On Saturday January 7th, A Prairie Home Companion made its first stop of 2017 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. New host Chris Thile, well known for his brilliance on the mandolin with bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, brought his accompaniment The First Call Radio Players in support and a showcase from two prolific artists. Regina Spektor and The Shins were both in Seattle to debut new music and perform some of their previous tracks. Unfortunately, political comedian Hari Kondbolu was scheduled to perform, yet was delayed and could not attend.
Since taking over for Garrison Keillor this past year, Thile has focused on transitioning the variety program to one that emphasizes an intensive music show. Without abandoning the fundamental format APHC exists on, the constant music arrangements create a wonderful rhythm throughout the skits and performances. Combining traditional blues, bluegrass and folk, Thile directs the musicians and actors on stage with grace. With his mandolin peppering between dialogues, he is able to relate with anecdotal story lines relating to both Seattle and the musicians appearing on the show. Prior to Regina Spektor being announced Thile and his backing group, which includes the talented Sarah Jarosz and Chris Eldridge worked through a rendition of “Sixteen going on Seventeen” in honor of the new year. Thile wanted to originally arrange the song to emulate a Tom Waits feel with an ominous and foreboding tone representing 2017. Jarosz filled a void that wasn’t necessarily there. Following was a skit titled, “Bart” performed by Thile and the Royal Academy of Actors.
Regina Spektor was announced in admiration by Thile, who at times speaking with Spektor could hardly contain his excitement she performed two tracks from her new album “Remember us to Life.” The album was released in the fall of 2016 and Spektor has announced a tour to support the new work. “Grand Hotel” and “Older and Taller” show just how much her compositions continue to evolve. Even as Spektor was on stage briefly, her presence is resounding and her voice is both angelic and commanding when she presses it. This was apparent in the new song, “The Trapper and the Furrier.”
Each musician in The First Call Radio Players possesses an immense educational background in music. Sarah Jarosz (unofficially co-hosting with Thile) performed a song of her own, written with Parker Milsap. The bluegrass resonated throughout the cavernous theatre with Thile joining her on vocals, and the band working in unison adding another emotional element to the show.
The Shins were next, playing their 2003 masterpiece, “Gone for Good.” Surprisingly, the group stepped on stage in a new format, perhaps emulating the format of APHC. Now a seven piece, they opted for acoustic variations of the “St. Simon” and new tracks “The Fear” and “Name for you.” Thile spoke with front man, James Mercer about his songwriting process at length getting into the details of what pitch he can attain. Only a musician’s ear would be able to decipher the key.
Chris Eldridge performed after, stepping out from behind the band on guitar. The show performs an instant song request, taking a song submitted online that hasn’t necessarily been played by any of the musicians. They chose “Church Street Blues” recognizing it as a homage to the bluegrass Eldridge learned growing up.
Chris Thile is masterful at blending the musical elements with the skits A Prairie Home Companion is renowned for. The acting he supplements seems to come almost as natural as his mandolin technique. Yet, none of it is natural. Everyone on stage is passionately professional, all working to attain their stature in collective unison. Moving forward the show only has room to grow and garner a new found audience as they bring in artists to collaborate with old and new material alike.