Review by Jason Wert
The team behind Raiding The Country Vault at the Americana Theatre in Branson have taken on one of the most difficult types of shows to produce: a show that focuses on the songs and makes them the star without turning the show into little more than cover band night at the local honky tonk.
Most times you’ll have a show where the songs are secondary to a star performer, as in the Haygoods show or the Clay Cooper show. Then you have shows where the artist who performed the song is the focus of tribute, such as the Legends show. A show where the songs are the focus is much harder to pull off because you have to bring the essence of the song without making the vocal performance so identical to the original performer that it becomes a tribute show rather than its own entity.
You also need to have a band that can bring the tones and nuances of the song to the forefront in ways that a mere cover band doesn’t even attempt to bring into the mix.
In those two key areas, the performers of Raiding The Country Vault resoundingly succeed.
The group of veteran performers obviously know how to find the nuance in each song and they do an outstanding job of flowing between the songs with the changes that make every song have its unique flavor.
The first example shines early in the show when guitar and vocalist Forrest Herzog plays “Act Naturally”, made famous by Buck Owens. Owens has a distinct tone to his guitar; the same tone was used by Herzog and it keyed the sound of the song to be the familiar tune. When the band segues into Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, the tone of his guitar completely changed to that song; it allowed the audience to comfortably go with the flow of the show.
That attention to detail carried through the entire show. It is by far the biggest strength of the show, and it’s something that elevates this show above that of most music focused shows.
When the band cuts loose into a jam session or a long musical interlude, it’s easy to see the insane level of skill they bring to the stage. These are clearly a group of musicians who have dedicated themselves to mastering their craft; they bring the little nuances of songs that bar bands just don’t see.
It’s George Geisser playing fiddle and bringing in the half-notes between the major chords that most fiddle players would leave out because they lack the technical proficiency. It’s Josh Carroll’s guitar licks that drop in the extra beats; it’s Justin Herzog’s bass licks jumping up perfectly to transition songs between verse and chorus.
You can tell playing these songs as they are intended to play MATTERS to this band; that passion draws the audience in.
Now, the vocalists do admirable jobs with almost all of the songs, and they allow the songs to shine and still show off their vocal chops.
Michael Frost is strongest of the vocalist in the group and brings the right level of power in the vocal to match the track. He shines most when the band is playing the Marshall Tucker Band classic “Can’t You See,” but he comes in pitch perfect on his other tracks. (On a side note, I was really hoping they’d go from the Marshall Tucker song into an Allman Brothers tune; it would have made the “southern rock” section so much stronger, and I would have loved to hear Frost take on “Melissa.”)
Josh Carroll, the MC of the show, and his wife Hillary both provide a nice counterbalance to the vocal prowess of Frost. Their duet on “Islands in the Stream” is pitch perfect for the inflections of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
Carroll also has the gravitas to anchor the show and guide the audience through the participation sections. He’s dominant but not in a way that makes you wish he’d just get back to singing. The breaks in the show where he interacts with the audience don’t feel forced.
There was also something I noticed that was a major plus to the show: you could see genuine enjoyment on the faces of the performers. Many times when you go to a Branson show and you watch the performers who aren’t being featured at the moment you see a dour, workman-like approach to performing. They keep their head down and do their job until it’s their time to shine.
That wasn’t so with Raiding the Country Vault; the musicians showed a real genuine love for the music. When they were in the background, you saw Josh Carroll joking with Frost and Geissler; they’d shoot goofy looks at each other or they’d throw in a little lick that wasn’t really supposed to be at that point in the song. Their laughter was genuine and as an audience member I could feel it. Their joy brought me joy watching them.
Now, the show wasn’t perfect. There were a few songs where the original artist’s vocal style is so unique, like Eddie Rabbitt, where it’s hard for a vocalist to match and it can draw the listener a little out of the experience. That’s not a knock on the vocalists in the show; that’s just an inherent problem when covering an artist who has an unusually unique aspect to their vocal delivery.
In fact, had the vocalists tried to mimic some of the vocal tics of a few of the artists who recorded the originals, it would almost cheapen the rest of the show where vocal styling differences are not an issue. So while it’s an issue, it’s a minor issue in the overall picture of the show.
There was one odd song choice to me; using “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” for Hank Williams, Jr. Most people know that song by the original artist, the Georgia Satellites; while Hank, Jr. covered the song on his “Born to Boogie” album, it was never released as a single and never made the charts. It’s not that the band didn’t nail the song, because they certainly rock the house, but it took me out of the flow of the show as I tried to remember when I heard Hank, Jr. promoting that song.
So we come to the question we ask at the end of every OI review…is this show worth your hard earned money? The answer is a resounding yes; hard core country fans will have their desires satisfied and even the casual country fan will be drawn in by the skill of the musicians and the overall joy they show from playing these songs. In fact, while I would put the show a notch below the Haygoods or Reza, I would say if you are a country music fan it’s a show that you should make a point to see when you are in Branson.
Tickets for the show are available through their website.