Garrison Keillor delivers his last performance as host of his long-running radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the Hollywood Bowl.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor delivers his last performance as host of “A Prairie Home Companion."(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor performs a song with Aoife O’Donovan, center, and Heather Masse at the Hollywood Bowl.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor hosts his last “A Prairie Home Companion” after about 42 years on the air.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor leads the Hollywood Bowl audience in a sing-along during an encore as he hosts his last “A Prairie Home Companion.”(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor sings along with I’m With Her. From left, are Keillor, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor performs at the Hollywood Bowl. "I’m returning to a life I envisioned for myself when I was [young], which is a life as a writer,” he says of leaving the show.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
“A Prairie Home Companion” voice and sound effects actors Fred Newman, left, Tim Russell and Sue Scott perform at the Hollywood Bowl.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Heather Masse sings a duet with Garrison Keillor.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor takes a bow with the cast of “A Prairie Home Companion” as he concludes his final show as its host at the Hollywood Bowl.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Garrison Keillor waves goodbye to the Hollywood Bowl crowd, and to “A Prairie Home Companion.”(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
In the end, of course, it was all about the show. Another weekend, another installment of “A Prairie Home Companion” recorded and in the books.
Except this weekend, Garrison Keillor ended his long run as host of the public radio staple, which began in 1974 and continued with his voice at the center, with a few interruptions, for more than 40 years.
Keillor announced his retirement last year, and his final episode as host was recorded Friday night — at a packed Hollywood Bowl, of all places. (The touring schedule was booked before his decision, hence the somewhat random location for his last broadcast, but another farewell show is scheduled for Minnesota in September.)
Though a sense of an ending was inescapable from the start — “This is my big show,” Keillor allowed after the traditional opening number, “Tishomingo Blues” — there would be no all-encompassing parting statement, no surprise tributes from “Prairie Home’s” long roster of regulars and guest stars. However, Keillor told the audience that a recording of President Obama offering his best wishes would be played during the broadcast, which airs locally on Pasadena public radio outlet KPCC.
Yet “Prairie Home’s” standing as a Midwestern outlier is misleading. While Keillor’s raspy voice, with its sibilant “S” sounds, can be grating for some, his shows can, for a couple of hours, transform an audience of even so-called coastal elites into a small-town community with an intimacy only radio and its podcast descendants can achieve. And for all the show’s old-timey touchstones that evoke an imagined white-bread Americana that, in an election year, is typically associated with conservative values, Keillor has, through the years, reclaimed such ideals as a home for pragmatic, progressive thought.
Speaking of Obama on Friday, Keillor said, “I’m going to miss him more than I miss myself,” and his few nods toward Hillary Clinton’s campaign garnered applause.
The cast also tweaked the attention Keillor’s final show has received, repeatedly asking the host how it feels (building, of course, to a Bob Dylan impression from Russell). “It feels like something ends and something else is going to happen,” Keillor replied with mock-impatience.
But the clearest consideration of an ending could be heard in the music. Structured primarily around duets between Keillor and a roundtable of folk and pop vocalists that included Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins (whose bandmate, Chris Thile, takes over for Keillor as host of “Prairie Home” in October), the song choices constituted something of a farewell address.
A later pairing of Keillor with O’Donovan on Van Morrison’s “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” was similarly pointed but allowed for a note of nostalgia, a feeling Keillor told The Times he resisted going into Friday’s show. A beautifully sepia-toned duet between O’Donovan and Watkins on Nick Drake’s wistful “Which Will” marked another highlight.
“Radio has the permanency of a sandcastle,” Keillor said midway through his final “News from Lake Wobegon” dispatch, which, after some ruminations on the march of time, set aside grander statements or sentimentality and dissolved into a run of favorite limericks. “Long live the jokes,” he said. “And who cares who thought them up.”
Keillor may admire that kind of timeless anonymity, but his point of view and presence will cast a long shadow over “A Prairie Home Companion” as it continues. Perhaps even longer as time goes on.
Follow me on Twitter @chrisbarton.