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Garrison Keillor, Crybaby

July 17th, 2005 - 4:26 pm

Very few articles in the local rag have given me as much sincere happiness as this one. It’s an account of a spate of whining from NPR blowhard Garrison Keillor, who put on a “Prarie Home Companion” performance at Atlanta’s Chastain Park Amitheatre last week:

When Neil Young and Michael Stipe openly chastised noisy Chastain Park Amphitheatre audiences from the stage several years ago, the chardonnay-sipping conversationalists flicked away the criticism like a fly circling too close to the potato salad.

After all, Young has a well-honed reputation for crotchetiness and Stipe is a bit eccentric.

But when you receive a public spanking from “A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor, a guy many suspect has green tea pumping through his veins — that’s something to talk about.

So when the coolers and candelabras are hauled into the venue Saturday for the India Arie concert, music fans can expect that talking will be a topic of conversation.

Chatty Chastain-goers are nothing new — the venue’s long-standing notoriety for noise has frustrated patrons and performers alike for years. For many, the quirky 7,500-seat, 61-year-old amphitheater can be either one of country’s most enjoyable — or confounding — places for a concert.

The issue came roaring to the forefront after Keillor posted critical remarks about the audience following the public radio host’s June 24 performance.

“The show was troubled by a large number of loud drunks sitting in the expensive corporate seats down close to the stage,” Keillor said on the show’s Web site. Calling the Classic Chastain performance “a joyless affair,” he added: “If Chastain Park were par for the course, I would’ve quit years ago.”

I laughed on and off for a good half-hour after reading that.

Chastain is one of the best things about living in Atlanta. The result of a 1930′s make-work project, it’s an outdoor venue that’s as unique in its own way as Colorado’s Red Rocks or Seattle’s old Pier 62/63 (which is now apparently and unfortunately closed to music events). Chastain is nearly unique in my experience, a concert site where patrons are (usually) allowed and even encouraged to bring in their own food and drink. The floor and several rows of the ampitheatre are filled with six-seat tables, and over the years people have gotten more and more elaborate with their concert spreads, bringing in tablecloths and candelabras and all manner of consumables to go with them. You have to see it yourself to really appreciate the charm and laid-back joy of the place.

As the article notes, Keillor is hardly the first performer to be taken aback by a Chastain audience. Most first-time players at Chastain are visible taken aback at not being the center of attention, and more than a few of them make nasty wisecracks about interrupting dinner with a concert–but those who can get over themselves and soak up the atmosphere of the place keep coming back, year after year.

Harry Connick, Jr. was completely stunned the first time he played Chastain, and griped about people chatting during his ballads, but since then he’s become as comfortable with the “Chastain scene” as any Atlantan, and he never plays fewer than two dates there on summer tours. We’ve got tickets to see Lyle Lovett at Chastain in a couple of weeks, and Lovett always makes a point to talk about how much fun he has playing a genuinely different venue after endless weeks of bland civic centers and generic outdoor sheds.

Now, I can already hear the complaining out there–”the audience should show respect to the performers.” Balderdash. The audience is playing the performer’s grocery bills, and the payees ought to appreciate that first, last and always. And at any rate, respect-to-the-performer would be a legitimate point if we were talking about Itzhak Perlman, or even Lovett and Connick–legitimate, accomplished artists. Garrison Keillor is a glorified novelty act by comparison.

Given Keillor’s reputation for being, well, a jerk, I’m not at all surprised that he couldn’t handle an audience that wasn’t composed entirely of fawning “public” radio fans. I particularly got a kick out of his whining about “expensive corporate seats” (ah, Garrison, they’re the same price as anybody else’s tickets in the forward section–and you’re the one who set those prices in the first place). I guaran-damn-tee you he didn’t make any connection to the taxpayer funding for NPR and CPB that came, in part, courtesy of the people who also paid for those tickets, whether they liked it or not.

Ah, what fun. Every year, some pompous performer gets his knickers in a knot because a Chastain audience won’t pay complete attention to him. How much more delightful, then, when this year’s Chastain laughingstock is a pure-blue jackass offstage as well.

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