Garrison Keillor grew up on the edge of the prairie, a place that's “not the end of the world, but you can see it from there,” as he told an Omaha audience Tuesday night.
This was likely not news to most of the Keillor fans who filled the Peter Kiewit Concert Hall at the Holland Performing Arts Center during a nearly sold-out show. Most audience members were probably already familiar with Keillor's Minnesota upbringing from “A Prairie Home Companion,” the weekly show he has hosted on National Public Radio for the better part of 40 years.
But Tuesday's show was not Keillor's weekly radio program. It was both more meandering and more bawdy.
Over the hour and 40 minutes he spent onstage, Keillor lamented the logistical issues of necking with his high school girlfriend in the back of her very small Volkswagen, the hours he spent singing songs (often off-color ones) to his mother as she was dying and the pleasure of urinating in the shower.
Story after story, he repeated the golden rule of his Minnesota upbringing. The rule was sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, depending on the story preceding it.
“Be satisfied with what you have,” he said. “It could be worse.”
Clad in a dark suit and his trademark red sneakers, Keillor led the audience in sing-a-longs of “Home on the Range” and “You Are My Sunshine.” He told stories about his parents, wife, daughter and sisters, as well as assorted old girlfriends.
He told tales from his childhood, such as when he discovered a huge rotten tomato he imagined contained an entire world of tiny organisms. He described holding the tomato while pondering the possibility that the world it contained had its own language and literature.
“And if they do, then guess who is their god?” he said.
The tomato god was not merciful; he chucked the tomato at his 14-year-old sister, who was furious.
He also spoke of his own daughter, who was born when he was 55. Her birth, he said, made him want to live long enough to see her through her 20s. In the meantime, he was teaching her things than only a parent his age could.
“You bring out a sheet of carbon paper,” he said. “And you explain how this worked.”
Keillor often addressed his age — he'll turn 71 this summer. For some reason, he said, he spent many years assuming that he would die young.
“Then one day, I woke up and realized I was too old to die young,” he said.
The talk of age — of teaching his daughter about carbon paper, or remembering summers spent playing wherever he pleased, unwatched by adults — struck a chord with audience members, who often laughed and nodded with recognition.
And again and again, Keillor returned to the subject of his mother, who died last year at 97. Singing dirty songs to his mother in his childhood home, in a room he'd slept in as a boy, he realized it was possible to feel 17 and 70 at the same time.
“It all came back to me, singing to my dying mother, in the room that had been mine.”
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