If I’d known how much A Prairie Home Companion spotlights music, I would’ve made it to the Fitz much sooner.
Okay, maybe mandolinist Chris Thile’s upped the dosage in his new role as host. Saturday marked his third show after Garrison Keillor’s official departure. But from what I gathered during my first time at the quirky radio show, music’s always been a key part of A Prairie Home, which featured a host of song-based segments and a mega-talented house band (comprising violinist Alex Hargreaves, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Alan Hampton, drummer Ted Poor, and APHC music director Richard Dworsky on piano. They’re fresh off a jokey Thile rebrand, transitioning from the “First Call Radio Players” to the “Gentleman Companions”).
On Saturday’s performance of the show, Thile and Co ran through a partly Halloween-inspired episode. The third original Song of the Week went way spooky, the theme song got a mode change to a minor key, and the best sketch of the night saw a unknowing social worker visit Dracula’s house (“Another typo,” laments the social worker while looking through her forms. “Stop saying Type O! You’re making me hungry,” replies a victimized Dracula).
Dawes and Esperanza Spalding blew me away with their three songs each, especially Spalding during “Unconditional Love” (off her new album Emily’s D+Evolution, which critics have heartily praised). Every one of the guest musicians looked like they couldn’t be happier to perform on the Fitzgerald stage, their enthusiasm lagging only behind the buoyant Thile’s.
The Punch Brothers (my favorite active bluegrass band) played the first show I saw at First Avenue, and I still remember how joyful Thile looked on stage. Years later, he reminds me of the camp counselor everyone wants to hang with; he’s as cheerful a performer as ever, and I can see myself seeking out A Prairie Home Companion just to absorb that energy. “Alex, you should come out here and play a little on this one,” he called to Hargreaves during an eight- or nine-minute version of Nickel Creek’s “House Carpenter.” Hargreaves came out from backstage, carrying his violin, and took turns improvising with Thile.
Even during the most fun moments of improvisation, the show struck me as an extremely well-oiled machine, with the players and musicians hitting their marks dead on. APHC vets Tim Russell and Sue Scott joined relative newbie Serena Brook as the voice actors for the night, and sound effect pro Fred Newman stole the show for me. Ready to play at any time, Thile carried his mandolin everywhere.
Recurring “sponsor” Powdermilk Biscuits brought the show a brand-new segment called “Instant Song Request,” in which listeners sent in suggestions for the band to cover near the end of the show. Newman brought some top-notch werewolf howls to the table for the selected song, “Thriller,” and his dance moves had the audience in stitches.
My show highlight was Gaby Moreno’s rendition of Latin American standby “Malagueña Salerosa” (also known as “La Malagueña”). Everyone from José Feliciano to Bomba Estéreo has covered the song, which yearns after a girl from Málaga, Spain. But Moreno’s take hit me squarely in the heart on Saturday, making me hold my breath while she sang the “i” sound in “malagueña” (okay, in English, it’s an “e”) for measures at a time.
A Prairie Home’s future is a hot topic among fans of the show. As young people keep moving to cities and the Lutheran prairie transitions to the history books, the show must change, too. “This is the next generation’s Prairie Home,” remarked an older woman behind me during intermission. She cleared her throat sagely. “This is folksy to them!” I did find it ever so folksy — “Oh, fellas, I’m so glad you’re here,” Thile told Dawes before they played — but also breathable. Comfortable. Fun.
When the show returns to Minnesota in early 2017, I will be back for more.