Nothing but blue skies for Western Carolina’s second annual musical festival

CULLOWHEE – “Nothing but blue skies” was more than just a line in a song performed by Western Carolina University’s Catamount Chamber Singers at the second annual CulloWHEE! ArtsFest. After heavy rains for several days leading up to the festival, it also was an apt description of a picture-perfect weekend of great music in the Great Smokies.

More than 5,500 people took advantage of the well-timed break in the weather to enjoy live performances by an eclectic mix of blues, folk, “newgrass,” pop and rock ‘n’ roll musicians.

“You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful weekend,” said Bill Clarke, chairman of the festival committee. “When we began setting up the stage on Wednesday, it was an absolute downpour. But the rain clouds rolled away, the field dried off nicely, and thousands of people had a great time.”

Attendance at this year’s festival was nearly double that of last year’s jazz-themed inaugural event, which featured The Manhattan Transfer, David Sanborn, Joe Sample and Bio Ritmo.

“We promised to have something for nearly all tastes at the 2003 CulloWHEE! ArtsFest, and I think we certainly lived up to our objective to broaden the musical horizons,” Clarke said. “It was an interesting cross-section of people this year. I think we had somewhat of an older crowd on hand for Friday night’s performances, and a younger crowd for Saturday.”

Western’s Catamount Chamber Singers got things started Friday night with a set including the appropriate number “Blue Skies,” followed by a crowd-pleasing performance by Grammy Award-winning folk singer Nanci Griffith. Legendary roadhouse bluesman Delbert McClinton, a two-time Grammy-winner, ended the evening with a rousing show featuring decades-old classics and selections from his latest recording.

UNC-TV – which came to last year’s festival for its first live, full-length performance broadcast outside of the studio – was back again this year, taping McClinton’s performance for rebroadcast later this year over its 11-channel network.

Saturday afternoon’s lineup kicked off with acoustic blues by popular Asheville-based Laura Blackley Band, a blistering set of electric blues by the Deborah Coleman Band, and explosive “newgrass” courtesy of Acoustic Syndicate. The Catamount Chamber Singers returned to open up the evening portion of Saturday’s program, followed by an acoustic set by singer-songwriter Edwin McCain. Rock ‘n’ roll band Collective Soul closed the festival with a high-energy performance highlighted by the band’s eight No. 1 rock hits, along with several new songs.

The festival featured several performances on a second stage in the WRGC Arts Village throughout the weekend, including Jackson County’s own Sugar & Pooch and the Raleigh-based Taylor Roberts Music. Also appearing on the second stage was a recital of dance by faculty and students from Western’s dance program, and excerpts from a new summer theatre season featuring Western’s theatre arts faculty.

The festival is designed to give students and faculty from Western’s academic programs in the arts an opportunity to perform in front of appreciative audiences and to interact with national-caliber performers, while providing a boost to the region’s tourism economy by providing another destination for potential visitors.

Festival organizers said attendees at this year’s event were visiting the area from as far away as Colorado, New York, and Key West, Fla.