A Review of DelFest
May 21-24, 2015
Written by Sam Burch
The sharp mountains pierce the skyline and fog spills out from behind the rocks. The ridgeline is split and between the two biggest peaks is a bright full moon. This massive marble casts a silver glow across the crowd of bobbing heads and fidgeting feet. It stares through the trees, casting stretched shadows on the stage. It lights up the campground and makes silhouettes of the mountains that surround the site.
This site is home to Delfest – a small bluegrass festival hosted by award-winning musician Del McCoury. The festival, in its eighth year of existence, is held on Memorial Day Weekend at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland.
There’s something about this place that makes it feel like home. It may be the beautiful scenery, the thick trees that stretch to the sky and the Potomac River that acts as the mountain’s moat. It may be the headlining performers, casually strolling through the campground to stand among fans in the audience. It may be the tireless toddlers who dart down the paths and splash in the muddy walkways. It may even be the Mason Jars full of homemade moonshine. Whatever it is, somehow, someway, despite swelling ticket sales and a growing patron population, Delfest remains devoted to a backyard, bluegrass, family feeling.
This is due in great part to Del McCoury, who plays in a band with his sons Ronnie and Robbie and uses every opportunity to pull his grandchildren on stage and introduce them to the crowd. This year, attendees were treated to tunes with Ronnie’s sons Evan – a promising teenage guitar-picker – and Vassar – a two-year-old who plays literally, “a little cello.”
The McCourys even make their guests feel like family. The brothers and their father stop at any time for a photo or an autograph. Del drives a golf cart down the dirt roads every day just to wave hello and speak with campers. In return, patrons treat the festival site like home. The campground is clean, trash is put in piles and a polite announcement reminds people to pick up their scraps after the show.
My three consecutive years at Delfest have been my favorite of the dozen festivals that I’ve attended. The countryside, intimate setting and family atmosphere give everyone a feeling of familiarity. The results are mutual respect and rocking shows. This year’s Delfest may have been my personal peak experience; thus, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten musical moments that I feel make this fest, the best.
10. Railroad Earth: Friday from 8:05pm-9:45pm
Coming in at number 10 is the band that borrowed its name from the Jack Kerouac short story “October in Railroad Earth.” This acoustic ensemble blends bluegrass, folk, country and rock to create a smooth, soulful sound. Their set was the perfect soundtrack to ease the crowd from the fading twilight hours to the late night lunacy. They opened with an appropriately titled “Happy Song” and hit their stride in the middle of the set with fan-favorite “Mighty River.” As the show crept to a close, people in the audience began passing out tiny rubber hands that could be worn on fingertips. Slowly the toys circulated the crowd, with one even making its way to the stage. Violinist Tim Carbone picked up the hand and stuck it to the end of his bow. The crowd roared and the band played along, ending the show with “Give That Boy a Hand.”
9. Leftover Salmon: Sunday 6:00pm-7:30pm
No band was happier to be at Delfest than Leftover Salmon, and it showed. Despite 25 years of touring these guys have somehow preserved the pleasure of pluckin’ strings. The band communicates throughout the show, laughing with each other and the crowd, and lead guitarist/vocalist Vince Herman plays the entire set with a smile stretched wide. Former Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne was the newest addition to the crew. He shredded the keys with quick fingers and the same ragtime, jazzy sound that made his old band such an acclaimed act. Although they played until the sun started to rise just the night before, this group came out and delivered an evening set that shook the campgrounds and set the tone for the final night of Delfest.
8. Greensky Bluegrass: Thursday 10:25pm-11:55pm
The first headliner of the festival, Greensky Bluegrass, stormed the stage on Thursday night and got the crowd stomping its feet. The band opened with what would become a theme of the weekend (Grateful Dead covers), playing a twangy version of “Eyes of the World.” A band comprised solely of string instruments, with bluegrass in its name, was able to drift into long, melodic jams that let you close your eyes and sway to the song. The middle of the set slowed down as the band caught its breath with tracks like “Middle Mountain Town” and “Windshield.” These tunes let the group show off its singing skills with stirring lyrics and harmonious vocals. Greensky capped off its show with “Don’t under Do It” followed by a nearly 15-minute version of “Don’t Lie,” screaming the titles of the songs like public service announcements, their final message to the masses.
7. The Larry Keel Experience: Friday 12:45pm-2:00pm
This may have been a show that some missed, due in part to the early time slot; however, this group is able to produce as much sound with only three people as an entire orchestra. Larry Keel’s raspy voice reverberates and is reminiscent of Joe Cocker’s croak. He flat-picks a guitar faster than almost anyone, shifting between acoustic and slide throughout the show. He plays alongside his wife, Jenny Keel, who is a brilliant upright bassist that can pluck deep lines and harmonize in perfect sync with her husband. Joining the couple is Will Lee, who picked up his first five-string banjo at 12 and has played with Keel for nearly 30 years. Fingers moved fast as the band picked its strings to the tune “Fire Line” before breaking into the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women.” Keel’s version was bluesy and soulful and hoarse like something heard in a saloon played with empty jugs and a washboard. As the set came to a close the band stood at the edge of the stage and took a bow to booming chants of “Keel!”
6. The Del McCoury Band: Sunday 8:15pm-9:45pm
At 76 years old, Del McCoury, the namesake of the festival, is a bluegrass innovator and guitar-playing icon. His tall, white pompadour, his high-pitch, powerful voice and his slim-fit suit are the symbolic signs of Delfest. He gets called on stage to play with almost every band that comes to the festival, but he blends best with his own Grammy-awarded group. Del stands on stage alongside his sons Ronnie and Robbie – who play mandolin and banjo respectively – bassist Alan Bartram, and Jason Carter – two-time recipient of the Fiddle Player of the Year award. Watching the Del McCoury Band is like stepping back in time to the days of Bill Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry, where musicians huddled on stage and gathered around a single microphone. The movements of Del’s band are carefully choreographed, with each member sliding synchronized back and forth to solo on their instrument or sing the lyrics. This year, the boys broke it down with some high-speed bluegrass songs that showcased each band member’s skillset. They started their set with “Loneliness and Desperation,” a tune that opened with ripping, rapid banjo pickin’ by Robbie before Del chimed in with his eyes shut tight and the most unique voice in music. As usual, Del asked the crowd if there were any requests, to which a sea of screams flooded the stage and sent the band into a fan-favorite track called “This Kind of Life.” In honor of the recent unrest in Baltimore – about a two-hour drive from the site of the festival – the band played “Streets of Baltimore” and dedicated it to the victims of the riots. The show went a little over the allotted time slot, but when it’s your festival, no one tells you to get off the stage. A “Smoking Gun” encore sent the crowd into chaos as fans bounced to the bluegrass, skipped to the sweet sounds and howled at the moon that was beginning to peek from behind the mountains.
5. Jeff Austin Band: Saturday 6:10pm-7:40pm
After over 15 years with Yonder Mountain String Band, the leader and manic mandolin virtuoso Jeff Austin decided to part ways with the group and start down his own solo path. This devastated fans of YMSB, who feared a separation meant an end to the music they loved so much; however, change is essential to growth, and a new chapter for Jeff Austin meant new ideas, new sounds and a new pursuit of what he felt wasn’t possible with his former band. Austin is an improvisational mastermind and an instinctual magician when it comes to music. He is now and will probably be the only mandolin player ever to randomly break into freeform scat singing during a performance. Austin’s show with his solo band was no different, as it blended the line between bluegrass and jam music. Tight, upbeat tunes slowly switched genres into 20-minute melodic grooves. Austin has long been known for his energy on stage – with eyes wide he rocks to the rhythm and shakes his vocal chords, shouting the lyrics with enough steam to reach the furthest fan. His arrangement is now different: new faces playing alongside him, new songs to share with the crowd. Still, he hasn’t forgotten his past, dropping a few old YMSB tunes like “Shake Me Up” and “Ragdoll” as subtle souvenirs of what once was. ‘Stone Cold’ Jeff Austin knows that to get where he wants to go, he must remember where he’s been.
4. Leftover Salmon: Saturday Late Night Set 1:30am-4:00am
This show, which lasted nearly 3 hours, is what Del McCoury must have had in mind when he included a late night option at Delfest. Somehow, after a long day of dancing under the sweltering sun, fans still had the drive to come to the Music Hall for some delicious Leftover Salmon. These supporters were rewarded supremely. The band opened with a very fitting “All Night Ride” and only played one more song before bringing the Travelin’ McCourys onto a crowded stage. From there the night was a seamless collaboration between two gifted groups. The boys dove headfirst into a cover of Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home” as a shout out to the site being but 20 minutes from the West Virginia border. Ronnie McCoury and Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt dueled on their mandolins and traded off turns strummin’ their strings into the microphones. The covers continued with “Cajun Girl” and “Oh Atlanta” – two odes to Bill Payne’s Little Feat days – and “Meet Me in the Morning” by Bob Dylan. Then something unfamiliar happened, an occurrence unknown in bluegrass music: a drum solo courtesy of Alwyn Robinson.
The entertainment was nonstop; the crowd clapped to the beat and colorful lights beamed around the room, casting shadows of the musicians against the backdrop. Robbie McCoury’s wife even joined in on the hillbilly hootenanny, dancing on stage and doing a jig to an instrumental banjo tune. Leftover Salmon left the stage as legs became weary and the night hours waned, but chants from the crowd brought them back out and they capped off a superb set with their third and final Little Feat cover, the ever enjoyable “Fat Man in a Bathtub.” Bill Payne sang the song in tribute to his former front man, the late, great Lowell George. The band walked off the stage to passionate applause, but the music didn’t stop there. After the show, they brought their instruments to the campground and kept jammin’ until the sun had lit the sky.
3. Travelin’ McCoury’s: Sunday Late Night Set 1:30am-3:30am
There was no better way to end Delfest 2015 than with a set by the Travelin’ McCourys – a branch of the Del McCoury band with all members minus Del. This core-four puts on a performance and plays with the best of ‘em. Ronnie, who leads the way, inherited the distinct twang in his father’s voice. He picked up a violin at only 9 years old before settling on the mandolin at 13. He’s been a part of the Del McCoury band since 1981, just 6 months after he first played the mandolin. His younger brother Robbie started strummin’ a banjo at only 8 years old. Under the tutelage of a teacher that lived in his own house – Del — Robbie blossomed into a banjo player who can pick faster than most people can tap on a table. Accompanying the brothers is bassist Alan Bartram who began playing for Del’s band in 2005 before joining the Travelin’ McCourys. Finally is fiddle player Jason Carter, who is perhaps the most talented musician in the band. Carter did not play a fiddle until he heard one of Del’s songs at 16. After chasing Del down, he tried out in front of him in 1992 and got a gig. These four artists have colossal chemistry and can play together without as much as a missed chord.
Their late night set was a downright wild spectacle and could arguably be the number one musical moment of Delfest. The set started with Robbie McCoury standing in a black kilt as smoke swirled around him in the dim lighting of the music hall. Slowly, the other three members joined him and they jumped into a frantic instrumental song written by Del called, “Quicksburg Rendezvous.” The mandolin skipped from note to note and each member plucked at a faster pace when it came their turn to play. The songs were short but swift and speedy. The band took a break to thank the audience for its energy and enthusiasm before dropping into some fan-favorites. They then busted out a cover that went over very well in Cumberland, Maryland: the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues.” Their version would have made Jerry and the boys proud and the audience was thrilled to hear it. At this point, the band invited out Roosevelt Collier – a performer at the festival who played earlier in the day. Collier has collaborated with greats like the Allman Brothers, Umphrey’s McGee and of course Del. He plays a sit-down pedal steel guitar and makes it sing like a screeching bird. Together they played a cover of the Ricky Skaggs’ track “One Way Rider” before blasting into the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.” This slow, solemn version of the song had the crowd swaying in synchronicity. The band capped off their set with Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” before playing a song that belongs to gospel band, the Lee Boys. This tune began with Collier imitating train noises on his steel guitar – an allusion to the train that runs along the campsite and blares its horn every hour it passes the festival. The instrumental breakdown lasted over 15 minutes before sending the masses into the midnight hour with tired legs, sore throats and gigantic grins.
2. Old Crow Medicine Show: Friday 10:15pm-11:55pm
Old Crow Medicine Show is not merely music. They are not just a band. They are performers. They put on a skit, or as their name suggests, a show. The roadies dash across the stage and exchange instruments. The band members swap instruments and switch positions like a warped version of musical chairs. The musicians keep constant rhythm as mandolinist Cory Younts kicks and skips across the stage in his knee-high cowboy boots. No group has more energy than this group, especially front man Ketch Secor who sings and plays harmonica with headgear like his mentor Bob Dylan. Secor also plays guitar and banjo but his main instrument is the fiddle, which he plays at such a great speed that he uses specialty made strings that won’t snap from friction. The performance put on by this group was frantic and high-paced with no breaks until they left the stage. Moonshine jugs and Mason Jars were wrapped in lights and dangled from wires along the backdrop. The show started with a mellow but provocative tune called “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” before they jumped into the fast-flowing “Alabama High-Test.” OCMS surged ahead with original tracks and covers like “C.C. Rider,” a blues ballad written and recorded in the 1920’s by Ma Rainey. As the set ended, a familiar tone echoed from the stage as the crowd cheered, “Wagon Wheel” – the band’s most famous song, written in part but never performed by Bob Dylan. The lyrics were then turned over to Secor who finished writing the tune and recorded it with the band. The melody rang into the night sky and sounds exploded until the moment the last string was struck. The audience offered an extreme ovation as the boys stood at the edge of the stage and collectively bowed.
1. Del & Dawg: Saturday 4:10pm-5:40pm
The pairing of Del McCoury and David Grisman simply cannot be bested. The friendship between these two extends over 50 years to when they first met in 1963. The reputation of the McCourys is well established at Delfest, but Grisman is a legend in his own right. His influence on bluegrass, new grass, folk and all types of music is intangible. Standing no more than four-feet from the man who made such magical melodies with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead was the experience of a lifetime. As Saturday afternoon arrived, Del and David took the stage, arms over each other’s shoulders, greeting the thousands that had gathered for just a glimpse of these two together. The old pals intertwined their tunes with tales of time past. They opened with “Rabbit in a Log” by Bill Monroe; both explaining the major influence that Monroe, “the father of bluegrass” had on their music. The show felt like an animate history lesson, with songs stretching as far back as the turn of the twentieth century. Grisman strummed his mandolin with his trademark swift but steady technique. Del hit the high notes, Grisman the low and together they hummed in harmony. They played spells of instrumental jams, weaving the sound of their strings together and alternating solos and singing. They performed covers of hit songs like “Dark Hollow” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” – a song first written in 1913, made popular by Bob Dylan and used in the soundtrack for the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
In the end, Del & Dawg was beyond entertaining. The two captivated the crowd with their chemistry and laughed all along the way. They even mocked “the local hillbillies” as Del put it, with the song “I’m my own Grandpa.” Each moment of this show was mesmerizing: the songs, the camaraderie, and the connection – it was like no other musical experience. Del & Dawg represent the root of this festival: friendship and family. The festival fosters an intimate vibe that blends the boundaries between band and fan. Everyone gets on stage to play together. Everyone wanders the concession stands and the campground and wades in the bitter river water. The bond that exists between the musicians and the masses at this festival transcends tone. Delfest is not simply a pay for performance event – it is a family reunion.
Photos by Dan Gutberlet and Sam Burch
Special thanks to Bridget Pleines and Judy McDonough
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