The program’s road tour stops here Jan. 14 for an SCP Special Concert with Grammy-winning mandolinist Thile, who took over full-time host duties this fall from Garrison Keillor — whose name has been synonymous with “A Prairie Home Companion” for more than 40 years. Keillor’s technique of engaging an audience has always been a model for him, Thile said, and he hopes to continue the tradition. “I love this gig so much,” said Thile, who last performed at Symphony Center in 2014 with bassist Edgar Meyer. (Thile and Meyer return April 24 for an SCP Chamber Music Series concert with Yo-Yo Ma.) “The worst possible thing I could do is to chase elements of Garrison’s show, but there’s a real magic in feeling that you’re being spoken to by a particularly erudite friend.”
To invite conversation, Thile has thrown the live performance open for song suggestions from the audience — specifically, songs that he and the band have never played together or rehearsed. “It’s ranged from resounding success against all odds to outright blatant failure,” he said with a laugh, “which I think is no less entertaining for people.”
As means of putting his own stamp on the show, Thile writes and performs a new song for each performance. “Whatever happens needs to happen by Saturday,” he said. “It’s a really fun exercise that has resonated with the audience.” Ideas may come from “the tons and tons of little scraps of music that I’m excited about but never finished,” or the city he’ll be performing in, or current events. “For better or for worse, I’ve assumed the mantle at a particularly fraught time in the world,” he said, adding that he also doesn’t want to exhaust listeners who are tuning in for a break from it all.
By the Tuesday before a show, he has to be committed to one idea for a song. He sends a demo to the musicians on Thursday night, and by Friday, music director Rich Dworsky has produced a chart for rehearsal.
Aside from the original song every week, the show has changed in other ways, too. There is no attempt to duplicate the popular segment “News from Lake Wobegon,” and a team of writers now turn out the skits and fake commercials. But the Powdermilk Biscuits theme and the opening “Tishomongo Blues” have been retained.
So far, the reception has been positive. Following the debut of the new edition in October, the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Johnson wrote, “People like to be entertained by performers who genuinely want to be entertaining them, and Thile had no difficulty in conveying that.”
In the hometown Minneapolis Star-Tribune, critic Jon Bream observed, “Unlike Keillor, Thile is a host who can actually sing duets with authority, not just aspiration. And he is a master musician who can accompany a guest with or without rehearsal and fill time with his fancy finger picking.”
The Chicago performance will feature plenty of music, including American standards along with Thile’s works. “The songbook is not crystallized,” he said. “There’s a chance for us to keep adding pages and pages to it. We’ve been talking about ideas of what to do, and I am shaking with excitement for this show.”
The comedy slot, more or less where Keillor’s monologue used to be, will be occupied by Beth Stelling, who got her start on the Chicago improv scene. “I can’t wait to hear her. I think she’s going to lay into all of us,” Thile said. After an hour-plus of performing, he appreciates the chance “to take a little breath and just laugh.”
Thile also raves about Orchestra Hall. “It’s one of my top 10 places to play music in the world,” he said, praising the acoustic that is neither too boomy nor too dry. “Everything sounds better in there. It’s like one of those candlelight bars where everyone looks like a supermodel.”
David Lewellen is a Milwaukee-based journalist.