairie Home Frustration

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A Prairie Home Companion
Fox Theater, Detroit,
May 30, 2015


WB likes a wide range of music and used to listen to the radio to hear it, until radio became a giant computer playlist stuck on 12 songs from every decade. Now, pretty much all radios in our cars/offices/houses are set to NPR (which itself can get into repetition ruts, especially with the news).

Prairie Home Companion, an American institution and NPR staple, isn't exactly a favorite and certainly isn't "must listen" (we stopped having "appointment" shows long ago when entertainment became just another consumable). But what it is, is comforting. Reliable. One of those shows where, when it's gone, you feel a hole in the universe, much like exists now that Dave Letterman has retired. In 1987 when Garrison Keillor thought he'd retire and retire his show along with him, that rip in the time-space continuum happened and weekends felt a little sideways. Order was restored two years later when he brought the show back.

All of which is to say that when a live taping of the broadcast happens close by, we go. And although it was worthwhile with local Detroit connections and a comic theme of college graduations happening nationwide, this particular show on May 30 just wasn't up to Keillor's usual standards for two main reasons.

First, the guests, which along with Lake Wobegon stories and rhubarb pie make up the backbone of the show. As part of the tie-in with Detroit, Keillor brought in a trio of teenagers from Ann Arbor who played great traditional instrumental jazz — if you like instrumental jazz. He also brought in a group of Arab musicians* who played the kind of discordant, atonal music produced in and around Lebanon, with two guest vocalists who sang discordant, atonal Arabic lyrics. To be clear, we have nothing against discordant atonality — Djivan Gasparian's long and heartbreakingly lovely duduk solos are favorite listening — but the unfortunate result for Keillor was that both musical acts became the equivalent of extremely long interstitial music passages on NPR.

* Dearborn, which borders Detroit, is home to the largest Arab population in the world outside the Middle East.


A nonmusical guest, Jim Daniels, who is billed as a poet but whose "poems" function much better as micro-stories, also appeared twice to tell short tales of factory work (including, this being Detroit, work on the auto assembly line) and blue-collar family life. One poem, "Wheels," ended with a devastating line about a brother's death by Harley accident, but the audience only had a few seconds to absorb the meaning and feel the impact before Daniels had to move on to the next poem, silence being "dead air" on radio. (WB reader bonus: for a completely over-the-top critical reading of the "Wheels" poem, see this analysis.)

But the second reason for a C- evening out was only partially Keillor's fault. Taylor Swift was in town at the same time as the Prairie Home taping and finding parking in the downtown Motor City was a madhouse situation, plus it was raining, so several hundred people arrived well after the "On Air" light went on, blocking the view of the stage while they stumbled around in the dark looking for their seats. Even worse came halfway through the show when Keillor announced a "short intermission" and the house lights came on, indicating to hundreds more people that they had 15-20 minutes to leave the theater, even though they were at a live taping of a radio show that contained only a four-minute break for news and station ID.

The result, for the second half of the show, was beyond ridiculous. All of the idiots who thought they were at a Broadway play came creeping back inside over the next half hour, again blinded in the dark theater after being in the bright lobby. Many just gave up on finding their seats and went back out. Which leads us to offer this tiny bit of advice for Mr. Keillor and the PHC troupe going forward:

It's not a "short intermission." It's a "three minute radio break." Even with an NPR audience, in the confederacy of dunces that is modern America, literal definitions will beat genteel showbiz slogans every time.

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