The days of driving hours away from Western North Carolina to see your favorite acts may well be over.

In the past five years, three major performance venues have debuted in the region: Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center; the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin; and now, the brand new Events Center at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Along with these venues come nationally  recognized performers ranging from comedian Jay Leno to country group Lady Antebellum to rock legends Crosby, Stills & Nash - not to mention top-notch bluegrass, the Atlanta Ballet, acrobatic shows, and Broadway quality musicals.

This week, Smoky Mountain News offers an overview of these   city-size concert venues found in the middle of the mountains.

 

Harrah’s Events Center - Cherokee

The basics: Last weekend, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino celebrated the opening of its 3,000-seat Events Center, which cost about $30 million to build. The venue includes four VIP suites, box seating and more than 1,100 balcony seats. Its stage is 60 by 40 feet and framed by large HD resolution 32-foot screens.

What to expect: The Events Center’s opening weekend included performances by Hank Williams Jr. and Lady Antebellum. “I think country music will really define Harrah’s Cherokee,” said Leanne Bridges, vice-president of marketing.

But the venue will also feature top-tier talent across all genres including rock, pop, R&B and oldies. There’ll be mixed martial arts and a Chinese acrobatic show.

Who’s coming?: Harrah’s is targeting everyone within a 300-mile radius, including major metropolitan areas like Charlotte and Atlanta. The casino expects a sizeable influx of clientele from a 75-mile radius. “Not everyone can afford to go to Atlanta for a weekend,” said Bridges. “If you’re local, you can just drive in.” Currently, the average casino client is 55 years old. The Events Center might shift that demographic down to 30 to 35 years old, according to Bridges.

The final word: “[The Events Center] is an image booster to show the scope of the facility. Harrah’s Cherokee is not just a little gambling house, it is a true destination,” said Bridges.

Info: 828.497.7777 or  www.harrahscherokee.com.

 

Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts - Franklin

The basics: The 1,500-seater Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts had its grand opening in July 2009. Including 500 balcony seats, the venue also boasts a 130 by 140 feet stage. Phil and Sharon Drake, who own the venue, have not released its building cost.

What to expect: The Center has focused mostly on bluegrass, country and gospel acts. Past performers include Randy Travis, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Blind Boys of Alabama, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. Other shows have included The Nutcracker, Lord of the Dance, the Golden Dragon Acrobats and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Who’s coming?: Other than local clientele, the Center attracts concertgoers from northeast Georgia, Greenville, S.C., Asheville, Black Mountain and Charlotte.

The final word: “We hear comments all the time, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this show in Franklin, North Carolina. I’m driving home, and I’m home by 10:30,” said Bo Bryant with the Center’s marketing company.

Info: 828.524.1598 or www.greatmountainmusic.com.

 

Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center - Cullowhee

The basics: More than 100,000 visitors have passed through the doors of FAPAC since its opening in 2005. The $30 million facility houses a 1,000-seat performance venue, classrooms and WCU’s Fine Art Museum. Unlike the other venues, FAPAC is a nonprofit. The venue will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a gala featuring red carpets, bright lights, gallery openings and a Gershwin musical on Oct. 22.

What to expect: Of the 42 shows it has put on, about half have sold out. FAPAC usually highlights theatre, music and dance. Its past performers include Jay Leno, Atlanta Ballet, The Von Trap Children and Mickey Rooney. In the near future, look out for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Second City Comedy Show, world-class Irish dancers, a high-spirited Russian Folk Festival, and Broadway musicals like Rent and Kiss Me, Kate.  

Who’s coming?: About 70 percent of the patrons are 50 or more years old, according to Paul Lormand, director of FAPAC. The bulk of them come from Jackson County, followed by Macon and Haywood counties.

The final word: “We want to, of course, touch their hearts, maybe move them in a spiritual way, but really the whole thing is, we want it to be an intellectual experience,” said Lormand.

Info: 828.227.2479 or fapac.wcu.edu

The feature film “Wesley” will be screened at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 13, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.

“Wesley” is based closely on the actual events of John Wesley’s life, a story that already reads much like a Hollywood screenplay.

Arledge Armenaki, WCU associate professor of cinematography, was the director of photography for the movie.

Sixteen Western Carolina University students got hands-on experience as crew for “Wesley” during filming on locations in and around Winston-Salem and Morganton for two months in 2007 and two weeks in 2008, including a sold-out red carpet premiere. WCU students and faculty also were cast in the movie.

Wesley is a compelling and controversial main character that women found intensely attractive; there is adventure on the high seas, a terrible storm and near-shipwreck. In the newly settled Savannah, Ga., there is an incredibly romantic but star-crossed love affair that ends tragically. Wesley is crushed, and on his return to England, we experience his spiritual struggle and finally renewal. We are then swept away with his preaching in the fields and his efforts to help the lowest classes of society. His ministry is controversial, there is mob violence, confrontation, and tension followed by his victorious preaching to thousands in his hometown.

Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the center box office at 1028 Georgia Road in Franklin, at Dalton’s Christian Bookstore in Franklin and Waynesville, and online at GreatMountainMusic.com, or call 866.273.4615.

Audience members knew from the start that this concert would be different.

Instead of beginning the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver show by bringing out the legendary bluegrass band, concertgoers were given an acting lesson of sorts.

They were instructed to give a thunderous round of applause with cheering and whistling, as if the band already had come out on stage.

After that, it was a more tepid round of applause, then a standing ovation, then a warm and fuzzy moment of looking up at the stage adoringly with a hint of a smile and head nods.

All the while, the stage sat empty in front of a church backdrop.

But the jam-packed audience at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts had no problem performing theatrics. They had not only signed up for a gospel bluegrass concert, but also a live DVD recording (audience reactions are typically recorded in advance).

As the crowd tapped their toes and sang along with Lawson and his band throughout the night, a camera swung over their heads and along the aisles.

The cameras weren’t much of a distraction, though, with all eyes glued to the impressive performance of six very talented men: Lawson (mandolin, guitar, vocals), Dale Perry (banjo, vocals), Jason Barie (fiddle), Josh Swift (Dobro, vocals), Jason Leek (bass, vocals), Corey Hensley (guitar, vocals),

Lawson, in a sparkling blue sequined jacket and bright green boots, joked endlessly with the audience and fellow bandmates.

“I apologize for the glare,” said Lawson, referring to his sparkly coat. “I hope I don’t blind you.”

Later, fiddler Jason Barie strutted on stage with a pink sequined jacket, directly challenging Lawson. After pointing to the “Hot Stuff” emblazoned across the back, Lawson kicked him off the stage, with the punch line, “Hot Stuff has left the building.”

With a plethora of jokes and stories in between, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver delivered a crowd-pleasing performance, with music ranging from lively bluegrass tunes to equally compelling a cappella harmonies.

While Lawson has weaved in and out of gospel recordings over the course of his bluegrass career, the night was solely devoted to songs with Christian themes.

And the audience approved. Concertgoers embraced the solemn and uplifting words, interjecting shouts of “Amen” into a few of the songs.

True to the movie recording process, the concert had to be interrupted a couple of times for multiple takes.

A booming voice from above instructed the band to start the song over, and Lawson quipped, “I’m just hoping he won’t hit us with a lightning bolt,” garnering one of many laughs from the audience that night.

All jokes aside, Lawson stressed that the aim of his music was to somehow, somewhere uplift listeners and bring them a little closer to God.

Lyrics from the night included this one, intended to provoke some thought, “This life has many choices, eternity has two.”

Area music fans will have a unique opportunity to help make history as a bluegrass/gospel music legend celebrates the 30th anniversary of his solo career with a live DVD recording session and concert at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver will take the stage with cameras rolling at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, in the 1,500-seat center in Franklin.

Lawson’s distinguished career spans more than 40 years and 40 albums. Along with his band Quicksilver, he’s earned numerous industry awards including seven consecutive “Vocal Group of the Year” awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. He’s also received several Grammy nominations and four Dove Award nominations over the last decade.

The National Endowment for the Arts honored Lawson in 2006 with a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship at its annual ceremony in Washington, D.C. It’s the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, putting Lawson among a select group of performers including Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson, among others.

Rounder records recently released Lawson’s latest album “Lonely Street,” which marked the 30th anniversary of his solo career, but he’s been a professional musician for nearly 50 years.

“The adventure is still unfolding and nowhere near complete, but if the story of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver were a novel, it would be hailed as a masterpiece,” according to BluegrassJournal.com. The site called Lonely Street a “razor-sharp display of bluegrass virtuosity.”

The August 2009 cover story on TheBluegrassSpecial.com Web site calls Lawson “one of the most revered artists on the contemporary bluegrass scene.”

For videos and music downloads, visit www.doylelawson.com or www.youtube.com/doylelawsonmusic.

$15 per ticket at www.greatmountainmusic.com, 828.273.4615, or at 1028 Georgia Road in Franklin.

When Phil Drake puts his mind to something, there’s little he can’t achieve. Drake’s company, Drake Enterprises, is one of the largest private employers west of Asheville, and, it seems, owns half the businesses in the region, including The Athlete’s Foot, Dalton’s Christian Bookstore, Dnet Internet Services, Drake Software, the Franklin Golf Course and the Fun Factory.

So while the idea of constructing a 1,500-seat performing arts theater in a rural region like Western North Carolina might seem over the top, leave it to Drake to pull it off. And that’s just what Drake and his wife, Sharon, have done with the Smoky Mountain Center for Performing Arts in Franklin. The soaring, state-of-the-art structure is nearing completion, and will welcome its first performance July 3.

“This is a lifelong desire to do this for his community,” Chris Malone, the lead project architect, told a group of reporters gathered at the facility for a special Media Day last week. “This is an affair of the heart.”

Even Malone seemed in awe of the structure.

“It’s beyond what I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Indeed, the performing arts center is impressive. The auditorium features an incredible 60-foot wide, two-story stage complete with an orchestra pit. The soaring room is equipped with state of the art sound, a phrase the Drakes don’t take lightly — the speakers, Meyer M’Elodie Line Arrays, cost thousands of dollars each and are among the best on the market.

“Since we’re doing a lot of music groups, sound is most important,” said Effie Rosbert, a set builder who led a tour of the facility last week. “This is clear, perfect sound.”

Behind the scenes is a huge backstage area with every comfort a band or touring group would want. One room features a dozen individual lighted vanities for performers to make up their faces. Another room is set aside to allow a band to practice before the show. Several other rooms are simply places to hang out, and one section, open to fans, is where performers will sit to sign autographs.

Nearly 30 acts are lined up through December, starting on July 3 with the Oak Ridge Boys. Other musicians to grace the stage this season are The Charlie Daniels Band, Sawyer Brown, The Isaacs, and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Plays this season will include Aida, The Jungle Book, Annie and the Velveteen Rabbit.

The Drakes seem aware that the venue is quite large for a town the size of Franklin and that filling the space consistently could be a challenge.

“This is Franklin,” said Rosbert. “We don’t know how the market’s going to bear. Some people can’t afford to come to show after show after show.”

The theater’s odds of success, however, may be pretty good with Drake’s magic touch, Malone said.

“A lot of venues like this struggle, but they approach it in a different way than Drake.”

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Musicians will soon be able add another venue to their tour list next year.

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