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Garrison Keillor

Symphony Hall

Sunday, Feb. 11, 2007

Back in the proverbial day, things were different. You didn't have the Internet to tell you any little thing you ever wondered, you could get on an airplane without having to take off your shoes, and you didn't need computer graphics to be entertained by spectacle. Heck, you didn't even need electricity. Yes, hard as it may be for us to believe, there was a time when a single person could tell a story so interesting, so vivid, so engaging, that one could sit entranced for hours just listening.

Garrison Keillor is such a person. Anyone familiar with Minnesota, NPR, American Humor, or Lindsay Lohan movies knows the name, but for the rest a little background might be necessary. He is the author of many humorous books, and the host of a weekly radio show called "A Prairie Home Companion," both of which I highly recommend. The show is on 88.9 FM on Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at noon, and it's made up of a combination of music, radio acting, and good times. The high point, however, is Keillor's News from Lake Wobegone, his fictionalized hometown which, somehow, everyone recognizes (at least, every Midwesterner).

This Sunday, Keillor came to Boston as part of the Bank of America Celebrity Series. Stepping out of the wings at precisely 3:10 p.m., he made his way to the center of the Symphony Hall stage, where there was a single microphone and a stool, and he made a different kind of music. He was dressed in his trademark tuxedo with a red bowtie and red sneakers, a combination reminiscent of his ability to transcend styles: mixing low with high art, deep timeless truths with booger jokes. He is a stately gentleman, who can stand tall and yet remain unimposing, with one of those faces for radio you hear so much about.

After walking up to the microphone, Keillor began reciting a poem. I can't tell you just what poem it was, since I was so distracted by his voice; having listened to his show for years, even though I'd seen his picture before (and his movie), it was still an unexpected thrill hearing that somber, pleasant, easy-going voice of his in the flesh, so to speak.

Following the poem he sang one of those few old English folks songs for kids "in which the right person dies." Thus began his talk, which at first touched on many topics, such as the humor that's always around us ("it's all comedy, it's all comedy"), his first visit to Boston ("one of those low points that you're eventually greater for," he said), and even J. Alfred Prufrock ("a damp blanket of a poem"). Eventually, he settled onto his main story, a hilarious narrative about the events surrounding his aunt Evelyn's funeral, which took place in his hometown of Lake Wobegone. And if a funeral doesn't sound like it could be a funny story to tell, you've obviously never heard Keillor's stories.

Keillor is, after all, an American humorist, in the same vein as Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and even Ben Franklin; his writings are about stuff which isn't necessarily all that funny, but told in such an intrinsically humorous way that the end result is a pleasant sensation, leaving a smile on the face and a little hurt in the soul. But, like the old Far Side cartoon, it's a good kind of hurt, the kind that everyone knows and which makes life that much more interesting. Hearing his story, meandering down what I thought were tangents and casually describing scenes which painted an unbelievably vivid picture in my mind, left me longing for a time when things were simpler and people thought the height of entertainment was hearing someone talk (a time which even I am too young to remember).

At the end of his story, Keillor casually said thank you, and left the stage. It was an exit too simple for the packed hall, where the audience's standing ovation made a single curtain call necessary. Even that was more than I was expecting, since Keillor is such a modest guy; he's a Dark Lutheran, after all, the kind brought up to think of life as something to be endured, and where if you're enjoying yourself someone'll quickly remind you, "this too shall pass."

Someday, so shall Garrison Keillor slip away into the past, and take a significant chunk of Americana, entertainment, and laughter with him. When that happens we'd do well to remember to watch out for the good things in life, the beauty of the surreal that happens everyday. It's all comedy, it's all comedy, and as long as he's around, we'll never forget.