February 25, 2011

Coming Soon: Garrison Keillor

A gifted storyteller and humorist is making his way to Austin soon, and once again it's another who impacted me as a youth. This time, it's Garrison Keillor: author, radio persona, and creator of "A Prairie Home Companion." The production is a live radio variety show famous for its musical guests, cheeky radio drama and a segment narrated by Keillor himself, "News from Lake Wobegon." This is news of a small town in Minnesota where Garrison claims to hail from. A place where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." It may be the home of Keillor, but most certainly not of modesty.

One would think that this "hometown boy who made it big" would put a community like Lake Wobegon on the map. And perhaps it would have, if not for one big catch. You see, one won't be able to locate Lake Wobegon on Google Maps or any other atlas (go ahead, click through and see for yourself). That's because it's also a creation of Garrison Keillor. It's a principal location referred to on his show, but is merely representative of any small rural Midwestern town. Quintessential Minnesota, if you will.

Far from being offended by the concept of a fictional town, however, Minnesotans have embraced Lake Wobegon with open arms and dishes of ludefisk. For a time, there was even a retail store in the gigantic Mall of America specializing solely in Lake Wobegon merchandise. Keillor has gone on to write several tongue-in-cheek books about the place, and even The Onion has unearthed ghastly details that the town would likely prefer to sweep under the rug.

All joking aside, "A Prairie Home Companion" is remarkable for its longevity. It first aired in 1974 and, with the exception of a "hiatus" from 1987 until 1993, it's been a staple of the public radio. Like clockwork, the show is broadcast on Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. As they say, check your local listings. Of course, a radio production isn't merely confined to the airwaves in such modern times. If you so desire, audio clips and podcasts are available here.

Naturally, some of your readers may be most familiar with Keillor from the 2006 film (of the same name) based on his radio program. A Prairie Home Companion was the big screen adaptation of the show, and happened to have been the final film directed by American auteur Robert Altman. Boasting an all-star cast, this whimsical film featured the talents of Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, and (ahem!!) Lindsay Lohan. Yeah, yeah. I'll save the obvious red-headed train wreck jokes out of the respect I have for Keillor.

A story about the backstage happenings of a radio broadcast is a fascinating idea for a film, but in the mid 1980s, a television program saw the possibilities as well. You see, there were televised broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion" and tales of Lake Wobegon that appeared on The Disney Channel a quarter century back. Yes, you read that correctly, the Disney Channel. And while I may have fuzzy memories of those shows, I recall being captivated by the brand of storytelling and the format of that show. A child's mind like mine would wonder: why is there a radio show on the TV? Isn't this Disney Channel? Where are the Donald Duck cartoons? It was a strange new adult experience for yours truly, but it was miles more entertaining than "Kids Incorporated." What can I say? It clearly made an impression. In addition, I distinctly recall a Garfield cartoon where the setting was near a "Lake Wobegon." That location rang a bell of recognition, and as a result it was probably one of the first small Midwest town names to stick with me in my youthful memory banks. I told myself I'd go see it one day. Imagine my disappointment years later when I found out it didn't actually exist. C'est le vie.

So, all these years later, I will finally get the opportunity to partake of the most famous citizen of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Garrison Keillor is more than a fortunate son from a fictional town, he's a prolific writer and radio royalty. I now relish the chance to hear him live (in person, not just on the radio). Join me and see this bespectacled humorist and storyteller shine on the stage. I promise Lindsay Lohan won't be anywhere nearby.

Garrison Keillor will be at The Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, March 2nd and on Thursday, March 3rd at 8:00 p.m.

February 11, 2011

Coming Soon: Gladys Knight

Sometimes you don't need an iPod. Allow me to demonstrate.

"L.A. proved too much for the man..."

With those words alone, I'm willing to bet that the archives of your brain brought up the rest of the lyrics for you to sing along with. For me, those first notes have a magic effect. That opening line to "Midnight Train to Georgia" somehow transforms me from a mild-mannered R&B enthusiast into a singer with the confidence of a delusional American Idol contestant. I can't help it. I just want to sing along. Yet, somehow, I doubt I'm alone in this reaction. It's one of the few songs that everyone not only knows, but loves. It's soulful, and the backup vocals by The Pips are simple yet sublime.

I'm sure it goes without saying, but I think Gladys Knight is a national treasure in the realm of Rhythm & Blues music. Nicknamed the "Empress of Soul," she's experienced a full career and an incredible streak of longevity in an industry where maintaining success is no easy task.

Knight is a five-time Grammy winner, and has enjoyed both critical and mainstream prosperity since she first appeared on the Motown scene in the 1960s. Although it may seem natural that the best talent should enjoy a consistent level of kudos, I've learned to appreciate just how difficult this acclaim can be. After all, it took Mavis Staples sixty years to win her first Grammy (just this week). Yes, you read that correctly. 6. 0.

Gladys doesn't take success lightly, and has never been one to sit on her laurels. Her works with The Pips put her on the map, but her solo career has also been full of highlights. Just off the top of my head, some of her gems are "If I Were Your Woman," "The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (before Marvin Gaye's version), and "License to Kill." That's right. She's even recorded a James Bond theme. it's also worth noting that she also was chosen to sing at Michael Jackson's funeral. Talk about high standards. Wow.

Outside the world of music, Gladys Knight is also a published author, an occasional actress, and an entrepreneur. The latter came as a surprise to me late one night as I was watching an episode of "Man Vs. Food" (a guilty pleasure) and saw a feature on her restaurant in Atlanta. She was charming, congenial and beautiful as ever. Although I've never been sold on the concept of Chicken and Waffles as a dish, the ones at her restaurant made me want to take a midnight train to Georgia myself ("leaving on a midnight train, woo woo"). Take a look for yourself and tell me that doesn't make saturated fats look soooo good.

And who wouldn't be charmed? Gladys Knight is timeless. Even these cool kids worked in a musical number on their hit TV show...

Bet you thought it was going to be a clip from "Glee," didn't you? Pssh. Glee schmee. THAT was gold.

Soon, you'll be able to experience your own golden Gladys moment. Motown royalty in the flesh, ladies and gents. Knight is a grand queen of the stage, and for one evening The Paramount will be her court. You simply have to see this.

"I know you will"

Now if you excuse me, I'm gonna find ("going back to find") my collection of Gladys music and get lost in my own little world in preparation for her appearance.

"World, world it's his, his and hers alone
I've got to go, I've got to go, I've got to go, I've got to go..."

Fear not, friends. I'll exercise restraint. There won't be any singing from yours truly. Gladys Knight will appear at The Paramount Theatre on Friday, February 18, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.

February 8, 2011

Coming Soon: Kodo Drummers

And now a little international flavor. The season takes a slight break from its run of speakers and comedians with a unique and popular concert. I need not remind you that Austin is considered the live music capital of the world, but this upcoming show isn't just anything you can see at a local venue. These are the world famous Kodo Drummers, returning to The Paramount for a one-night engagement.

"Ok," you're thinking, "but what is Kodo?"

The Kodo Drummers are a group of Japanese performers that are masters of the taiko (drum). a form of percussion-based art. Although most may think of the large instruments associated with taiko, it actually can be comprised of all sizes of drums for the folk and classical traditions. For thousands of years, the taiko has been viewed as a symbol of community, serving not only between individuals, but as a link also between people and the heavens. These drummers debuted at the 1981 Berlin Festival, and were so popular that they toured for the next seven years.

It should be noted also that the word "kodo" can be interpreted two ways in Japanese. First, it can refer to the "rhythm of a heartbeat." Taiko is often said to reverberate like a mother's heartbeat in the womb, giving a primal yet comforting vibration in its recital. Kodo can also be read as "children of the drum," and that is an apt description of how these artists pound away with youthful exuberance.

As part of their 30th anniversary, the Kodo Drummers are conducting a "One Earth Tour" across North America. The tour brings these sounds of taiko drumming to audiences around the world. It is their hope that the transcendence of this music will remind us that we are all members of a larger community than the one immediately around us. That this "One Earth" is home to us all.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Don't just take my word for it.
Here's a sample:

If so inclined, you can also listen to some of their music here. If your curiosity is piqued (as mine surely is), come to The Paramount and witness these performers live on stage. World unity and harmony rarely marches to the beat of such a rhythmic drum.

The Kodo Drummers will bring their "One Earth Tour" to The Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, February 16 at 8:00 p.m.

February 4, 2011

Coming Soon: An Evening with Nora Ephron

In all honesty, Nora Ephron was one of the very first female screenwriter's names that stuck with me in my youth. Now, I know what you're thinking. You may operate under the assumption that the reason I know her name was a result of her association with romantic comedies. Well, that's not correct. As a child, I remember watching Silkwood in a theater and being haunted by it for many years after. At the time, 6-year old me had not been exposed to anything so heavy before. My life then consisted of Star Wars and breakfast cereal. So when one sees something that powerful at a tender age, naturally they try and find out who was behind such a film. Decades later, it's still remarkably high caliber and features some of the best work of all actors involved (and remains the best performance Cher has ever done). Mike Nichols' direction is solid, but I was astonished that someone could craft such an emotional story out of an unsolved mystery and some news articles. That writer was Nora Ephron. And for someone my age, she really defined dramatization.

Of course, Ephron's proved time and again that writing and creating is effortless for her. You could say it's in her blood. Nora has two sisters that are also screenwriters and yet another sister that is a journalist and published author. I can't say if it all comes easily to Nora, but she sure can make it look that way. Since Silkwood, she's been literally putting words in people's mouths. From When Harry Met Sally, to Sleepless in Seattle, to Julie & Julia, she's crafted memorable stories with characters that are fluent in speaking emotional truths.

Ephron's branched out as a director also. Mixed Nuts, Michael (partially filmed in here in Central Texas), and You've Got Mail are a few of these movies under her belt. And for an example of her non-cinematic cred, consider this: she was also one of the few people (at the time) that knew the identity of "Deep Throat," the infamous Watergate informant. No kidding.

Bear all that in mind and imagine what the evening will bring with a lady of such merit. Nora Ephron's life has been a fascinating journey, and on February 10th she shares it with us at The Paramount. She's a lady who seems to have it all figured out: success and a full life. You can't just fake that, but if so... "I'll have what she's having. "

Make it and don't fake it, because you don't want to miss a single moment from "An Evening with Nora Ephron." The show is Thursday, February 10th at 8:00 p.m.

February 1, 2011

Review: Larry Miller

I'm inside the lobby and milling about a few minutes before the show. I feel great, and I'm walking around with a pep in my step. Sure, I had a good vibe about the evening's festivities, but mostly I was glad to be back at The Paramount. Six weeks or so had been far too long, and tonight was to be my first show of the new year for me. But, finally, here it was: "Cocktails with Larry Miller."

Dare I toss out the pun? Why not. Everyone was in good spirits that evening; ready for an extended cocktail hour with the talented Mr. Miller. The lobby was far from sparse, as many wanted to grab their own tasty beverage before settling into their seats. Tonight promised to be a more adult brand of humor. Not adult in the NSFW (Not Safe For Work) category, but adult as in "more mature." Since Larry Miller has been anointed as "the funniest man I've ever met" (by Jerry Seinfeld, no less), I had high hopes for something more than cheap laughs.

Glancing around, I found there was merchandise to be had (caps, autographed books), and everyone was taking it in like a fine wine. Once I entered the auditorium, I was impressed by the set on stage. It was an elegant decor, yet cozy. Music was playing that made me want to hold a highball glass and snap my fingers like a rat packer. All it needed was a working fireplace and I would easily thought I was in someone's personal lounge rather than a playhouse. The atmosphere put me perfectly at ease, like a swig of Johnny Walker.

After a brief introduction, Larry Miller came out and sat at the piano on stage. As his fingers danced over the ivory keys, he sang about the virtues of... cocktails (naturally). It was a fun introduction to a show described as "Little League, Adultery & Other Bad Ideas."

Miller was quickly established that this show would be a funny but relaxed affair. His style of observational humor and anecdotes bring to mind the style of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, yet not remotely as snarky or acerbic. His tone was so conversational and benign, only punctuated with gut-busting punchlines.

For an overriding theme of the night, Larry mentioned that in a relationship, tension equals passion. And based on the stories of married life he shared, I certainly hope he's correct.

There are many battles over the course of a day when you live with someone you love, Miller clarified. Among the first he referred to was over an appliance most consider to be utterly harmless, the dishwasher. Surely he's joking, we all thought. Alas, don't be fooled. It is here where skirmishes can break out over pre-rinsing; where the proper placement of dishes in a dishwasher is tantamount to a nuclear arms treaty. At first I merely chuckled, but only because I also see no room for debate in the matter. Forks must ALWAYS be placed tines up, just as Larry explained. Come one, it's so they won't get caught in the utensil basket, don't you see? No? Am I alone in agreeing with this? Is it a guy thing? Anyone? Bueller?

Proclaiming every story was devoid of embellishment, Miller continued. His tales sustained a chronicle of domestic misery tension. Stories about broken water heaters, uncapped toilets, broken barware, date nights and redecorating bathrooms may have appeared simple to the casual listener that night, but I saw through the tears of laughter and peeked at the truth. These are the minutiae of life that no one ever warns you about. In these details, you can either laugh or cry (and sometimes both). Trust me, I'm starting to see that now.

You know, I've listened to comedians refer to their marital bliss (to use the term lightly) as material for their acts, but historically it's always been an abstract concept of humor to me. However, over the past year or so, my own life experiences have opened my eyes and ears to these tales of relationships and family in a whole new way. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not going to start running a daycare based on the comedy of Louis C.K., but there were many stories in Miller's routine that I surprisingly identified with.

His show continued on the silliness of relationships and anecdotes of the battles of married life and the futile merits of Little League baseball. Little League has ultimately become an enabling influence on our children. Rewarding any effort with the usually cry of "good try" and a giant-sized trophy just for participating. Miller suggested that perhaps we need to start pointing out the underachieving with a rally of "BAD try." Worth a shot?

Occasionally, he'd return to the piano and serenade about the merits and pratfalls of liquor. Most of his lyrics struck me as clever. I mean, how often do you hear "Jell-O shooters" rhyme melodically with "that waitress from Hooters?"

Although jabbing at the nuisances of married life, Miller never gave the impression of tarnishing the act of marriage. Even bits about looking for escape clauses in regards to adultery all had a deeper morality attached. "Marriage is a promise," he said repeatedly. That is also truth. To hear such sentiment was sweet, to be honest. Kind of like a vermouth.

He did save the best for last. Larry concluded with a bit he calls, "The five levels of drinking." It's a hilarious and surprisingly accurate look at the snowballing effects of imbibing alcohol on a given night. Allow me to recount it for you:


"It's 11:00 on a weeknight, you've had a few beers. You get up to leave because you have work the next day and one of your friends buys another round. One of your UNEMPLOYED friends..." You rationalize that as long you get seven hours of sleep, all will be fine.


"It's midnight. You've had a few more beers. You've just spent 20 minutes arguing against artificial turf. You get up to leave again, but at level two, a little devil appears on your shoulder..." You rationalize that as long you get five hours of sleep, all will be fine.


"One in the morning. You've abandoned beer for tequila. You've just spent 20 minutes arguing FOR artificial turf. And now you're thinking, 'Our waitress is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.' At level three, you love the world. On the way to the bathroom you buy a drink for the stranger at the end of the bar just because you like his face... But at level three, that devil is a little bit bigger and he's buying..." You rationalize that as long you get three hours of sleep (and maybe a blood transfusion), all will be fine.


"Two in the morning, and the devil is bartending. For last call, you ordered a bottle of rum and a Coke. You ARE artificial turf. This time on your way to the bathroom, you punch the stranger at the end of the bar just because you don't like his face. And now you're thinking, 'Our busboy is the best-looking man I've ever seen.' You and your friends decide to leave, and one of you knows an after hours bar..." You rationalize that, at this point, you might as well stay up ALL NIGHT. "Yeah! That'd be good for me. I don't mind going to that board meeting looking like Keith Richards."


"Five in the morning. After unsuccessfully trying to get your money back at the tattoo parlor, you and your friends wind up across the state line in a bar with guys who have been in prison as recently as that morning. It's the kind of place where even the devil is going, 'Uh, I gotta turn in. I gotta be in Hell at nine.' A waitress with fresh stitches comes over, and you think to yourself, 'Someday I'm gonna marry that girl!' You crawl outside for air, and then you hit the worst part of level five ~~ the sun...

Let's be honest, if you're 19 and you stay up all night, it's a victory. Like you've beat the night. But if you're over 30, then that sun is like God's flashlight. We all say the same prayer then, 'I swear, I will never do this again as long as I live!' And some of us have that little addition, '...and this time, I mean it!'"

Larry brought the house down with this, and let me tell you something: that was comedy gold. Miller's Five Stages will now be quoted every chance I get (hopefully around level 2 at the absolute latest). There is something ridiculous yet familiar about each of those stages. In particular, the term "God's flashlight" is the prefect description for the rough coda of many nights in my early 20s (usually due to Russian vodka). Nights like that made me down right vampire-esque. The pretty airbrushed Twilight kind, you ask? Nyet. My nights of liquor and hedonism made me look more like Murneau's Nosferatu. Yeah. Rarely a pleasant sight.

I left Larry Miller's show that evening with a greater appreciation for the folly of youth. Combined with the recognition of relationship battles, I guess my sensitivities were revealed as more mature after all. Whoa. Who'd have thunk it? Miller's show raised some interesting points about the facets of life best viewed through a humorous lens. At the end of the day, life is but a cocktail itself. Just be sure to make the best of your ingredients.

Now, if you excuse me, I have to go do the dishes... the right way. Or maybe I'll just pour a drink and get ready to negotiate what that correct method may be. Either way it may well be a long night. Cheers!