Copious Notes

In person, 'Live From Here' is a radio show you have to see

Chris Thile at the microphone for a broadcast of "Live from Here," formerly "A Prairie Home Companion."
Chris Thile at the microphone for a broadcast of "Live from Here," formerly "A Prairie Home Companion."

Parker Millsap was commanding the stage of the amphitheater at Ravinia Park, driving his hit "Gotta Get to You" in a riveting performance with his four-piece band, when something caught our eyes. Clear across the stage, basically in the left wing, Chris Thile and his 3-year-old son were dancing up a twirling, stomping storm — the son's broad smile mirrored by his adoring dad.

The only thing better than loving music is sharing that love with your kid.

It was one of numerous moments that demonstrated that Thile's radio show, "Live from Here," is something to see.

"Live from Here" is still a name that is growing on people as the new title for the show formerly known as "A Prairie Home Companion," created and formerly hosted by Garrison Keillor.

It's a historic two hours of radio (heard locally at 6 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays on WEKU-FM 88.9) that has undergone big changes — some planned and some not so much — the last couple years.

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In 2016, Keillor retired from the show ushering in his hand-picked successor Thile, a mandolin player known primarily for an eclectic career with groups such as Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers and many, many genre-crossing collaborations. Thile started somewhat stepping into Keillor's red socks with the same name and a number of the same trappings of the old "Prairie Home."

Then, last year, Keillor was accused of sexual misconduct and the show's home base of Minnesota Public Radio cut business ties with Keillor and ultimately changed the name of the show and eliminated many of the holdover elements. Keillor has denied the allegations.

I was a longtime fan of "Prairie Home" and got to see it live both at its home base in the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul and when it came here to the Singletary Center for the Arts. So, when a trip to Chicago coincided with a "Live from Here" broadcast from Ravinia, just a half-hour train ride north of the city, I wanted to check it out.

One distinct difference between "Prairie" and "Live" manifest in the weeks before the show: anticipation of who the guests would be, particularly the musical acts and Thile's "duet partner." It highlights one of the fundamental differences between the versions of the show:

"Prairie Home" was a show by a writer working to create an aural world that was specific and universal. Its cornerstones were the weekly "Letter from Lake Wobegon," Keillor's folksy stories from a fictional Minnesota town, and character sketches like Guy Noir and "The Lives of the Cowboys," that gave the show an old-time radio feel. There were guest musicians, but they weren't a focus.

"Live from Here" is a show by a boundlessly enthusiastic, passionate musician. Even sketches are often geared toward music, like last Saturday's "Breathy Acoustic Covers of Jock Jams." It's all about music, usually with three musical guests a week. In addition to Millsap, who actually comes to Lexington for a show at The Burl on the 24th, we got The Secret Sisters and a true discovery, Hawktail, an astonishing acoustic quartet.

There are some of the old-time radio elements "Prairie Home" had, and the spoken-word element is maintained by a comedian or author — on this show, the hilarious Tom Papa — but this is much more of a rolling two-hour concert.

That said, what a concert.

We got a couple showcases for each of the guest artists, with Thile consistently playing most attentive and excited audience member, sometimes simply sitting down on stage next to longtime "PHC" and "LFH" music director Rich Dworsky's piano to watch.

But where it really got fun was in some segments like the weekly musician birthday segment where at one point Thile was singing the Prince classic "Kiss," backed by the Secret Sisters and duet partner Gaby Moreno singing that iconic chorus — "You don't have to be rich, to be my girl ..." In that same segment, Thile also sang a composition by Robert Schumann and Millsap offered a tribute to Howlin' Wolf.

Later, he talked to Millsap about his music, comparing it to the work of Claude Debussy — a musician considered bluegrass/Americana talking to a rocker about a turn-of-the-century classical composer. What Thile has created with the show given to him is a feast for the musical omnivore, which he conducts with a simple mandolin hanging around his neck.

And it's almost invariably good. I have to admit I was initially disappointed to see Moreno was the duet partner because it is so often Sarah Jarosz or Aoife O'Donovan, who I love. But that was stupid, because Moreno was amazing and yet another discovery of the evening.

Of course, most of this goes out on the radio, and even video as the majority of the show gets posted on YouTube. Still there are moments you only get live, like before the broadcast, when Thile played a gorgeous rendition of Radiohead's "True Love Waits," which he said he had just played at his sister's wedding. Then, after the show, the musicians returned for one more tune, Thile's son even getting some microphone time.

Of course, if you love live music, you know nothing replaces that in-person experience, and all the it-only-happens-here moments make "Live from Here" live even better.

Ultimately, there was little that directly reminded me of seeing "Prairie Home"; the long-running Minnesota Public Radio music that starts the show, Dworsky, sound effects man Fred Newman and actor Tim Russell — they are threads that run through this public radio institution. But a live look confirms that Thile has really made this show his own.

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