It is an unusual moment to catch an entire flock of heathens and heretics with their heads bowed in silent reverence. Yet here they were this past Thursday, in a Benson bar room, cloaked in prayer.
“Our Keillor, who art in St. Paul, hallowed be thy name…”
Stifled giggles erupt from behind hands of confused barflies at a table close to the front.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on radio as it is on stage…”
Others have joined in echo, whispering half words with half smiles-
“Give us this show and our weekly dollar beers. And forgive us our blatant rip-off, as we forgive those who fail to see the humor in it. And lead us in our propagation of the radio gospel, but deliver us from any cease and desist letters…”
For as long as the Barley Street Tavern has been the Barley Street Tavern, the small room with the stage — which is just a mere three or four inches too tall to step up without a jump or a hand — has served as an altar for congregations of Benson music scene devotees. Omaha singer-songwriter Kait Berreckman has seized the creative energy built up in the hallowed walls of this neighborhood dive to present A Benson Home Companion, her tribute and testament to A Prairie Home Companion.
The spectacle that followed Thursday night’s earnest opening prayer read like an order of service: Berreckman and her house band, the Homebodies, covered Abba and Joni Mitchell and performed a choose-your-own-adventure radio play about sculptures made of golden skulls and baby teeth. Poet Greg Harries waxed romantic of insomnia and Lyft drivers. Brad Hoshaw warbled to an audience so attentive one could hear the squeak of a rusted-through stool as one shifted their head from side to side.
In a small twist of fate, mandolin virtuoso and singer-songwriter Chris Thile recently took over for A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor upon the series founder’s retirement in 2015. Berreckman, an avid listener of the decades-old radio show distributed by American Public Media, found herself carried away with the idea of doing her own version with guitar in hand.
Currently booking talent for Barley Street Tavern, Berreckman was having trouble finding volunteers to fill a number of monthly residencies. Berreckman took the initiative to book herself for the month of May, wanting to show other musicians that filling two hours once a week for a month meant a world of possibility, in spite of the minimal payout. As it turns out, dollar shows and dollar beers perhaps do not inspire a world of musicians, necessarily, to desire to play for that long, even with a 100-percent cut of the door.
“On paper, it looks like a lot of work,” Berreckman says, seated in the garden patio at Aroma’s in the Benson neighborhood one Monday morning. “Four shows in a row. Two hours. Some money, but maybe not quite enough money for a whole band to feel comfortable doing it? So I’ll do one.”
With a deadline on her hands and the motivation to try it, Berreckman translated the idea of A Benson Home Companion to a live setting. She set forth to challenge to herself to write a new song each week, learn new covers, write jingles for anyone who needed or wanted their own advertisement and employ the work of her friends across the creative spectrum to fill out the program.
Each week features a short horror radio drama., written by The Basement on a Hill podcast member Anthony King and a number of hare-’em scare-’em friends he recruited for scriptwriting help. They are performed by Berreckman’s Benson Home Companion house band, The Homebodies — comprised of Jon Ochsner, Vern Fergusen, Collin Duckworth, and Susan Hendrick — complete with the sounds of half-practiced, half-hearted chainsaw revs and bodies thunking down stairwells. It turns out these effects are purposefully less effective and therefore entirely more humorous than the core of actors they are emulating.
As for an attempt at her own “News from Lake Woebegon,” Berreckman has struggled with just how close she can get to being a tribute without flailing all over what made it so special.
“I feel like that’s so much [Keillor’s] thing,” Berreckman says. “I’m a storyteller, but I’m a songwriter. I tried a few different things, I practiced for a while, and it just wasn’t clicking. It didn’t feel natural.”
On-stage, Berreckman chose instead to marble-mouth, in Keillor’s rambling style, the good news of her sister graduating from college and joining their father’s law firm as partner, from her hometown of Cozad, Nebraska—Berreckman’s own Lake Woebegon. She told the tale with humor and high regard for her family, then launched into a jingle for Berrekman, Davis and (the firm’s newest partner!) Bazata.
The show’s first two weeks are in the bag, but this means there are two more opportunities to catch A Benson Home Companion. Berreckman keeps it in the folk and singer-songwriter tradition of A Prairie Home Companion with Lincoln’s SAS performing this Thursday, the 18th and Sarah Benck wrapping up the series Thursday, the 25th. Comedian Rachel Ware and poet April Follmer also perform.
“It’s a different experience than you’d normally get from Barley Street,” Berreckman remarks. She continues with a hint of disbelief in her voice: “It’s a change of pace. I was really surprised with the audience and how they just sat down the whole time. Then we had an intermission and then they got up…and then they came back and sat back down!”
Then she smiles and adds. “It was weird.”
It is indeed unusual to catch a crowd with their heads bowed over dollar beers, though perhaps not this crowd. Not at Barley Street on a night like this. Not before this woebegone altar.
“For thine is the microphone, the Powdermilk biscuits, and the Guy Noir forever and ever.