As Chris Thile sat on the Lexington Opera House stage last month, he was in the element for which audiences know him best: a concert setting that capitalized on his virtuosic instrumental ability, a boundless level of improvisational cunning on the mandolin and, to the bemusement of banjoist and onstage partner Bela Fleck, an almost combustible level of energy. Restless doesn’t quite describe it. Given the frenzied joy that ran through his fingers, his joints and most certainly his mouth, you would have thought Thile’s pre-show preparation included direct IV administration of caffeine.
Curiously, as the two ran through instrumental exchanges of dizzying speed and complexity without any new recorded product to promote or focus on, one enormous aspect to Thile’s expanding dossier escaped notice: In just over a month, he was going to take over duties as host of one of public’s radio most cherished and longstanding live programs, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
A week prior to the Opera House concert, Thile had plenty to say about his much publicized transition into a show that debuts under his stewardship Saturday night, a program indelibly associated with its creator and now retired host, Garrison Keillor. Thile has substituted for Keillor as host several times in recent years. But now, it is his show.
‘Prairie Home Companion’ is offering me the opportunity to put variety as the premium, putting that which is crackingly new at the forefront of the operation.
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I asked Thile at the end of our discussion, which was otherwise devoted exclusively to the concert with Fleck, how he felt about assuming the reins of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Expecting a quick and perfunctory reply, he answered with a detailed view of his expectations for the show and his role in it. His description went on without interruption for nearly 10 minutes.
“I have been having so much fun with this,” Thile said. “I can’t even begin to tell you, but I’ll try anyway.
“We’re at the foot of the mountain right now, but with a pretty good idea of how we’re going to attempt to scale it in the process of booking musical and spoken word guests — the spoken word guest being maybe a comedian or actor or writer.”
Much of the thrill of the program, Thile said, revolved around the creation of what is essentially a new stage work every week the show is broadcast. Some may view his touring life with the multi-genre string band Punch Brothers or his numerous solo and duo projects (like the collaboration with Fleck) as producing the same thing but in strictly musical terms. But he said the real appeal of “Prairie Home Companion” deals with designing a new program from scratch where music serves as only one component.
“I’m so delighted at the prospect of presenting a brand new show every week. My life up to this point, in general, has been about putting a show together and then touring that show. Basically, it’s playing a variation of that theme 40 or 50 times, that kind of thing, over the course of the year. That’s been one of the reasons I’ve been so keen on diversifying, just wanting to make sure that I’m making enough new music every year. ‘Prairie Home Companion’ is offering me the opportunity to put variety as the premium, putting that which is crackingly new at the forefront of the operation.”
I’m so delighted at the prospect of presenting a brand new show every week. My life up to this point, in general, has been about putting a show together and then touring that show.
The differences between concert performance and his impending radio duties also extend to audience expectations. Just as some concert fans have particular songs they eagerly hope to experience, ‘Prairie Home Companion’ fans have a sense of the program’s sentiment and feel. But Thile promises it will strive for newness with each broadcast.
“When you’re on tour, you’re playing for people who have certain songs they want to hear. When Punch Brothers step out onstage, we’re pretty sure we need to play our song ‘Rye Whiskey.’ If we haven’t been in the town since the last record came out, we’re going to play a bunch from that last record, and so on and so forth, as opposed to something like ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ where the idea is that your listeners are listening to every show. It’s just as if you have a bunch of fans who kind of travel to a bunch of concerts. Then you start feeling like, ‘Oh, we’ll do something different than we did the last time.’ That can be a real thrill. ‘Prairie Home’ is that to the extreme. We won’t theoretically — aside from the theme song and Powdermilk Biscuits (one of the show’s long-running pseudo sponsors) — be repeating anything. So that’s a real thrill.”
There’s that, sure. But Thile isn’t underestimating the jolt a live show gets when it can trigger a loud and honest laugh from its audience.
“As someone who loves to perform and loves put on a show, the non-musical aspects of ‘Prairie Home’ are very appealing,” Thile says. “I get to act and help organize the spoken word parts of the broadcast. That’s been really exciting, as has being a part of hiring writers, figuring out what should be written and how we want to go about eliciting a big old belly laugh from our listenership. It’s been a real joyride, so far.”