“I’m going to Live From Here,” I told my coworkers and friends last week.
Puzzled faces. Every time. And this is a mix of pretty plugged in millennials and music fans.
“It’s the new Prairie Home Companion,” I find myself clarifying. “Or I think it’s like the old format but with new artists, or something.”
Nobody I spoke with had seen either format, which has been recorded in Minnesota for four decades and is syndicated by American Public Media. And although I recall my grandfather listening to Garrison Keillor cassette tapes on a road trip when I was eight years-old, I’m pretty much a live radio production virgin, too.
I wasn’t ever the target audience of Prairie Home Companion (PHC), am not from Minnesota, don’t seek out folk music, don’t really think Cracker Barrel humor is funny, and don’t really listen to variety show content much, if at all.
So when the show reached out with tickets I was certainly curious but also pretty self-conscious. There’s a lot of legacy here that a lot of people have loved for years, and it’s part of Minnesota culture. But by intermission of this week’s episode, it was clear my presupposition on the format’s paradox was spot-on.
Chris Thile, Keillor’s hand-picked replacement, is a charismatic and masterful musician. He instantly captured the attention of the sold-out State Theater crowd in the State Theater with his charm, wit and musicianship. He’s a gem, and learning Thile exists and seeing him live was the best part of the entire experience.
So after warmup — a self-described “sad song” on acoustic guitar from Chris Eldridge that set a terribly slow and somber tone — the “On Air” sign was lit, and the show was on.
What followed was a sometimes-painful vacillation between old timey folk and modern millennial podcast-bait. It’s no secret Thile and the shows’ producers are striving to strike a balance between what the program used to be and what it will become. That effort was clear but sometimes jarring in the transitions.
Their task isn’t a unique challenge. You take something beloved and try to keep it going, but make it have enough appeal it won’t become dated. We do this in advertising all the time. Look at Old Spice. You don’t want to alienate grandpa, but you also want the high school jocks buying it.
Buick needs help on this right now. Desperately
To me, a “Live from Here” newbie, the bipolar experience was dizzying. The show had something for everyone – folk, blues, rap, Cracker Barrel comedy and Netflix Special comedy. And in that format, the show also wasn’t for everyone.
Instead, it was for people who like all of those things. Which I’m not sure is a lot of people.
And while Thile mentioned the “millions” of listeners tuning in, it’s understandable the challenge the “Live from Here” team will have as that PHC audience base literally dies off — whether cover Prince and Bob Dylan, or not (which they did).
For example: Thile, Tim Russell and sound effects man Fred Newman had the gray hairs in the front rows chortling at their light-hearted, G-rated, rocking-chairs-on-a-front-porch jokes about an old man’s non-sensical similes (actual joke: “If that’s not enough to bear chicken, I’ll be an eagle’s auntie”).
Then there was an Alexa joke, which was maybe to balance out the old man stuff.
But in a later segment they then welcomed comedian Rachel Feinstein (famous for bits titled “Screw Me Harder,” “Only Whores Wear Purple” and “Joking After Sex”) to tell a too-brief monologue about the perils of dating and thrown objects bouncing off her body parts. Now that was funny.
And yet in a post-Keillor era on Keillor’s old show, this kind of humor was also kind of an uncomfortable subject given the allegations that undergird the bulk of media buzz about this new and improved program.
As for the musical guests, the show pitted southern blues rockers Shakey Graves against rapper/singer Dessa, and they were both great. But it was all a strange contrast to the folksy house band, who was also great itself, but very different. It was a genre mash-up and just strange overall.
I mention the gray hairs in the front row mainly because of the contrast with the younger people in t-shirts in the back rows. They whooped and cheered for Dessa while the elder class seemed to tolerate it — much like I tolerated the senior citizen humor of porch jokes, sad acoustic songs, and weird fake sponsorships that weren’t funny.
Throughout the broadcast the house sound in the State Theater was mixed terribly for such a great venue. Thile’s mandolin was barely perceptible for most of the show, and the lead vocals of nearly every performer were turned too far down. Tom Papa’s (pre-recorded?) “Out in America” segment had such a bad echo loop I got a headache. While I appreciate the show’s priority is the NPR listeners, it was a letdown that the mix was so off.
These really are masterful musicians, and it would have been great to hear them as well in the live setting as they sounded on the radio and live stream.
I get the sense some of my opinion on the experience will come off as “Man yells at cloud” to PHC and “Live from Here” fans. There’s a legacy here worth supporting, and I respect that. The “Live from Here” crew is doing an admirable job trying to mix #InstantSongRequests on Twitter with a live audience of elders who frowned at me for taking pictures during the show with my phone — to the point I put it away.
The multi-generational variety show is clearly not my thing, and the ghost of the former PHC host’s baggage haunted the theater for this first-timer. I guess I don’t get why you would get the chance to reboot a show’s format and choose to keep all the AARP stuff.
However, I heard Sufjan Stevens is coming on the 4/21 episode, and that’s an awesome booking. I’m looking forward to hearing him, but I don’t want to sit through old person jokes and the ghost of Garrison Keillor threatening to reboot his show himself.
Good thing there’s a podcast.