"We're going down to Northfield, to chase away those blues/Pick up your hymnals, put on your dancing shoes"
So began the edition of a Prairie Home Companion on Saturday night, a show with more Lutheran jokes than normal and one featuring the St. Olaf Choir, St. Olaf Orchestra and, in a star turn from the pulpit to radio acting, retired St. Olaf pastor, Bruce Benson.
It was also a chance for host Garrison Keillor to make reference to a number of Northfield institutions— and made it into a song—and to laud St. Olaf's efforts at environmental sustainability, including its use of local farms for campus food and the wind-turbine providing a third of campus electricity.
"Lutherans," Keillor joked, "they are restless reformers, and good stewards, and they eat well.
"And they sing well," he added, a point he spent much of the broadcast demonstrating with the choir, which sang a mix of traditional Christian music, Keillor-penned comedies and covers of Sting and the Grateful Dead performed with the orchestra. Vocalist Heather Masse and Philip Brunelle, leader of the Minneapolis-based VocalEssence choral group, also performed.
Audrey Slote, a junior and the orchestra's principal cellist, listened to the show with her parents every week growing up in Meadville, PA.
"Just being able to be a contributor to that was so thrilling," she said. "It was probably one of the most fulfilling musical things I've ever done."
Slote also enjoyed hearing Benson, who retired this year after 30 years as campus pastor, play a piercing and leopard tights-wearing "Christian hypnotist" that uses Lutheran small talk to lull his patients in the gumshoe skit "Guy Noir."
"To hear his scholarly voice talk about his tattoos and his green hair was priceless," she said.
Attendance of the live broadcast, which filled the , drew a mix of students, alumni and devoted fans of the variety program whose Americana music, old-style skits and midwestern satire have made it a cultural mainstay since its debut 37 years ago.
Northfield resident Kathy Olson was one devoted fan. She and her husband have been to five performances of the weekly show. This was their second at St. Olaf.
"I'm not even an Ole," she said, "and I think it's just great to have the local piece to it."
There was also room for those new to Lake Wobegon.
Nicole Wagner, a freshman from Eagan, had only heard of the show before attending Saturday. But its self-deprecating humor and hometown references seem to have warmed her to the public radio staple.
"It was very nostalgic and very Minnesotan," she said. "I may have to listen to it now."