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Appalachian State University’s Performing Arts Series concluded with an evening filled with singing and laughter brought to Boone by the creator of A Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor was joined by Richard Dworsky, Rob Fischer, and Christine DiGiallonardo as well as local bands The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys and The Forget-Me-Nots.
The opening acts featured two different branches of the folk music traditions of the area. The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys offered finger-pickin’ arrangements of tunes such as “Home Sweet Home.” Joe Shannon played a touching tribute “to Boston from the Blue Ridge” consisting of a beautiful harmonica rendition of “Shenandoah,” reminding the audience yet again of the power that music has to heal in the wake of national tragedy. The Forget-Me-Nots, a trio of brilliant young lady violinists followed, including Willa Finck, Maura Shawn Scanlin, and Ledah Finck with David Finck accompanying on guitar. These gals write their own music, which uses Impressionist harmonies, difficult technical passages, and complex tonal transitions and devices to support Celtic style tunes without sacrificing authenticity.
The anticipation of seeing a radio personality is a peculiar one. Garrison Keillor was sporting a long, dangling red tie, bright red athletic shoes and socks, and his usual friendly scowl. “I look like my dog died,” Keillor said of his own appearance. His demeanor, however, enhanced his delivery, and his non-verbal timing was equally as delightful as the familiar vocal cadence listeners know from their radios. He was in fine form, charming the audience with his characteristic blend of the ridiculous, the tender, the risqué, and the sidesplitting. The way Keillor pokes affectionate fun at small-town Americana is often suggestive of a modern-day Mark Twain, albeit from somewhat farther up the river.
Christine DiGiallonardo, who has an impressive theater resume in addition to her vocal abilities, plays a wonderfully understated “straight man” to Keillor. She resists the urge to ham up the humor and contributes a smile and, occasionally, an appropriately vacant face as the perfect foil for the man of the hour. The two pianists, Richard Dworsky and Rob Fisher played everything from Liszt and Dvořák to Elvis and the Beatles to Keillor’s outrageous collection of limericks. The two Steinways and double keyboards lent variety with the least monotony in texture. When Keillor wandered through the audience during intermission, encouraging them to sing whatever tune presented itself to his fancy, it was a delight to watch and hear the subtle support from the pianists as it evolved.
Given that the buzzword of the hipster culture is “ironic,” it was also ironic that so few college-age people attended the performance. Keillor’s wry sense of humor fits well with this generation’s counter-cultural tendencies. The generational gap would not seem to present an issue either. Dated is not dated if it is vintage. Perhaps hipsters have yet to discover the tongue-in-cheek elements of the variety show.
Fortunately, the small college audience left more room for long-time fans, those more able to appreciate the content of the humor as well as the style of delivery. Keillor does not tell his stories, he meanders his way through them while holding his microphone like an elderly lady holds a purse: as if he has forgotten it is there but continues to hang on out of long habit. The monotony one might expect from such a description, however, is nonexistent. In this performance he focused on the reflections accompanying his 70th birthday: “A Brand-New Retrospective.” These ranged from the Shakespeare sonnet that was all that remained of his high school education, to the sense of abandoned freedom that springs from peeing in the shower. The songs were equally varied, including “Beer for Wobegon High,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “Attics of My Life.” Most were sung as duets with DiGiallonardo’s light soprano. In spite of the variety, the entire evening featured a sense of continuity and consistency.
The audience, which was initially a little reluctant to participate in the entertainment, became increasingly engaged. Keillor resonates so well with honesty as well as irony; perhaps it is just as well the hipster crowd did not appear and spoil things. The atmosphere of romance that appeared with “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” was magical as long-time lovers stole kisses and danced in the aisles. The experience was like one of Keillor’s stories: funny and sweet and nostalgic all at the same time.