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Keillor proves stellar companion for nostalgic trip to edge of prairie

Garrison Keillor has taken the small Midwestern town ethic and spread it out over more than three decades, telling tales that are fantastic but homely, outrageous yet as believable as a Norman Rockwell painting. It has been a good gig.

As the creator of "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor blended memories and stereotypes of rural Minnesota -- the Lutheran congregation, the Norwegian bachelor farmer, the friendly neighborhood tavern, the uncertainties of hormonal youth -- and meshed them with bad jokes, old tunes and his signature storytelling genius to make a radio-centric paean to a way of life that might have been true at one time but remains as a cultural touchstone for a certain generation.

Now, as Keillor has hinted, this tour is a farewell to all of that, although the books, CDs and assorted paraphernalia will be there as a memorial to the little radio show that hardly anyone thought would survive.

Sunday night at Artpark brought a bit of that Prairie Home flavor to Lewiston. The house was pretty full, and the audience generally knew what to expect, although the specifics were a surprise. There were the standard monologues, some instrumental interludes, commercials for non-existent products and services, including favorites like Powdermilk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board, and songs.

Guy's All-Star Shoe Band was there, and so, too, was sound effects master Fred Newman and singer Heather Masse. Everyone on the stage, with the exception of the band's bassist and drummer, had their solo spots, and the whole flow of the show was deceptively easygoing.

Keillor's opening bit found him singing a riff on Western New York locations, history and traditions with time also devoted to Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment.

He talked about children and their raising, referring to clothing, electronics and body piercings (as on kids who looked as if they "fell face first into the tackle box.") The audience laughed in knowing appreciation because he was talking about the gap between progenitors and progeny, the clash of the way things were with the way things may be.

Musically speaking, the show was comfortable. Keillor and Masse sang duets including "Unchained Melody," "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," "Dark End of the Street" and "If Not for You," although their tour de force came during the intermission when they walked off the stage and up the aisles, wandering all over the theater singing snippets of "All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Singin' in the Rain," "Happy Trails," "Amazing Grace," etc., etc., for 15 minutes.

Masse had a couple solo spots, including a nice take on "Skylark" that showcased her strong, fluid singing. Guitarist Pat Donohue, pianist Rich Dworsky and multi-instrumentalist Richard Kriehn also were well represented with their own spotlight moments.

But, when all was said and done, the evening was all about Keillor and his idiosyncratic vision of small-town life. It was a good gig.

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