The annual pre-Fourth of July performance of “A Prairie Home Companion, with Garrison Keillor” at Tanglewood allows the audience an afternoon of unabashed fellowship, giving us a glimpse at our heritage that is strong enough to quiet the clamorous ire aroused by today’s power-mongers and a feeling that it’ll be all right (if only we keep Powdermilk biscuits in our diet).
Inhabiting a media-soaked world, we’re seldom free of the streaming messages of Washington, DC and Wall Street, and so we need to tune into the News from Lake Woebegon and find the truth about who we are. And those of us fortunate to attend the performance get the extra reward of participating in the pre- and post-show songfest, that has us, unwittingly or not, professing faith while expressing kinship and national devotion.
It’s some bit of alchemy for Garrison Keillor, as politically engaged and insightful an entertainer as Mark Twain was, to somehow channel Pollyanna and send his audience on its way full of hope when their first inclination upon resuming their plugged-in lives would be less spiritual.
This year’s show, the seventh consecutive performed in Tanglewood’s Koussevitsky Music Shed, was as good as it gets even though it was almost devoid of local color. All the previous shows included at least one musical component showcasing Tanglewood musicians as well as skits with Berkshire themes. The “Guy Noir” episode this year, though set at Tanglewood, was really about the current national talent show craze.
Instead, it got its theme from the new Robert Altman movie about the Prairie Home Companion, featuring (as does the movie) a Berkshire neighbor, Meryl Streep, Gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, the Hopeful Gospel Quartet with Robin & Linda Williams, and the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band.
Ms. Streep was a casually beautiful and charming presence throughout the show: in conversation with Mr. Keillor, in the skits, in singing “What’ll I Do?,” in skillfully reading a selection of poems, and poignantly (arm in arm – cheek to tear-dripping cheek) with Ms. Steele for the post-show singalong.
And re-joining the Royal Academy of Radio Acting was actress Erica Rhodes to play the part of Ms. Streep’s prodigal daughter in an hilarious episode of True Stories from Scripture. This was the second star turn here for Ms. Rhodes, who in 2001 played the role of a teen-aged Emily Dickinson hiking Monument Mountain with Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The musical selections were splendid, including a surprisingly sublime rendition of the Reggae anthem “One Love” done by the Hopeful Gospel Quartet and Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band and Jearlyn Steele’s soulful treatment of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” accompanied by Hopeful Gospel Quartet, and Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band.
Special guests were the luminous Wailing Jennys from Canada, Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta, and Annabelle Chvostek, whose a capella version of “Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie” brought to light the genius of Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a.Leadbelly. On other numbers, “One Voice,” and “Calling All Angels,” their instrumental skills were on display as well.
(Originally published on NewBerkshire.com)