The first time I visited Wolf Trap I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old. We had come up to DC to see Itzhak Perlman perform with the National Symphony Orchestra (I think).; Being a budding violin player at the time, the experience of seeing that stage for the first time, taking in the beauty of the venue itself and hearing those absolutely perfect acoustics ring from it’s rafters – it was the tipping point. It was the first time I can remember being aware of the powerful effect music can have on a person. It made me want to drown in the stuff until there was no air left to breathe and only the sound remained. Seeing Perlman wring the purest sounds you’ve ever heard out of his Stradivarius was the first time I realized what a rock star really was. Some otherworldly being here to astound with seemingly impossible talents. Rock stars were gods and this place, Wolf Trap, was the pulpit from which they spread their universal message far and wide.
If that sounds all mystical and outrageously hyperbolic, you may be right – I was eight. But on that night I knew magic, and each and every time that I return to that place I get a little hint, a hit, of how special a venue it really is. The magic is real, and it persists today. Without question Wolftrap is one of the best venues in the country (I love you Hollywood Bowl, but you don’t stand a chance in a cage match here). It’s heart bleeds music, rock stars and legend. So how could I resist when a legend, a rock star, of a different sort, was set to perform on its stage this past Saturday night.
Prairie Home Companion. When you say those three words to someone, you never know what response their going to have. Feelings of nostalgia, comfort, and awe are the appropriate response, but Garrison Keillor's oratory juggernaut also produces apathy, confusion and in many boredom. To each their own. Regardless what response it invokes in you, what is absolutely indisputable is that since 1974, Keillor’s weekly exaltation of life, love, prose and music hidden behind the auspices of a “radio show” is a towering achievement of not just human intellect, but the human spirit.
On this night, in addition to the usual cast of characters, the people were brought together with the help of a rather sizeable stable of musicians. Heather Masse, Sara Watkins and Shawn Colvin, joined their ringleader in song, has he wove his way in and out of monologues, familiar skits (“A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets..."), and showcases of each artist’s latest material. At age 69, Keillor still has one of the most commanding presences to ever grace a stage. His performance has become natural, and as seasoned a cast iron skillet that one of the oft mentioned “hot dishes” might be prepared in. With a vocal delivery that can best be described as “the voice of GOD” Keillor, like he does every week, transformed simple tales of good “clean” living into subversively topical parables of our current political climate, amongst other things.
Highlights of the evening included several moving tributes to the US Troops (it was Memorial Day weekend after all), “wolves” howling from the hillside, Sara Watkins being joined on stage by her brother Sean Watkins to perform songs from her latest album Sun Midnight Sun, as well as the combined cast performing several Otis Redding classics to flesh out the holiday-ness of the whole affair. But the real highlight was simply being there because at the end of the day, what we’re talking about is a group of legendary performers putting on their show at a legendary venue. As such, there really was no room for disappointment. And as the night went on you could almost see the magic seep out of the performers, the venue itself into the hearts and memories of the assembled audience.
This night, as it is every year that the company from Lake Wobegon makes a stop at Wolftrap was special for me for personal reasons, but really, any chance that you have to spend an evening in the woods outside of Vienna should be one that you jump at. Be it Garrison, Mavis, Norah, Crosby, Stills OR Nash, chances are that someone will be on that stage that will ignite a spark in yourself or someone you love. It’s that simple fact, that promise of magic that will keep me and mine coming back for years to come. And that goes double if your destination happens to be the lazy Midwestern shores of Lake Wobegon