March may be known as “March Madness” in the sports circle, but in Missouri, Southern Gospel Fans look forward to March as the month that Greater Vision and Legacy Five host Praisefest Branson in Branson, Missouri. This year, GV and L5 invited artists such as the Mark Trammell Quartet, Jeff and Sheri Easter, the Collingsworth Family, Ken Davis and Stan Whitmire to be with them for three days of great music. Originally booked at the Mansion, Praisefest Branson was moved to the Oak Ridge Boys Theater due to financial issues with the venue. I’ll admit this worried me a bit, when we bought our tickets for this year, we were able to move up into some really great seats from the ones we occupied last year. When the theater changed, the seats changed too. Now, we didn’t have bad seats…but let’s just say that the seats we purchased the day tickets went on sale last year were really, really sweet! (Oh well, maybe next year!) On the other hand, compared to the parking situation…we won’t complain about the seats too much. The traffic was routed in and out of the theater via one entrance – and with 1000-1500 people trying to get out at once, there were restless fans in the parking lot! Everyone complained about it taking an hour to leave the parking lot after the sessions. Regardless of the parking challenges and seats being moved, you can’t get GV, L5, and Ken Davis together and not have some fun, right? Read on and find out!
Gerald Wolfe strode to the middle of the stage and warmly welcomed everyone, “Hello! How are you?” Directing his next comment to the staff in the back he said, “Hey, bring the house lights up so I can see some of these folks!” After a pause and a brightened auditorium, he added, “Oh no! Now I can see them! Turn it back down!” LOL Though Gerald has been known for teasing whatever crowd he can get his hands on, the real reason he came out on stage was to get the Branson crowd to sing! Stan Whitmire provided accompaniment on the keys and Gerald led us in singing the good old hymns like Victory in Jesus, Are You Washed in the Blood, Power in the Blood and many, many more. At one point, he hopped down the steps and chose different folks in the audience to sing a few lines in his mic. He ended up in the row just in front of where I was sitting, with radiating joy on his face; he let a lady sing along in a smooth alto and then the man sitting next to her dropped the melody down into a deep bass line. When Gerald looked to the lady sitting on the other side of the new found bass singer, she shyly shook her head no. Back on stage, Gerald opened Praisefest Branson in a prayer that asked the heavenly Father to whisper peace into every storm that may have been raging in our lives.
With those sweet petitions ascending to the throne, Gerald introduced the first group of the evening, “My favorite bunch of guys to sing with and our co-host for this event, Legacy Five!” With a rat-tat-tat of the drums, Legacy Five marched into their set with an old song called Blood Washed Band. That one was recently recorded on their CD, Count Your Blessings, along with the next number, Everywhere I Go. Both of those songs featured their bass singer Matt Fouch. “Welcome to Branson!” hollered Scott Fowler. Here, he introduced Matt to the crowd and complemented his ability in the bass singing department, specifically mentioning that vocally, bass singers don’t mature until they’re in their 60’s. To Matt, Scott happily added, “You are going to be something, my friend!” Howie jumped right in on the teasing and said, “Well, that’s a shame, ‘cause most of the folks here won’t be here to hear it.” LOL After that goofy, yet good natured introduction, Matt sang I’ve Been Changed. Personally, I love how Matt has taken this song and made it his own – not only in the way he sings it, but in the delivery as well. Following Matt’s feature was a good, up-beat tune that had a similar theme, Thankful for the Change. Scott went on to tell the crowd that Matt was the “youngest” when it came to how long each member has been with the group, but speaking in terms of age, pianist Trey Ivey is truly the youngest at 23! Laying a hand on the keyboard, Scott said, “The youngest guy in the group is this little…punk.” (The crowd laughed at this point…) “And I say that with all affection,” clarified Scott, “There was a day when I was the youngest.” Howie couldn’t help but point out that Trey and Scott made the perfect “before and after” shot. Anyway, it was time for the piano solo, and Fowler announced that he wasn’t going to tell Trey what to play – Trey could do anything he wanted! When Scott didn’t get an enthusiastic reply, he frowned at Trey, “I haven’t heard of the song ‘I Don’t Care.’” (LOL) Scott explained that Trey had a new Christmas CD out with a combination of Classical music and Christmas classics. He was so proud of the project because it didn’t have any “screaming guitar” on it, and in that moment Trey interjected his favorite part of the recording, “There’s no singing…” (Not quite what Scott wanted to hear!) Trey ended up playing O Little Town of Bethlehem. After a great applause for the wonderful music, Scott went to picking on Howie and introduced his (Howie’s) most requested song, “We did this back in 2000 – That’s What Grace Is For.” With Howie’s quick wit we can easily think of him as the funny, goofy one, but when he gets a ballad like this – his delivery is flawless. He illustrates every lyric with perfect gestures, facial expressions and something that comes from deep inside that lets the passion within convey the message of the song. “Alright! Here we go!” exclaimed Scott as the track for I Found Grace began. That was their last song of the evening and L5 took a bow as Fowler asked, “Have you enjoyed these fellas tonight? Let ‘em know it!” By then, the mic was cutting in and out and Scott mentioned, “This new microphone is cooperating with me tonight and I appreciate that.” LOL Then, he introduced his father-in-law, Ken Davis.
When Ken Davis came out on stage he said, “These guys are so funny; I get totally delighted when I see them sing.” (Keep in mind, that the mic was not cooperating any better for Ken than it was for Scott!) Pausing, Ken began to laugh, “I have to get a new mic!” Howie came out and found Ken a different one, to which Ken said, “Bury that one!” Mr. Davis kept us laughing so hard all night long. My favorite joke had to be this one… “My favorite thing to do on a Saturday is take my motorcycle down to the highway and sit on the side of the highway pointing my wife’s hair-dryer at cars.” LOL That one tickled me!
After intermission, Ken Davis introduced Jeff and Sheri Easter, “Hey, would you welcome Jeff and Sheri Easter!” This family group kicked off their set with Anything But Happy. Back to back with that was a song that Jeff has been singing since he was a lad – I Won’t Have to Worry Anymore. I noticed the young man playing drums sang along on each song. (How special!) That’s What Love Is followed. After a story about Sheri’s grandparents, they sang a love song called Sitting On Top of the World. Jeff introduced his family next, along with their drummer, Landon Smith, who is 14 years old from Covington, GA. Jeff and Sheri’s son, Madison, played the mandolin and sang I’m Working On A Road To Gloryland. Afterwards, Jeff brought out their seven year old daughter to say hi, tell a few jokes and sing a chorus of Singing on the Sunny Side. Continuing on, Sheri shared a little from her book and journey with cancer and sang I Know How It Feels To Survive (for fellow cancer survivors). As she expounded on her journey and began to sing, my heart felt a sharp prick as my mind thought of my great aunt, who succumbed to a five year battle with cancer at the age of 57. I wonder how many others were reminded of those who did not survive the battle? As I listened to the lyrics, tears filled my eyes as memories flooded my mind of one who fought so bravely. We rejoice at every life that has victory over this dreadful disease, b/c far too many do not have the joy of conquering. The next song was one that Jeff wrote with one of his buddies – Life Is Great and Gettin’ Better. Another song with a theme about “life” and “living” was one Three Bridges made popular, called I Get To. At the end of the song, Jeff asked us to say the words “I get to” as they sang them. Jeff and Sheri closed their set with a song that Jeff’s Dad wrote in the 1960’s – Thank You Lord (for your blessings on me). When Jeff began singing, the audience applauded.
“One more time for the Easters!” said Scott, “did you enjoy Jeff and Sheri?” Introducing our second host group, Scott exclaimed, “Give a robust welcome to your host and America’s favorite trio – Greater Vision!” Giving Gerald’s shoulder a squeeze, Scott left the stage and GV kicked off their set with He’d Still Been God. As a lady rushed to her front row seat, Gerald strayed away from the lyrics to tease, “You’re late!” LOL That song received the loudest and greatest applause of the night. I Could Never Praise Him Enough and the Redeemed Medley followed. About half way through that second one, Gerald encouraged us to, “Go ahead and sing.” (The audience did sing along too! You could hear them!) With a nod at Stan, (who was playing with them), Gerald explained, “I’ve got some requests I’m gonna’ try and do tonight,” and tapping his temples he added, “while I still remember.” *smile* I Know He Heard My Earnest Prayer came next and Gerald informed, “Boy that’s a great song – in case you’re wondering, that’s page 16 in the Church of God red back hymnal.” He went on to announce that GV will be releasing a new CD in April called, For All He’s Done, and though the “Nashville rules” say you shouldn’t sing a song from a project before it’s available…well, we were far from Nashville! So they did a few new ones for us. Gerald described the first number as one that “gets on the mule.” According to him, you could ride that thing! It’s a barn burner, and it’s called I’m Looking for the Grace. Naturally, as the intro began, Rodney acted like he was riding a “mule!” LOL But that song had a wonderful message and the crowd loved it. Loved it so much that everyone clapped to the beat and Gerald encored it. From the encore on, everyone stood, clapped and let GV know how much the new one pleased them. That made one happy trio! By way of introduction for the next song, Gerald pointed out a lady who was sitting on the front row was in California the night they sang I Know A Man Who Can for the first time. After Chris sang it for us, Gerald slapped Stan on the arm and said, “I love playing that song, but there’s something with Stan on the piano…let’s do that chorus one more time!” Encore! Sighing, Gerald informed the crowd that, “Rodney just told me what time it was…well, we’re last, you don’t mind if we do a few more, do you?” Oh, the crowd liked that idea! GV spoiled us with another new one, a ballad penned by Rodney called This Is Mercy. A beautiful ballad! “That’s just a beautiful picture of how much Jesus loves us,” Gerald mused, “that’s gonna be one of my favorites.” Then he shared what we could expect from tomorrow morning, and introduced their last song – one that Chris wrote 13 years ago. “This is going to light your fire,” said Gerald. Then they sang the song that names their new Cd, For All He’s Done. The ballad featured Chris on both verses and a standing ovation sealed the evening as a success!
Conclusion: First off, I want to say that all the groups were wonderful! Legacy Five set a perfect tone for the evening that Greater Vision completed with their set. Ken Davis kept us laughing from the moment he walked on stage and Jeff and Sheri brought a clean Country style to the program. Personally, I was tickled by the audience themselves – they preferred to hoot and holler rather than clap along to the beat! They also didn’t mind letting everyone know who they loved and who they, well, loved less. For example, when Greater Vision came on stage that crowd came alive! However, when Jeff and Sheri were singing, I was amused to notice the audience was disengaged and reading literature. LOL (They liked their male trios and quartets.) The theater itself was beautiful. After hearing the event moved from the Mansion to the Oak Ridge Boys Theater, I was a little apprehensive about the seating and the theater itself. Though we didn’t get the seats we originally paid for, the theater won me over…all except for the lighting. Instead of a curtain or screen, the theater had a LED back wall behind the singers that changed various colors. It wasn’t so bad at first, but after a half-hour to an hour into the session, my eyes were going crazy! The LED lights were very hard to stare at for three hours at a time. By the time Greater Vision came on, I didn’t even want to look at the stage! (Can anyone say, HEADACHE?) Nevertheless, hearing the music was wonderful! We had a great first session at Praisefest Branson.