'A Prairie Home Companion' 2.0: New host Chris Thile takes radio institution in exciting new direction

New "A Prairie Home Companion" host Chris Thile back in April

New "A Prairie Home Companion" host Chris Thile back in April Associated Press

“There’s no choice, we’re going to put on a show,” announced Chris Thile, the new host of A Prairie Home Companion, shortly before the season debut at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater.

Saturday's sold-out show officially saw Thile take the reins of APHC from Garrison Keillor, who ended his 40-year-plus run as host in July and now shifts to a role as executive producer. Throughout the two-hour variety program, Thile -- who's best known as frontman of bluegrass band the Punch Brothers -- proved to be a capable, talented replacement for the beloved Minnesota legend. He made clear he intends to carry on Keillor’s distinguished legacy, while also taking the venerable radio show to a new and younger audience.

And what a way to kick off the new season, with Jack White making his first Twin Cities appearance since 2010, as well as neo-soul-pop band Lake Street Dive and comedian Maeve Higgins. It felt and sounded like a fresh new start for APHC, with modern echoes of the Grand Old Opry filling the theater as well as the airwaves, along with clever skits and fictional sponsorships that stayed true to the show’s original pastoral charms.

Music takes on an even more prominent role in Prairie Home’s new iteration. Thile not only leads the in-house band (led by pianist/music director Richard Dworsky, fellow Punch Brothers Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowert, as well as Sarah Jarosz, Brittany Haas, and Ted Poor), but he also joined in with White and Lake Street Dive, adding to the communal, celebratory nature of the evening.

The comedy portion (which will continue in future episodes) replaces Keillor’s “News From Lake Wobegon” monologues. And while Garrison’s measured, bucolic observations will always be missed, the laughs generated from Higgins’ standup set brought a welcomed bit of levity to the proceedings.

But any time that you have Jack White’s name on your bill, the night is going to be about the music. And White delivered a stirring, four-song acoustic set that touched on a variety of eras and influences from throughout his celebrated career. White was flanked by Dominic Davis on bass, Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle, and Fats Kaplin on lap steel, with the entire crew sporting matching aluminum instruments that added an eye-catching touch to their spare stage setup.

Things kicked off with the recently unearthed White Stripes track “City Lights,” which is featured on White’s new acoustic double-LP compilation. The group gave a knowing nod to the familiarity of the song’s melody by working a few bars of the classic French nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” into the tune. A potent version of the Raconteurs’ “Carolina Drama” found Thile joining in the tightly wound musical fray, which took on a dusty barroom sing-along quality that resembled the traditional Irish tunes featured earlier in the show.

White’s other two numbers were saved for the end of the show, with a surprising cover of the Tom T. Hall-penned Bobby Bare hit “(Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn” spiritedly kicking off his second segment. White then brought out rising country star Margo Price -- whose debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was released on White’s Third Man Records in March -- for their first-ever duet together on the White Stripes classic, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).”

It was a unique, delightful experience to see Jack White take part in a traditional variety radio show like A Prairie Home Companion, though the packed theater likely wanted more than the four songs the show’s format allows. The creative link between White and APHC was crystallized following the performance. Jack was a natural fit to launch the bold new direction of the show, his decidedly retro, workmanlike appeal perfectly suited to the program. 

Lake Street Dive added their own distinctive swing, delivering a trio of original tunes as well as a new-wave bebop take on Prince’s “When U Were Mine” that continued the affectionate musical tributes to the Purple One that have filled St. Paul this past week. Thile himself paid tribute to another Minnesota musical legend, doing a quick riff on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” before declaring “Yeah, I’ll go literature on that” in response to the debate over Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win.

Music also drove much of the shorter, transitionary segments of the show. Thile celebrated the recent birthdays of music luminaries like Thelonious Monk (with a quick burst of “Epistrophy” led by Dworsky), John Prine (a brief run through of “Paradise”), and Paul Simon (a rollicking version of “Loves Me Like a Rock,” which Thile dedicated to his mother, who was in the audience). This quick-fire arrangement kept down time to a minimum, while also delivering songs that satisfied a wide array of music fans. 

Following the successful start of the new season of A Prairie Home Companion, it’s clear the show is going after a new generation of fans, all while preserving the rustic, down-home appeal for its core audience. In his debut at the Fitz, Thile proved to be a capable, affable, and incredibly talented host. He was able to charm the dedicated supporters of Keillor along with a new audience who are just discovering the musical and intellectual allure of the variety show.

“It was a pleasure to spend my Saturday evening with you fine folks,” Thile said as he wrapped up the broadcast. “I look forward to many, many more.”

Critic’s bias: Jack White being the musical guest certainly got my attention with this show, but I’ve always enjoyed my times at the stately Fitzgerald taking in APHC, and I’m rooting for Chris Thile to succeed in making this show his own, while honoring the legacy of Garrison Keillor.

The crowd: There was a definite mix of younger Jack White fans and old-school Lake Wobegon lifers, which is precisely what the show’s organizers were hoping for.