“Bluegrass gives young people the courage to grow old and old people the courage to act young” – Joe Craven
Well the 10th annual DelFest has come and gone. Co-produced by the McCoury family and High Sierra Music Productions, you’d be hard pressed to find a more classy, well organized, family friendly, fun festival.
From the helpful, friendly security, staff and volunteers, to the well organized check-in and other logistics, to the nicely arranged music scheduling, to the myriad family oriented activities, to the diverse, delicious food vendors and ample variety of merch vendors, to the constantly cleaned port-o-potties and working showers…this festival is truly a class act.
Throw in the world class music line-up, spectacular scenery with fog shrouded mornings, and thousands of serene, smiling, friendly, like-minded Del-festivarians, you have a winning recipe for a bodacious bundle of bluegrass bliss.
This is by far my favorite festival in the United States.
Even the frequent rain with the occasional “Del-luge” and generally muddiness didn’t dampen anyone’s festival spirit.
Obviously, I couldn’t be everywhere at once, but I’ll share with you what I did experience.
Day 1 (Thursday).
After a 9 hour drive, much of the end of it driven in a torrential downpour, I arrived in Cumberland, Maryland about 10 P.M..
I checked in and got my press credentials which included off-site parking at the nearby college. The staff was friendly and helpful. I could’ve taken the shuttle with all my gear but that was too daunting a task. So I drove to the festival in search of parking. I eventually found a spot at a private residence near the festival grounds. I paid $40 (after haggling) to park for the duration of the festival. Sweet deal.
By the time I got to the grandstand stage area about 11 P.M., I was greeted by an jaw dropping sight: a massive projection of Del on the limestone cliffs across the Potomac River. Besides Del’s visage, a separate projection included the following: “DelFest 10 2008-2017 Cumberland MD”. This magnificent piece of art work was the handiwork of Timy McDonald and the crew of Mountain Fog Productions in conjunction with The Lot Scene and Pulse Lighting.
According to McDonald, “After DelFest 9, I bounced the idea of the Del projection off of Lisa McCoury and she loved it. Around mid-February I worked on perfecting the prototype images with the folks at The Lot Scene. This lead to all of us joining forces and forming Mountain Fog Productions. Once we got the GOBO projection finished, we worked with Mikey Cummings and the folks at Pulse Lighting to bring the projection to reality.”.
I’d say that Mountain Fog Productions, The Lot Scene and Pulse Lighting put the “Pro” in “Projection” as it was quite the exclamation point on our 10th year festivities. Nice job folks! Del-yeah!
I made it up to the front of the stage for a great set of Del McCoury Band and Friends w/ Dan Auerbach, John Fishman, Ronnie Bowman and The Preservation Horns. Awesomeness ensued.
After the set, I walked the grounds trying to locate my friends who had saved me a camp site, but in the late night fog and muddy muckiness (or is it mucky muddiness?) I gave up and slept in my vehicle.
While settling in for the night, I could clearly hear the hooting, hollering and jamming emanating from the Music Hall’s late night show with Fruition and Cabinet. It sounded epic.
Day 2 (Friday).
As you can imagine, I didn’t get much sleep and I was up early. So I stumbled down to the festival grounds where I was greeted by a beautiful banner that read “Welcome to DelFest”. The banner included a group photo of Del McCoury and three generations of his immediate family. It was very touching and reminded me that above all, DelFest is a family celebration.
Since I was one of the first fans on-site, I walked around talking to and photographing the various food vendors. One thing I like about the food vendors at DelFest is the variety of ethnic choices that range from Vegan, to Indian, to Thai, to Greek, to burgers, and old school BBQ. There’s truly something to tickle even the most fickle of taste buds. And don’t forget about the pizza at “Pie For The People”. “It’s for the people, man. For the PEOPLE!” Del-icious!
After an hour or so, and a couple of cups of coffee graciously served to me by Russ and Bekah of Fair Shot Organic Coffee, I set off to locate my camping friends.
Luckily they were in the same general spot as last year. Steve, Lindsey, Stuart, Lauren and Carl are some great folks from Virginia that I bonded with at last year’s DelFest. With their help, I was able to lug all my gear on site and get settled.
At about 1:30 PM I radioed Mission Control with the following message: “Tranquility Base, The Eagle has landed! Now let’s get this Del-ebration started!” (I easily amuse myself).
My first musical conundrum occurred at 2:00 PM. Fruition was on the Potomac Stage, Sierra Hull was on the Grandstand Stage, while The Dead Winter Carpenters were in the Music Hall. Decisions, decisions. Since I was wearing my Fruition t-shirt, Portland Oregon based Fruition won out.
It’s been a pleasure to follow Fruition’s meteoric rise through the musical ranks over the past couple of years. When I got to the stage area, it was seriously crowded. I saw so many of my festival friends from around the country it felt like a family reunion. It was a joyous moment for all. Hugs, kisses, high fives, and butt slaps ensued. As did numerous “Del-fies”.
Oh yeah, Fruition’s set kicked ass.
I reluctantly pulled myself away from Fruition in mid-set and headed for the Grandstand Stage to see 2016’s IBMA Mandolin player of the year, Sierra Hull.
Sierra, accompanied by upright bass player Ethan Jodzewicz, wowed us all with her genre-transcending music, intricate mandolin playing and heartfelt vocals. Nicely played Sierra.
Since Cabinet was up next on the main stage, I opted to stay put.
The DelFest Master of Ceremonies and official DelFest Emcee, Joe Craven, gave Cabinet one of his famous poetic, masterful introductions. I wish I could remember it to share it, it was a doozy.
I first saw Pennsylvania based Cabinet at The Gathering of the Vibes a few years ago and I immediately became a fan. Since then they’ve been gaining noteriety and acclaim while touring with bigger names like Greensky Bluegrass.
As per usual, their Main Stage set was dynamic and engaging. They live and love their music and it shows.
After Cabinet, The Del McCoury Band came on dressed in various grey colored suits, all different. I’m not sure if it was intentional but the term “50 Shades of Bluegrass” came to mind. After a couple of songs I headed back to my camp site. No worries, I could hear the music just fine. What a killer version of “High on The Mountain”! In fact, it was such a great set, I later bought it on CD from the folks at Sonic Soundboard.
While I was chilling in camp, my camp-mates Steve and Lindsey Cavanah roared into camp accompanied by Cabinet’s drummer, Josh Karis. Steve and Lindsey often put up the band at their place in Virginia when they are on tour. After exchanging pleasantries and doing a couple of shots, they invited me to a campground set that Cabinet was about to play in the VIP RV area at around 8:00 PM.
I didn’t make it, however I could hear it pretty well from my camp chair. Sweet!
Next up was The Trey Anastasio Band – Two sets. Given the fact that I was rationing my energy for Sunday’s humdinger of a lineup, I continue to chill as I listened to Trey’s first set on my ass in a chair in camp.
After the first set, I mustered the energy to schlep on over to the main stage for their second set. It was an incredible set augmented with a full horn section. I was particularly blown away by Russ Lawton’s drumming and the ensemble of vocalists. The set reached it’s apex with a truly mind blowing version of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”. For the encore, Trey and his vocalists finished the show with a beautiful acapella style song.
Remembering that I had to leave enough fuel in my gas tank for Sunday’s end to end killer line up, I opted to skip the late night show (with The Steep Canyon Rangers and Donna the Buffalo) and veg out in my chair by the campfire.
Day 3 (Saturday).
It had rained overnight, but by sunrise the rain was long gone. I stepped out to one of those incredibly beautiful misty, wispy fog shrouded mornings I’ve come to expect at DelFest.
After whipping up some fried bacon and hash browns to share with my camp-mates, I headed over to main stage to check out the tail end of Donna the Buffalo. Jeb Puryear, Tara Nevins, and company were as solid as ever with their Cajun / Zydeco / Country / Folk infused blend of Americana. Nice job Donna.
Hot Rize was up next on the Grandstand Stage. Since these guys first performed on stage in 1978, Hot Rize has been wowing audiences worldwide with their old time Appalachian twang that harkens us back to the days and sounds of Bill Monroe. Their set on Saturday aptly fit that description and reminded us all of why this once Grammy Nominated ensemble had earned the IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1990. Yes, l was thoroughly entertained.
Finally at 4:00 PM, the act that I had been waiting all day for with great anticipation was up! The Jeff Austin Band. With his impish demeanor, fleet fingers, vast array of facial expressions, and nimble improvisations both vocally and on the mandolin, Jeff’s set was everything I had hoped for and more. I loved it so much, I bought his set from the Sonic Soundboard and as of this writing, I’ve probably played it a half a dozen times since leaving DelFest. It was that good.
After Jeff’s set, I headed back to camp for dinner break. Upon my return to camp, I found out that Greg Allman had passed away. As word of his passing spread like wildfire throughout the festival, I couldn’t help but feel the collective sadness and grief that cast it’s pall over us all.
It was with this sense of sadness that I headed over to the Grandstand Stage at 8:00 PM for Railroad Earth’s set. I’ve seen and enjoyed RRE many times over the years but it took their performance on the beach at Strings and Sol 2016 to get me to hop that RRE train for good and become a full fledged “Hobo”. Those memories flooded my mind as I got closer to the Grandstand Stage.
So it was with heartfelt joy that I sauntered right up to the rail in front of fiddler Tim Carbone and base player Andrew Altman, both favorites of mine. Todd Schaefer was just to my left. After a couple of songs, it got pretty crowded, so I shuffled off to the other side of the stage to hang out where John Skehan III plays Mando and Andy Gosling plays everything else under the sun. Guess what? No Andy. What? He was sorely missed. Still it was a great set. At one point Billy Strings came out and jammed – holy moly. The whole show was kicked up a notch.
Near the end of the set they paid homage to Greg Allman with a stunning version of “Hot ‘Lanta”. It was a fitting tribute.
Next up after RRE, The Travelin’ McCourys came on. By this time I was feeling “three sheets to the wind” as they say up my way.
At this point in the evening, I didn’t take many notes. I know it was a kick ass set that culminated in an amazing cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”. I imagine everyone had a tear in their eye after that one. I know I did.
My evening wound down back in camp, around the fire (that required constant stoking with a blow torch), drinking an entire large mason jar full of Apple Cinnamon moonshine with my camp-mates while listening to Parliament, Frank Zappa and reggae Christmas carols. Yup. We were THOSE folks.
Day 4 (Sunday)
On Sunday morning I rolled out of my tent, hungover (but gratefully not blind), and as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Today was the final leg of the musical marathon that is DelFest. I was downright giddy.
As we sat around drinking coffee, my camp-mate Stuart told me that last night’s late night set featuring Leftover Salmon and Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers was epic. And that Salmon had covered The Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post”. By now the word “epic” was becoming a tired cliche, but it was true, everything thus far was truly EPIC. And as far as I was concerned, the best was still yet to come.
It wouldn’t be Sunday morning at DelFest without some Gospel music. Suddenly the sun came out and the voice of an Angel wafted in on the winds. It was 10:30 AM and the coal train had just rolled through the fairgrounds, whistle shrieking. Soon the uplifting sounds of Dré Anders and Dré’s Gospel Collective filled the valley with some spiritually heartwarming, Sunday morning feel goodness. It was a great set. Del-lelujah!
Towards the end of Dré’s set, I headed over to the Music Hall to see Joe Craven & The Sometimers. As I entered the hall, I was greeted by the colorful appearance and warm and cheery music of The Sometimers.
Their Allman Brothers tribute was playing Dreams –> Elizabeth Reed –> Dreams. It was fantastic. After that they played one of the most quirky yet enjoyable versions of “Working on a Building” I’ve ever heard. Joe was playing a single snare drum and vocalizing the sound of cymbals “scat style”.
Next I was off to Billy Strings on the Grandstand Stage. For over a year the bluegrass Zeitgeist has been abuzz with talk of Billy Strings. I finally got to see what all the hype was about. An amazing, fleet-fingered flat picker with the boundless energy of youth, and an iconic bluegrass voice, the hype was justified. Yup, he’s great.
When 5 time Grammy award winner and country western tour-de-force, Marty Stuart came on stage next for his set, he opened with a rowdy rendition of “I Know You Rider” and followed it up with an equally energetic version of “El Paso”. Sadly I bowed out early for lunch.
After a lunch break, where I donned my “Infamous Stringdusters” shirt, I headed back to the main stage. I got there just as the Dusters started. I’ve seen these guys play all over the country and partied with them down in Mexico.
They were truly fired up for their set. They opened with a smoking version of “Scarlett Begonias”.
The Dusters seem to always surprise you with a cover song of some artist you’d least expect them to cover. Today was no exception when they covered Sly and The Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher”. What was even more surprising was that most of the people in the crowd knew the words, including me!
Also noteworthy was their version of “This Ol’ Building”. And they ended the set with their nod to Greg Allman, “Jessica”.
The Del McCoury Band made it’s third and final appearance. Del-yeah!
I always chuckle at Del’s playful banter with the crowd. Someone screamed out something completely unintelligible at the top of his lungs. Del quipped back in his folksy way “I don’t know what you said, but I’m sure glad you said it.”
Also inevitable in a Del set, is when he asks for requests. The crowd always responds back with every Del song under the sun. Someone kept yelling out “Rawhide!” over and over. Del got a chuckle out of that.
I was on the rail, stage left. Next to me was a father and his son, who looked about 10 years old. The father was coaching his son to “yell out your request when there is a break in the other shouting”. The boy timed it perfectly, yelling out “Cold Rain and Snow!!!”. Del looked our way and said “I think I’ll play “Cold Rain and Snow” as he smiled to the boy, who was absolutely giddy and grinning from ear to ear.
That was one of those great DelFest moments. And so was “Cold Rain and Snow.”
After that Del-ightful grand finale by Del, Leftover Salmon was up. This set was going to be special for two reasons:
1. Salmon was going to cover Neil Young’s Harvest Album in it’s entirety.
2. It was Vince Herman’s birthday and his wife had cooked up a surprise birthday parade / gift for him that many of his fans, including me were invited to participate in.
In anticipation of the parade, participants were supposed to muster in a certain spot. I thought it was the Potomac Stage. Of course I got the location wrong as no one was mustered there. Oh well, time to make lemonade.
So I headed back to the Grandstand stage. I decided to grab a seat in the vintage Grandstand that overlooked the race track and had a great, albeit distant view of the stage.
I settled in for a great show and was not disappointed. I especially enjoyed their renditions of “Old Man” and “The Needle and the Damage Done”.
Sometime during the set the birthday parade marched up and several fans, including my friends Randi and Parker, presented Vince with a cake and a bunch of fresh ears of corn. Why corn you ask? I don’t know. You tell me.
The set reached it’s climactic conclusion when Warren Haynes, of Gov’t Mule fame, joined Salmon onstage for an absolutely killer version of “Down by the River”.
After the Salmon set, Gov’t Mule was up. And as expected it was truly an emotional moment when Warren Haynes came out for his first song. He addressed the crowd by saying “As you can imagine I’ve had a rough couple of days.”. We all knew what he meant.
He then launched into a great set which was highlighted by a beautiful version of “Soulshine” that had the entire crowd singing along in unison.
He finished up the set by wishing us all “peace”. It was truly poignant.
So that was it for the mainstage. There were many going away hugs of happiness and sadness and every emotion in between.
After Mule, I regrouped and headed over to the Music Hall for the final late night set: Billy Strings / Grateful Ball (Jeff Austin Band and The Travelin’ McCourys).
Since I had press credentials, I was able to sit on the side in the backstage area. I was very thankful for this since the main hall was packed, there were no seats out front and I was totally pooped.
So I plopped myself down in a chair next to my friend Steve Rich from Rockport MA and took in an amazing set by Billy Strings. As his set came to a close at about 1:45 AM, I was struggling to stay awake and considered heading back to camp to crash. This only got worse until the Grateful Ball took the stage at about 2:00 AM.
However I started to regain some energy as they launched into their set with New Speedway Boogie. Nice. I felt my toes tapping and started singing along as they churned out one Dead standard after another. About halfway through the set, both Billy Strings and Drew Emmitt of Salmon joined the fray. When the ensemble broke out into a killer version of “I Know You Rider”, I leapt to my feet and started to boogie. Just about everyone else did too. And we didn’t stop until the final note was played.
(For you set list freaks, the set list is included at the end of this piece).
And just like that, DelFest was over. After a few hours sleep, I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous Del-morial Day Monday morning. This last few hours was filled with hugs, heartfelt good-byes and final group photos as everyone broke camp to go our separate ways.
What a great time. It was great to see so many friends and make so many more new friends. DelFest is truly one big extended family.
I’d like to thank the following photographers for contributing their work to this piece:
Brady Cooling, and
Without their great work, I couldn’t have told this story.
Thanks for reading it.
And as always, I hope to “catch you on the rail”. Namaste and Del-Yeah!