DelFest Van
Bluegrass and High Tides Forever: DelFest 2014 Review
19 Jun 2014

The Author

Profile photo of Aidan King
Writer, wine & beer drinker, strawberry-eater, and proud citizen of the Vermont Republic. I started writing for Sparkleberry Lane in 2014, and almost always enjoy long walks on the beach.

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DelFest: May 22-25, 2014 (Cumberland, MD)
Author: Aidan King
Photos: Hanna Lane

DelFest VanDelFest was my first true festival experience since the days of old, when I would dart around the Winterhawk bluegrass grounds (currently known as Grey Fox) year after year, with sun-bleached blonde hair flowing in the breeze. In those days, I tumbled down hills, hopped over colorful blankets, and befriended the resident pizza-vendor, who gave me free gobs of pizza dough as often as I wanted. If it was naptime, and (the late) Doc Watson’s set was about to start, my parents would simply entrust me under the protection of a nearby, recently-discovered friend, and go enjoy the show.  There was never any danger. Those tents and fields and vendors and strangers were my family. A smorgasbord of the craziest and coolest aunts, uncles, and cousins you’ve ever known. It was as though everyone in attendance had signed some kind of pact: love each other, care for one another, and be happy. Always.

Alas, the days of socially-acceptable-diaper-wearing are long gone, and I’m now a little more cautious about salmonella poisoning, but the love of good music, good people, and good vibes have remained steadfast. Thanks for the brainwashing, Mom + Dad. Fast forward to DelFest 2014. I was sitting in the sun-soaked field one afternoon. My body was sore from the days and nights full of dancing and libation-imbibing, and my mind was fuzzy (which is to be expected when you combine 85 degree heat with those heady Lagunitas IPAs they were selling). All I wanted to do was lay back, drape a wet cloth over my eyes, and rest. Soulful, twangy tunes were wafting over the crowd, and in the midst of it all, with eyes firmly shut, I allowed myself a few moments of introspection.

DelFest Fairy

“ABAHBAHBAHBAHBAH!”

No more than a minute later, a large weight of some kind landed on my chest. I craned my head forward in search of the one responsible for disturbing my much-needed beauty sleep, and my eyes are greeted by a curly-haired blonde girl – couldn’t have been older than three years old. Her pink, flower-spotted dress was covered in grass, and she shoved her glimmering cerulean eyes within six inches of my face, tongue hanging out. ABABABABABAHBAH, she exclaimed, before rolling onto the grass and giggling. I was bewildered at this miniature, fairy-like girl, and I watched on in awe as she roamed from blanket to blanket, climbing on random fest-goers as though they were jungle gyms. The whole time, she’s giggling with her tongue dangling out – BABABA! And every time, the unsuspecting group would simply turn their heads, smile, laugh, and watch that blue-eyed fairy tumble away.

That’s when it hit me. I had come a long ways since my time at MerleFest and Winterhawk in the mid-nineties, but back then, I was just like that little girl. Aimlessly wandering from stranger to stranger without a care in the world. Like her, I was always safe, always in good company, and always surrounded by a community of compassionate, good-spirited music lovers. So, if I had to narrow it down and select one overarching theme of the weekend, I would pick Family. Not solely in regards to the biological, societal, squabbling-during-Thanksgiving type of family. Rather, the unification of humanity as a family. The unification of thirty thousand strangers sailing under the same tye-dye flag. DelFest – like Winterhawk and MerleFest, and so many festivals before it – exemplified everything that I would wish for in an ideal world. Neighbors helping neighbors. Strangers helping strangers. Friends helping friends. Oh, and loads of damn-good music, too.

DelFest crowdAfter checking in on Friday afternoon, we roamed around the fairgrounds, paying visits to each of the stages and getting accustomed to the DelFest setup. The Barefoot Movement was busy on the Potomac Stage, laying down a fantastic medley of bluegrass and Americana rock. Plenty of people were dancing and moving, but we were still shaking the cobwebs off from our 16 hour, overnight drive from Vermont, and our feet needed a couple hours to rejuvenate. At 5:45 that night, the music-gods assured us that our decision to rest up was worth every minute, as we found ourselves locked into a six-hour experience with The Yonder Mountain String Band, The Del McCoury Band, and Railroad Earth – back to back to back.

Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage first, and were accompanied by the world’s best dobro player, Jerry Douglas.  I had listened to a few of their live sets via my father’s voluminous CD collection (and plenty of Jerry Douglas, too), but this was my first time seeing them live. In fact, it was my first time seeing any of these bands live, at least since my childhood. So I was entering this weekend of music with virgin eyes and virgin ears. To be brief, they blew me away. From the minute their fingers first touched the strings, my feet had rid themselves of that bothersome travel-fatigue, and as I looked around the field, I saw that everyone else felt the same way. They ended the brilliant set by bringing out Rob and Ronnie McCoury (banjo and mandolin respectively) to play an incredibly combination of: Kentucky Mandolin > Girlfriend is Better > Southern Flavor. Somewhere, a Tolkien-parody bumper sticker glimmered in the sunlight: Not all those who Yonder are lost. We might have been in the middle of the woods, but we were far from lost, and exactly where we needed to be.

Del McCoury Band at DelFest

The Del McCoury Band

The Del McCoury Band came out next, braving the 80 degree weather in matching suits and ties. Del McCoury, who founded DelFest and the DelFest Foundation back in 2008, gave us a heartwarming and sincere welcome before letting the music begin. I can’t even keep track of the songs they played. My notebook has a few scribbled notes here and there, but every evening, like clockwork, they took the stage at 8:00 pm and rocked our worlds for an hour and a half straight. Two days later, I was fortunate enough to bump into Delano himself. A crowd had gathered around his golf-cart, parked in the middle of a dirt road that connected the parking lots to the venue. Fans were craning their necks, shouting “THANK YOU” and “YOU’RE THE BEST, DEL!” Most people would’ve felt overwhelmed by the mob; it was 90 degrees that day, after all, and I’m sure he was en-route to a well-deserved lunch break. But instead of zipping off down the road, Del insisted on taking a photograph with each and every fan that walked by, myself included. It was a surreal moment: a 75-year-old musician (who has been playing longer than even my parents have been alive) willingly roasting in the sun and heat to take pictures with his fans. It serves as a testament to the type of man he is, and we’re all incredibly fortunate to have someone like him influencing the musical landscape in such a positive way.

Railroad Earth at DelFest

Railroad Earth, performing on Friday

To end the night, Railroad Earth took the stage and, in my opinion, treated us to one of the best performances of the weekend. It was eclectic, groovy, funky, and country, all rolled into one, and the crowd was both riled-up and mellowed-out after an afternoon of dancing, sun-bathing, and drinking. Some songs got us dancing and moving all about. Others were sedative in nature; the crowd simply swayed back and forth, eyes glazed over with big grins spread across each and every face. For an encore, they asked the crowed to join them in singing “Peace on Earth,” and when the lights finally dimmed, we all traipsed back to our tents without any doubts or worries in mind. Somehow, their musical medicine cured us of all negativity, and our expectant eyes had Saturday firmly in the crosshairs.

Over the course of the weekend, DelFest provided it’s attendees with dozens of diverse activities to choose from. There were arts-and-crafts sessions, puppet shows, yoga lessons, and fire dancing. Vendors served all the hungry music-lovers with plates of barbecue, bowls of quinoa, and rolls of sushi, not to mention Mediterranean platters, ice cream cones, and some much-needed espresso for those early mornings. But despite all these mouth-watering, soul-enhancing attractions, I was there, primarily, for the music.

The following afternoon treated fest-goers to much of the same, and in this case, “the same” was universally appreciated. The Carolina Chocolate Drops continued their meteoric ascent to folk-blues-stardom atop the Grandstand Stage that day. We were treated to Rhiannon Gidden’s smooth, soulful lyrics, and the masterful banjo-playing from her bandmates. It was an electric concoction of country, blues, and bluegrass; every song filled to the brim with spirit. And despite the blazing sun that pounded down upon those of us in the crowd, we still found a way to dance and spin and stomp around – with frequent visits to the water fountains, of course.

On the day of my departure from Vermont, my dad told me that “catching Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby was my one and only job for the weekend.” Hornsby – who played over 100 shows with The Grateful Dead towards the end of their dynasty – is one of his favorite musicians of all time, and although the orders were oversimplified (and would probably have made for a short review), I still felt as though I owed him this. I also knew that when my dad, the music-aficionado, gave me festival advice, I better listen up. The set was incredible. It wasn’t rowdy or raucous, rather, the perfect way for the crowd to kick back, crack a beer, and bask beneath the fading orange sunset. Skaggs, Hornsby, and Kentucky Thunder nursed us all back to health after a day of sunburns and sweat.

Bela Fleck at DelFest

Bela, Abigail, and the Banjo Master of the Future, Juno.

I awoke on Sunday with a dull pressure behind my eyes. Sleep deprivation, mild-dehydration, and the knowledge that our weekend was coming to a close. But despite the melancholy nostalgia (before DelFest even ended, mind you), the day had nothing but good tidings and even better music in store. The banjo-master, Béla Fleck and his lovely, talented wife Abigail Washburn took the stage on Sunday afternoon for a set that attracted one of the larger crowds of the weekend (despite it also being the hottest and brightest day of the weekend, too). They sat down near the front of the stage to tune-up, chatted with the fans for a bit as though we were in their recording studio with them, and began pickin’ and singin’ the day away. There was a moment when Abigail and Béla were bantering with the crowd, and I thought that DelFest had reached its capacity for heartwarming, family-friendly moments. But then they brought out Juno, the Prince of Banjo and newest member of the Fleck-Washburn family, and placed him on Abigail’s lap for a brief encore. He sat there, flailing his arms with glee, and kept trying to reach for the banjos nearby: a born natural, I say, and a good sign that the fans will have many more years of virtuosic pickin’ to enjoy.

DelFest 2014 was concluded with an epic, two-set masterpiece by The String Cheese Incident. These guys – hailing from Crested Butte and Telluride, Colorado – gave us an Incident to remember; a flawless hybrid of bluegrass, funk, and trance-inducing jams that ensured enjoyment for all types of music-fans. It was high energy. Electric. Fueled by a passion and love for all-things-music. I’m a String Cheese newbie. I had never really dabbled with their music prior to the festival, but one things for sure: I’ll be listening to them on repeat for weeks to come. Because the thing that surprised me the most (and the thing that has converted me into a lifelong fan) was just how exceptionally diverse their musical repertoire was. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me, considering they have mandolins, violins, pianos, organs, drums, basses, and several types of guitars, but I was still blown away. They’ve got immense amounts of talent – that much is obvious – and calling it “funk and bluegrass and rock” simply doesn’t quite do it justice.

String Cheese Incident at DelFest

String Cheese Incident, performing “Song in My Head”

“Song in my Head” (from their brand new album) and “Colorado Bluebird Sky” showed off their country and southern rock influences, and had the whole crowd bumping and stomping to the music. “Smile,” on the other hand, was an upbeat (yet mellow) quasi-reggae love-affair that made you feel like you were drifting through a sunny pasture. The “Land’s End > I Know You Rider” jam (to end the first set) sounded like a classic Dead concoction – thirty five minutes of riffing guitars and dazzling visuals. Then, as though four completely different genres weren’t already enough, they brought us into the second set with the Celtic-based “Bumpin’ Reel” and the funky, jazzy “Miss Brown’s Teahouse,” before capping the whole show off with a legendary “This Must Be The Place” > “Shine” one-two combo. Those last two songs were the pinnacle of eclectic jam-music celebration. Hypnotic, melodic, elegant, and bubbling with climactic energy. The crowd erupted when the final notes rang out, and our cheers carried over into the encore. “BollyMunster” – a crowd favorite inspired by BollyWood cinema – completed the weekend’s ascension to that special place. That plane of existence where strangers love strangers, all for the sake of music. And it was all made possible thanks to Del McCoury and the hundreds of musicians and volunteers who worked to make this world a better, brighter, and more harmonious place.

DelFest Fest Van

The one and only Fest Van!

Cumberland, Maryland was a pristine place to be during this year’s Memorial Day weekend celebration. Clear blue skies and soaring birds flew past as we drove along the highway, back towards the state from whence we came. It was the type of scene that you’d expect to see in some overly-enthusiastic, coming-of-age movie from the 90’s. The air was buzzing, too, not from insects or a nearby electrical plant, but from some unseen force lurking in the wilderness. An endless torrent of excitement and energy, weaving its way through the rolling green mountains like some kind of mystical, musical, magnetic super-organism. There was a different energy in the air now, and I was a different man, too. Forever changed by that musical valley. You could feel It. Taste It. Smell It. A unified, loving Ethos, thriving and pulsing in the middle of the forests of Western Maryland. Alluring like a vixen, yet nurturing like a mother, this mythical being – DelFest 2014, the seventh of its name – ensnared 30,000 people within its orchestral web. It lured us in with promises of groovy, virtuosic music; friendly faces and merry strangers; and the powerful notion of belonging. It reassured us that This Was Right, whatever “This” was, and that we – as sentient beings – were making a positive impact in our own special corner of the world.That the journey we were about to embark upon was one that the Good Doctor, Hunter S. Thompson had once recounted many years ago. “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail.”

We embraced that energy. We welcomed DelFest with open arms. And we prevailed.

 

All photographs were shot and provided by Hanna Lane Photography. Full album can be seen here, on the Sparkleberry Lane Facebook Page. 

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