REVIEW: ‘Live From Here’ broadcast at Tanglewood showcases Americana musicMore Info
Lenox — When Chris Thile first appeared on Garrison Keillor’s radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, he was 15 years old and had been playing the mandolin since the age of 5. A couple of decades later, in 2016, Keillor retired and turned the show over to Thile. American Public Media renamed it “Live from Here” in 2017, and that’s the show Chris Thile brought to Tanglewood on the evening of June 30.
The “Live from Here” cast and crew have changed little since Thile took over: Music director Rich Dworsky, actor Tim Russell and sound-effects wizard Fred Newman are still on board, but a new member of the acting company has replaced Sue Scott. Of course, one does not simply walk onto the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, and replace Sue Scott, unless one happens to be Serena Brook. (She did have to pass an audition, though.) Brook is not only a skilled and talented actress, she also has a beautiful, well-controlled singing voice.
The most conspicuous change Thile has brought to “Live from Here” is to its overall level of musicianship, which has always been high (except for Keillor’s famously “homespun” style of vocalizing). The show’s house band (“The Shoe Band”) was always top notch, especially when guitarist Pat Donohue and fiddler/saxophonist Andy Stein were on stage. Prominent musicians from the folk, gospel, country, bluegrass, jazz and even classical music worlds appeared on Keillor’s show and Thile was among the best, sometimes appearing with one of his own bands, Nickel Creek or the Punch Brothers. But Keillor is a professional storyteller, while Chris Thile is a professional musician and songwriter. Anyone could have guessed that Thile would set a new standard of quality and that music would play a more central role on his show.
Chris Thile has long been at the center of a circle of Americana artists who have been well represented over the years on APHC: Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers, Edgar Meyer, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Brittany Haas, Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan. Even “classical” musicians Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn — all guests on APHC at one time or another — are part of the Americana tradition by virtue of their participation in projects like “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” “Short Trip Home” and “Appalachia Waltz.” But what, exactly, is Americana? The Americana Music Association defines it as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various mostly acoustic American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, gospel and bluegrass resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”
On June 30, “Live from Here” guests included the Punch Brothers, APHC veterans Lake Street Dive, and the wickedly funny stand-up comedian Gary Gulman. The house band consisted of Aoife O’Donovan, Rich Dworsky, Alan Hampton, Alex Hargreaves, Julian Lage and Ted Poor.
You can listen to the entire show here (but there’s no telling how long the link will be good.)
When “Live from Here” goes on the road, they like to recruit talent from the nearby community to appear on the show. On the 30th, Thile engaged (on three days’ notice) a local pianist by the name of Emanuel Ax, who performed one of his favorite encore numbers, Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 142 No. 2 (see video below).