Neal Conan, host of National Public Radio’s daytime “Talk of the Nation,” admits he’d always wanted to be the leader of a band.
“Who never wanted to front a band?” says Conan, shooting the breeze by phone, unwinding after a recent radio broadcast. “I thought, The Beatles. The Stones. But hey, you take what you can get.”
What he’s got, then, is a side gig touring with a Celtic quintet, Ensemble Galilei, and their show “A Universe of Dreams,” which combines early folk music with Conan’s narration of poems and stories, under visuals of the universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The show comes to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Friday night.
If it’s not exactly Rolling Stones-worthy, at least Conan’s multimedia production can brag about having the most expensive visuals of any concert. That is, if you factor in the Hubble’s $2 billion price tag.
“We’ve all seen images from the Hubble in newspapers, and even small they’re pretty amazing,” Conan says. “You project them on a big screen, it really takes your breath away. It’s like they take on a life of their own.” Conan, who’s been touring with the show for a few years now, playing theaters across the country, is still at a loss for explaining what “Universe of Dreams” is all about.
He reads poetry. Bits of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” A Navajo creation myth. Ensemble Galilei, which sports several seasoned musicians (including Liz Knowles, a fiddler from “Riverdance”), plays favorite Celtic and renaissance songs. Those Hubble images float by. So, perhaps, it’s like a Pink Floyd laser-light show, only for a more upscale demographic?
“Absolutely,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like that, for educated people.”
And NPR groupies, of course. There’s always the NPR factor. People want to know what the guy behind the microphone looks like in person.
(“Radio’s such an intimate medium,” says Conan. “Sometimes you hate to shatter that illusion.” He ventures that he’s probably shorter than you’d think.)
Conan — who’s married to longtime NPR “Weekend Edition Sunday” host Liane Hansen — may not be a rock ‘n’ roll frontman, but at least he’s on his way to being a bona fide radio personality: He appeared in this year’s crossword documentary “Wordplay,” about New York Times puzzle master Will Shortz. (“It’s the first thing I ever did that ever truly impressed my son,” he says with a chuckle.)
But these “Universe of Dreams” gigs are different. For someone who speaks daily to an audience of some 2 million people over the airwaves, getting to play to a 500-seat theater is a nice change of pace, one that comes with instant feedback.
“It’s tremendously rewarding,” he says. “If you tell a joke, you can actually here people laugh. Or throw things at the stage.”
Rock star, no.
Stand-up comedian, maybe?
>> “A Universe of Dreams” plays 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St. $42. (480) 994-2787 or scottsdaleperformingarts.org.