Stormy weather mercilessly stayed far, far away from one popular music festival early Saturday evening near downtown Fort Smith.

Despite meteorologists predicting that storms would most likely track through the area, the 28th annual Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival carried on through its second and final evening Saturday at Harry E. Kelley Park. The sun was shining, skies were decorated only with a few dark-gray clouds and the live music kept radiating from the festival's large, clear-sounding speaker system.

Fort Smith guitarist-singer Gary Hutchison originally was scheduled to open Saturday's event alongside guitarist Kirby Kelley; Kelley was unable to appear due to scheduling conflicts, according to festival officials. However, Kirby's absence didn't dilute Hutchison's efforts, which included fellow local musicians Tim Martin (bass) and Stephen Boudreaux (drums, vocals).

Pulling upon their years of experience of playing together in Oreo Blue and other local groups, the trio fired off blistering lead guitar parts and drum shuffles, as well as brave bass lines. Regional singer Wanda Watson, who was a performer for the festival Friday night, sat in with Hutchison's group for a take of the bluesy staple, "I'd Rather Go Blind."

Recorded by Etta James, Rod Stewart and many others, the song's inclusion in Hutchison's set made numerous attendees take notice.

"All right; that is what it's about," said Matt Carter, a Fayetteville resident who frequently carpools with friends to attend the festival. "I love Etta James' version of 'I'd Rather Go Blind,' and Rod Stewart did a perfect version years ago, too. That song just never gets old."

Also stepping up to the musical plate with skill and confidence was The Eric Mathews Band, a Fort Smith-based quartet that also is more than comfortable playing and singing blues and blues-style rock music. In front was the imaginative guitar interplay of Mathews and Nick Shirl, while the air-tight foundation from drummer Ben Hines and bassist Mike Westbrook negated any possible need for a fifth band member. 

"These guys are good, too," said Fort Smith resident Maria Montgomery said of Mathews' group. "It's impressive that all of these musicians and singers are so talented. We're having so much fun here."   

Even former festival board members seemingly can't keep away from the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival, which also included sets by BRains Band and Victor Wainwright and the Train. Rodney Shepard looked completely stress-free while in his chair, which was strategically placed in the shady side of the park.

"I’m not on the board anymore but I am still supportive," he said. "Many of the folks involved today are close friends from the many years of me working the festival. It's a great event."

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