Saturday, March 1, 2014

January 2014 -- Weekend of Milwaukee Blues

Tier Two Music – Milwaukee Blues
By Tom Wilmeth
24 February 2014

After giving this evaluation of my weekend in spoken form to a couple of people, I thought that I may as well write it down.  I am not even pretending this is a real review – I have been saying for quite a while that I am writing most of my stuff for myself – this may take that idea to a new level.  We’ll see:

I saw two bands over the weekend that featured blues guitars.  I’m glad I went to both shows – cabin fever is running high here in Beertown.  I enjoyed both shows, but more than anything they made me appreciate the difference between good and great.  These guys were both good; I saw nothing great either night.

Thursday I went to Milwaukee’s Shank Hall to hear Tommy Castro & The Painkillers.  I had never heard of guitarist Castro before, but I guess he has been on the road for quite a while and he comes from the San Francisco area.  He could play, but it was nothing very special.  The newspaper article said that he used to have a large horn band but had stripped it down to a quartet in order to give the soloists more room.  He certainly didn’t need much solo space, and I could have used some tight horn parts.  The keyboard player James Pace had chops, and I sometimes preferred his solos to the leader’s.  I am guessing the real reason for the stripped down quartet was simple economics of keeping a band on the road.  And I am not critical of a move for that reason.  Nobody was getting rich at Shank Hall last Thursday.

I thought the set was OK, and especially enjoyed the night’s second tune -- a semi-funky version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”  But when Castro took solos, he was too often into cheap stunts like repeating a lick FOR TWO ENTIRE CHORUSES.  Feels so good when it stops, but play a real solo!  He clearly knows what will get a reaction, but I found it close to pandering.  At times he was good, but then it faded.

At mid-set Castro pushed his new CD a bit and then they did the title song, “The Devil You Know.”  Only then did I recognize the band as one that the XM Bluesville station plays on their weekly “Rack of Blues” program.  Good, but not good enough for me to get the CD.  And after one set of standing by the wall holding my heavy ironman coat, I decided that I had seen what these guys could do. 

At the break, leader Castro went immediately to the merchandise table to sell and sign CDs.  He has recorded a lot of them, no doubt about it.  He mentioned that he had been playing with his bassist Randy McDonald for over 25 years.  They were road warriors and, up close, McDonald really looked weathered from touring.  After he posed for photos with some girls, I approached him and said that I had heard the CD’s title track on the XM blues station.  He seemed pleased, and told me that the band had done a whole live set for XM in their studios, but he was unsure when it would run.  Maybe it had already aired.  We both praised XM Radio and then I let him depart backstage; it was his break, after all.

I took off and fought a very windy night.  I swung-by the Jazz Estate, but it was so packed that I did not stay long – maybe 45 minutes.  I did find a seat there, however!  Performing was the Aaron Gardner Quartet, young guys playing old tunes.  Garnder was on tenor sax with Cody Steinmann on guitar.  They had an acoustic bass and a drummer, but from my table I never caught sight of either.  Both Gardner and Steinmann sounded good.  When the bass soloed, however, the sound was completely lost in the sound of everybody in the place talking at full volume.  I liked what I heard, though, and will try to get back to them.  Glad that place is poppin’!  Keeps threatening to close. 

On a solo outing and driving, I was on my safe black coffee regimen.  I headed for home and played some loud music and had a beer.  As I cranked up a couple of guitar favorites, I considered how it is hard for any live act to compete with the people and performances in one’s music collection.  But I still love a live show by a solid performer.

The next night (Friday, February 21) – Ellie had told me about a local guy who was starting to make some noise as a blues guitarist.  He was returning to his home town of Cedarburg to play a show at the local Cultural Center – an easy bike ride from my house if the weather weren’t so nuts.  I knew the type of show this would be: very white.  (And boy, was it.)  But OK.  Let’s check him out.

This guitarist’s name is Alex Wilson.  His quartet was guitar, electric bass, drums, and blues harp.  That’s fine, but the harp player took as many if not more solos than the guitar!  Based on featured tunes, I really felt that the band should have been named after the harmonica player.

In several ways, this band made the previous night’s group go up in my estimation: 
If I had thought that Castro relied on too many performance tricks, this harp player was almost nothing but show.  For the most part the music was OK (but not much more).  Was surprised me most was the presentation, both on and off the stage:  If this were meant to be a homecoming showcase gig, somebody should have told the group leader.  After each tune, he conferred with the band about what to play next.  Very odd.  Seems like they might look into the benefits of a predetermined set list.

Also strange was the audio mix.  The sound was channeled to hard separation.  This meant that if you were sitting in one of the few seats located between the speaker columns you heard all of the instruments clearly.  Seated anywhere but dead center in the hall, and you were either hearing a very unbalanced mix of way too much harp or an abundance of guitar.  Unlucky me, I was seated on the harmonica side.  I thought about moving to the other end if the room, but then I realized that the guitarist wasn’t playing anything that I really needed to hear more clearly.  Just mix the sound to mono and turn it up. 

This was a band that you realized, about three tunes in, that you would not need to stick around for a second set.  Which I didn’t.  I departed at the break for Grafton’s Bridge Inn, where the band The Itch was supposed to be playing, but they had cancelled – weather related.  So I called it a night and a weekend and headed back home.

But hey – all is well!  I got out and enjoyed some live music.  And in spite of my carping, I DID enjoy the bands.  The second tier experiences make you appreciate the really good nights all that much more. So with that . . .

Support live music and keep listening!

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin

Grafton – former home of The Paramount Records label

(262) 243-4218

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Play Review: King Richard III at Spring Green

Richard III at Spring Green                     Sunday night – August 26, 2012
Commentary by Tom Wilmeth

King Richard was not only stabbed to death on Bosworth Field in the Spring Green, Wisconsin production.  He was cut deeply throughout all five acts. 

The American Players Theater has done an admirable job in presenting Shakespeare’s history play about one of England’s most notorious kings.  It is not a short tale to tell, and when staging Richard III, some editing of the text is logical.  There are various references to the three long Henry VI plays which precede Richard III, including allusions to scenes which the audience has not witnessed and characters they never meet.  Deleting these few lines makes sense.

Director’s Privilege must also be respected.  These are living plays and remain open to various valid interpretations.  Director James DeVita must be commended for striving to assist his audience.  He makes the play’s most ambiguous lines as clear as possible in presenting this fast paced Richard. 

However, even when accepting directorial rights and a certain amount of textual trimming, I am still left with a deep frustration about this production.  I know it is difficult to believe that any play needs more than 3 hours of stage time, but Shakespeare’s history plays are not typical.  When presented in its entirety, Richard III is second only to Hamlet in sheer length, clocking-in at 4 full hours (not counting intermissions). 

This is a long play because it has a lot to say beyond its linear story of a man striving to obtain power and then keep it at any cost.  Much of the writing which elevates Richard III above a plot-driven portrait of power obsession was cut from this production.  Most distressing, the beautifully chilling Clarence’s Dream speeches of Act I, scene iv, were truncated to barely sufficient introductory images.  The discussion between Clarence and his two Murderers on Christ and conscious was completely excised, with Clarence too quickly killed not by drowning in wine, but by summary strangulation.  The subsequent remorse of the Second Murderer was also left unspoken.

These are not the complaints of a textual completest.  The deletion of these characters’ introspection on conscious and the omission of a Murderer’s remorse greatly diminishes two major themes of the play.  Fortunately, remnants of these themes survive in the prophecies of Queen Margaret, played to perfection by Tracy Michelle Arnold who, along with James Ridges’ excellent portrayal of Richard, and Colleen Madden’s Queen Elizabeth, made this irritatingly truncated Richard III a worthwhile if frustrating theatre experience.

Besides the large textual cuts, some odd changes were made.  Early in the play, Richard’s brother George (the Earl of Clarence) is being imprisoned because Richard has poisoned King Edward’s mind with a warning that someone with a name beginning with the letter G will be the king’s demise.  At Spring Green, this letter was changed to a C, which perhaps helps the audience a bit, but we then miss the fact that this G could refer to George just as well as it could (accurately) refer to Gloucester, a.k.a. Richard III.

Another change has to do with a needless, production-long addition.  One of the most difficult scenes for an audience to accept comes in Act I, scene ii, where Richard successfully woos Anne, whose husband and father he has recently murdered.  Ridge and Melissa Graves are excellent in this sharp, if unfortunately deeply edited exchange.  Once Richard weds Anne for political reasons, Shakespeare removes her from Richard’s side.  However, DeVita has Anne serve as Richard’s on-stage shadow for much of the play’s action.  This clutters the audience’s view of Richard’s single-minded quest and repeatedly reminds us of the unlikely pairing of this couple.

There are other small and unnecessary additions to Shakespeare’s text as well as the numerous cuts.  Characters are strangely omitted (Vaughn and Brackenbury) and unneeded business is added (a superfluous note describing the reversal of Clarence’s death sentence).  An opening, non-textual framing scene strives to explain the historical backstory, with mixed results.  Still, this streamlined and very clear production would fully satisfy a Middle School class, and perhaps this is its intended audience.

Near the play’s conclusion, the text is allowed to flower in its nearly complete state.  But here again, questionable editing suddenly disrupt the great penultimate scene where the Ghosts of all those who Richard has murdered return to curse him on the evening before battle.  And curse him they do, or at least some of the Ghosts are allowed to appear.  But following this mutual curse on Richard, Shakespeare then has each of his Ghosts bestow a blessing upon a sleeping Richmond, whom Richard will fight.  These blessings are all omitted.  

By slashing the first acts to focus on the ending, DeVita achieves a hollow victory.  Spring Green’s Richard III is a beautifully staged production – well acted and presented with its own form of clarity.  Sadly, it also serves as an example of a missed opportunity to offer a first rate production of this play.


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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Louis Armstrong biography

What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years
By Ricky Riccardi. Pantheon Books. 369 pp.
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
For JazzTimes – Wilmeth Wyvern on-line column
February 13, 2012

I was born in 1955. Like most of my generation, I had little awareness of Louis Armstrong. Although alive and very aware of popular culture in Armstrong’s final years, I don’t recall his Sunday evening visits to Ed Sullivan, any of his television commercials, or his guest spots on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. My main point of interest with this musician had to do with a Beatles-related fact -- how his “Hello Dolly” had knocked the Fabs out of the #1 spot on the Billboard pop chart early in 1964.

The first time I heard any true discussion of Louis Armstrong was when I was working backstage at a jazz concert in St. Paul in 1981. A few of the older musicians were relaxing between sets and at one point the conversation turned biblical. One horn player mentioned how much he was looking forward to someday hearing Gabriel play his trumpet. Another musician immediately countered, “Gabriel? You’ve already heard him. He’s been here! His name is Louie Armstrong!” And as if on cue, the men in the room all nodded their heads as one and mumbled in agreement that this pronouncement was accurate. I waited for the punch line, but nobody laughed. No one even smiled. These guys were serious – Armstrong was heaven sent.

The strength and sincerity of this collective devotion stayed with me for many years. Later, other positive assessments occasionally came forth. I heard a radio interview with Tony Bennett where the singer archly defended Armstrong against various negative attitudes which had hounded the late trumpeter for decades – attitudes accusingly hurled by the interviewer himself concerning Armstrong’s demeaning racial image. Bennett was also the first person I ever heard who distinctly pronounced Armstrong’s first name as Louis, not Louie.

In fact, I think it was Bennett’s repeated use of the word Louis that made me purchase my first Armstrong LP. The album cover caught my eye, perhaps, because of the single word LOUIS boldly spelled out in white against a photograph of an older Armstrong, trumpet engaged. Upon closer inspection, the words “Chicago Concert” appeared at the bottom of the sleeve. I had next to no Armstrong at this time – just a random track on a compilation album here and there – and so I took the record home. It was a double album recorded on a single night in 1956. I had always heard that the early studio material was his best, but I figured this album would fill a gap in my collection even if I didn’t play it a lot.

Man, was I wrong. Oh, it filled a gap all right. But as to not playing it much . . . I played it all the time! I couldn’t not play it. Sometimes I thought I just needed to hear a single tune – as a pick-me-up. The side would invariably track through to the end. Here was the rare record on which a needle could be placed on any spot of its 4 long sides and the music would be great. Tune after tune after tune. I especially loved the numbers I had no idea Armstrong recorded, such as “The Gypsy,” a song I knew from an obscure Willie Nelson album.

Every part of the set list offered high points -- “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” into “Basin Street Blues” into “Black and Blue” into “West End Blues.” It just killed. And it was a tape from one night’s performance – the kind of live album I always appreciated because it shows what an artist could do in a single concert – not a cobbled together amalgam of good takes from a whole tour.

On the strength of my long held love for that 1956 Louis Armstrong recording, I took great interest in Ricky Riccardi’s recent project, a biography of Armstrong that focuses on his later years. This is the era when Armstrong had been negatively labeled as various things – a caricature, an embarrassment to his race, formerly relevant, a living shadow of his lost talent. And these are just some of the printable complaints that were often leveled at him.

Most of all, this book is convincing! It is a work of love and devotion but never becomes a valentine to the artist. The author is clear-eyed as to why the decades-long criticisms existed and were held unflinchingly in place. But Riccardi is just as methodically dogmatic in disemboweling each of the attacks. The research is excellent and the writing is usually very good. There are a few times when clarity falters, especially near the end, and some redundancy creeps in. A discography of Riccardi’s recommended Armstrong releases would have made for a welcome Appendix, as would a selective list of worthwhile unreleased recordings from this era. But these are inconsequential concerns when this extremely readable and engaging book is taken as a whole.

When someone tries to rescue a diminished hero or offer a career re-evaluation, the author’s voice can become shrill and defensive. This does not happen with What a Wonderful World. Riccardi is even-handed throughout in his assessments and insights. The author is able to make numerous important points by utilizing original source materials which have been closed to previous biographers, including private documents and a voluminous number of audio recordings made and catalogued by Armstrong himself.

Not long after the book’s narrative began, I was convinced that Louis Armstrong had been robbed of his deserved reputation – in his later life and in death. Near the book’s conclusion, as Riccardi described several of Armstrong’s albums released during the 1960s, I began to realize just how slighted this artist has been on so many different levels. The 2nd edition of the respected All Music Guide to Jazz does not even list (much less review) many of these later Armstrong albums, including Louis and the Good Book, Louis and the Angels, Ambassador Satch, Country & Western, and I Will Wait for You.

The fact that so many original albums (not compilations) can be ignored by the very resource which calls Armstrong “the most important and influential musician in jazz history” is telling. It tells us that, true to Riccardi’s premise, even standard reference works are guilty of wanting to acknowledge only this artist’s early years. Thankfully, Ricky Riccardi has a far more comprehensive view of Louis Armstrong’s lifetime of talent, and in this book he shares it with us!

Concert Review: Dark Star Orchestra in Milwaukee

The Dark Star Orchestra
February 3, 2012
Pabst Theatre; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Article written by Tom Wilmeth

I had been hearing good things about The Dark Star Orchestra for several years. They were a Grateful Dead cover band, I was told, but much more. Fans raved that this group took the tribute band concept to a new level -- how the Dark Star Orchestra would take an actual set list of songs from the group’s touring days and re-create a complete Grateful Dead concert. I heard how the band was way into attention to detail – the physical setting of the stage, the actual instruments, even the number of people in the band, depending on which era of the Dead was being replicated on a given night.

Having seen the real Grateful Dead six times during their actual run, I initially had no interest in an imitation, no matter how authentic or heartfelt. But last Friday night there I was – front row of the balcony at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, waiting for The Dark Star Orchestra to hit the stage. I just hoped that the set list they chose would be from the early or middle part of the Grateful Dead’s career.

The band came out and set the mood for the evening with “Let the Good Times Roll.” Fun, good opener. If band membership were a clue to the date, the version of The Grateful Dead being presented here had two drummers and no female singer. Fine by me. I had seen the Dead twice during the Keith & Donna Godchaux era, and I didn’t feel that Donna was a needed presence. I never went to Grateful Dead shows to hear vocals. Nobody did.

But speaking of vocals, I was immediately impressed by the similarities of the lead guitarist Jeff Mattson’s singing voice to that of Jerry Garcia. Rob Eaton, clearly the on-stage group coordinator and the man playing the role of the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, also had a vocal timbre very close to that of Weir. Neither has an especially good voice, but they sound just like Weir and Garcia! Attention to detail, indeed.

Both of these performers had their respective instrumental parts extremely well covered. Eaton stayed on rhythm guitar throughout both sets, except for solo breaks on two tunes late in the evening. This is similar to Weir’s role with the original band, letting Garcia stretch the lead lines. And speaking of the Garcia guitar chair, Mattson played wonderful Garcia styled solos all night. Fluid and clear.

Concerning the equipment used by the Dark Star Orchestra, I liked the fact that everybody stayed on their single instrument throughout the evening – not continually switching from a rack of guitars for different sounds and alternate tunings. I was initially surprised that bassist Kevin Rosen played a 6-string electric, but I would guess that this too is authentic to the night in question. The Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh was into electronics pretty early.

The first set lasted 75 minutes and was all pretty enjoyable. They really hit their stride in the latter part of this set, however, with “It Must Have Been the Roses,” followed by Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” which was one of the peaks of the entire evening. Then the first set wrapped with powerful takes on “Ramble on Rose” and “Let It Grow.”

I knew that my son Dylan had a tentative attitude about this show, so I was pleased when he was not even considering leaving at intermission. We talked about high points, watched the audience, which had now sold out the hall, and got ready for round two. There had been a free beer tasting event prior to the concert. As such, many of the attendees were pretty well oiled. Good move on somebody’s part. Maybe.

Also during intermission Dylan ran into a college friend who told us that the lead guitarist was a fairly recent addition to the Dark Star Orchestra – within the last year – and that their previous guitarist had joined Furthur, one of the bands that had a surviving member of the Dead in it. I really can’t keep all of the post Garcia bands straight – Furthur, the Dead (not the true Grateful Dead), Bob Weir’s Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends. Gotta get a score card.

There were the usual concert distractions during both sets. Because this was a general admission event, the crowd was more fluid than at a reserved seat affair. Some young people sat beside us for a few minutes and talked, but soon left. Good. The people immediately around us were pretty focused on the music. Also good. I was increasingly glad that we had the front row balcony seats. The main floor had turned into a large dance floor. And those who were not dancing were standing. To be seated would mean you would see nothing. Even in the balcony many people were standing. And as I looked to the high upper balcony of this beautiful 1895 concert hall, I noticed a lot of hard partying going on up there – dancing and jumping. It was a long show – I was happy to sit. The second set alone was a full two hours before the encore.

Early in the second set, both of the group’s famous rain songs showed-up – “Box of Rain” and “Looks like Rain,” numbers I like a lot. Maybe it had been a rainy night when The Grateful Dead originally played this show. There were other songs I was less familiar with – things like “Victim of the Crime” and “Foolish Heart” – but all were enjoyable enough and very well performed.

As with any real Grateful Dead concert, there were slow spots in both of these sets. The Dark Star Orchestra’s take on “He’s Gone” seemed to go on forever. However, when it finally mutated into a very odd and interesting instrumental section, all was forgiven. The nadir of the evening, perhaps predictably, was the obligatory “Drums” feature. I have no problem with drum solos, but this could not even be called such. Rob Koritz and Dino English both became involved with sound boards and electronics instead of percussion, tweaking computer controls more often than playing any instrument. As my son said, “They completely lost their way.” Or as my Junior High band director often told us: “Practice at home!”

But as the rest of the band returned to the stage, the last three numbers of the night really saw the Dark Star Orchestra regain momentum and again catch fire. “I Need a Miracle” went into the unexpected Spencer Davis hit “Gimme Some Lovin’,” featuring organist Rob Barraco. This eventually morphed into a beautiful and stately “Morning Dew,” which closed the main part of the concert.

One of the things I found most impressive was the band’s ability to burn hard at slow speeds. This was never more evident than when the fragile vocal of “Morning Dew” gave way to a slowly building and majestic instrumental section of this song. Being able to smoke at fast speeds is somewhat expected for professional rock bands, but to be able to bring urgency and intensity to a slow tempo takes even greater skill.

I remember a night long ago when Mike Michalicek, one of my most important music teachers, spoke about a local band that performed “Stairway to Heaven” as a set closer. “They’re good,” said Michael, “but note that they play the last part of that tune in double-time. If they were really good, they could make that tune smoke without speeding-up, like it is on the record.” Oh yes!

By the end of the night the crowd was getting pretty rowdy. The ballad “Morning Dew” had elicited a bevy of howls and whistles, most occurring at the song’s quietest parts. Why? I don’t know, but people were digging it and wanted the band to know it, I guess. I would have preferred audience silence on this number, but that wasn’t happening.

Were there disappointments during the night? Very few. I do wish that lead guitarist Mattson had faced the audience a bit more. Most of the time he was playing profile, looking straight into second guitarist Eaton. That’s fine for musical interplay; I just like to see the guitarist’s fingers dance over the fret board. Dylan was so impressed, he later proclaimed that the lead guitarist “carried the band.” I won’t go that far, but I loved every note Mattson played – all night long. He was reading music off a stand for a couple of numbers. This bugged some people, I was told. But I thought it showed more attention to detail and a desire for accuracy. And remember, the number of songs this band has to be able to play is huge. Cut the new guy some slack. I was glad to see that he could read music!

I looked at the band’s web site the next day. This is where I found the date of the set they replicated. I compared this with some of their other sets from the past weeks. I think we attended one of the better recent shows; I certainly was not disappointed, anyway. Dylan asked me how the Dark Star Orchestra compared with real Grateful Dead. I dodged the direct comparison, instead repeating that in addition to the authoritative set list, the vocals and instrumentation were all remarkably attentive to detail. And I stressed that I would go back to see them again.

And just which night from the band’s history was The Dark Star Orchestra replicating last Friday night in Milwaukee? It was a surprisingly late show – a September 1988 date at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Whenever I put on Grateful Dead recordings, I never pull from that late in their repertoire. And I’m glad, actually, that I did not know the original date of the set – I’m sure it would have prejudiced me.

As we drove home after this great night of music, slipping out before the drunks started lunging towards the exits, Dylan and I talked about what songs we would have liked to hear which they failed to play. I said “Love Light” and he mentioned “Friend of the Devil.” I thought of “Truckin’” and he wanted “Uncle John’s Band.” I said “El Paso” and he called for “Wharf Rat” (just because he likes the name). This trade off continued until we stopped ourselves and said, “Hell, that would have been an entire third set!” We agreed that we were both surprisingly satisfied with the generous evening of music just as it was. And we bid them good night.

#30# 1,774 words

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin
Former Home of the Paramount Records label

(262) 243-4218

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tom Keith -- A Remembrance

Tom Keith – A Remembrance
Written by Tom Wilmeth
1 November 2011

I am weary of writing obituaries in 2011, and I don’t want to write this one. But I need to.

Tom Keith had a career at Minnesota Public Radio that spanned 4 decades. My own association with him lasted a mere 3 ½ years, from July 1980 to early 1984 -- my era at the station working as a Board Operator. And while I have not been in the same room with Tommy for a very long time, I remember him as well as if I had been drinking coffee with him last week. Maybe it’s because I could always hear his voice and check-up on him most Saturdays on A Prairie Home Companion. Which I did.

In recent years, I always knew the show was on tour when Garrison would fail to announce the name Tom Keith as the Sound Effects man at the end of a show. He once told me that his wife worried about him during the road trips. But it seemed to me that Tommy himself grew weary of the star trappings, and especially the touring, shortly after the PHC went national and became so widely embraced in the early 1980s. I was at Minnesota Public Radio during a curious and perhaps pivotal time. I recall being in The World Theatre for the Saturday radio broadcasts when there seemed to be more performers on the stage than people in the audience. But soon, tickets would become so scarce that my regular balcony seat was needed for paying customers. So I was invited to work backstage instead, on the show itself.

Others have said it this week, but I want to echo that fact that Tom Keith brought a sense of calm to any situation, yet he was always the exacting professional. It was a balancing act that he made look easy. Tommy found humor in unpleasant situations, repeatedly diffusing workplace tension. At the same time, if some task was being shirked, he would be the person to let you know. I remember leaving some masking tape markings on a mixing console to remind me of audio levels. Tommy called me back to the control room and calmly made it clear that I needed to clean-up after myself. Never happened again – not from any fear, but from my respect for him.

It was a joy just to have a conversation with Tom Keith. Much has been made of Tommy’s sense of timing during the radio performances, but he was this way naturally. He regularly floored me not only with his fast rejoinders, but with a perfectly timed delivery that echoed an earlier era of comedians – Jack Benny, Bob & Ray, Johnny Carson. I think this combination of talent, attitude, and personality is why he could stay on Keillor’s A-List for such a long time. It seemed to me that Garrison could throw Tom into any situation and he could quickly adapt and make it work. And do so without ego or attitude – no small thing in any performance setting.

Tom always made me feel welcome and at ease, whether in the MPR studios or on one of my few road trips with the PHC. It was on such an outing to do a live broadcast in upstate Minnesota where I saw the respect that Tommy commanded on so many levels. He filled a unique position on the show as a performer, of course, but never acted the part of the Talent on this trip. He was chief roadie, technician, and van driver. And after this he would be ready to assist the actual show in all possible ways – sound effects, characters, anything that would help the broadcast -- on the air or at the mixing board.

I had known for some time that Tom was a really good guy, but it was on this trip that I could also see first-hand what a well rounded and tour-tested radio professional he was.
“Just stay out of his way when he is packing the van,” I was told.
“Don’t try to help.”
“Why?” I asked. “He’s never seemed temperamental before.”
“It’s not that. The guy can pack 50 pounds of sh*t into a 40 pound bag.
Just watch and learn.”

I did watch, for over 3 years, but I could probably have learned a lot more from Tom Keith during my time with him. Tommy will be missed by the Minneapolis/St. Paul radio community and by all those who enjoyed his talent on the radio. I count myself lucky that I spent time with the man.

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