Garrison Keillor, charming and autumnal at Uihlein Hall

By - Sep 20th, 2011 04:26 pm
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Garrison Keillor, host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Garrison Keillor strode onto the Uihlein Hall stage Monday night, took the lone microphone from its stand and proceeded to charm the Marcus Center audience with his stories, songs and poems for one and half hours. An Evening with Garrison Keillor was just that, and the audience loved it.

Keillor is best known for his weekly public radio program A Prairie Home Companion, a musical variety show performed in front of a live audience. The centerpiece is Keillor’s weekly tale about life in Lake Wobegon, his fictional hometown.

He wore a dark suit, white shirt, red tie and his signature red running shoes. The tall and slightly rumpled writer and humorist seemed leaner and looser than in previous appearances here.  And nothing like the trench-coat wearing man in his publicity photos, which make Keillor resemble Dwight Schrute in The Office.

Keillor started declaring Milwaukee “home of the greatest parade, bar none,” namely Great Circus Parade, which he saw once and said he would never forget: “Compared to that Fourth of July Circus Parade here in Milwaukee, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is just a lot of hot air.”

The comment set the nostalgic tone of the evening. Most of Keillor’s stories are from the past, from the bygone days of his youth – and ours.

As he paced back and forth across, gracefully stepping over the coiled cord of the microphone he held, Keillor regaled the audience with stories of his love life. He recited romantic poems that he had memorized as an awkward teenager, because “poetry gave you a sense of grandeur.”

Poems, both elegant and bawdy, peppered Keillor’s performance. He said at least twice that he wanted to be remembered as a poet.

He sang wistful, slightly risqué sonnets he had composed as a young man, “as a form of prayer.” He wove wry observations about growing up in the Midwest – “we were connoisseurs of boredom” with wistful remembrances of the girls he had once pined for – “all great gifts of civilization began as an attempt to impress women.”

At 69, Keillor has reportedly started to plan for retirement. Judging from his comments on the subject Monday evening, he hasn’t quite made up his mind. He concluded the evening with a long riff on retirement as a slippery slope:  “People retire but lose their way, we need a purpose – I hang onto what I have.”

What the erudite Keillor has is the gift of words and the desire to share them in his distinctive baritone. In this, the autumn of his life and the autumn of our year, his performance perfectly captured the bittersweet beauty of a fleeting season.

Garrison Keillor opened the new Marcus Center Presentsseries at Uihlein Hall. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are next up, on Oct. 4.

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