Del McCoury Hosts Fifth Annual DelFest
Del and Steve Martin. Photo by Bill Merlavage
Del McCoury hosted his fifth annual DelFest at Maryland’s Allegany County Fairgrounds over Memorial Day weekend, drawing together performers spanning and inspired by all forms of traditional bluegrass music.
Fans arriving early Thursday were treated to an abbreviated four-band lineup starting with the first of three sets from The Del McCoury Band. Split Lip Rayfield and The Devil Makes Three followed their hosts before Railroad Earth delivered the first of their two shows for the weekend, touching on favorites “Mighty River,” “Like a Buddha” and “Bird in a House.”
Friday began the first full day of music and by the time Luther Dickinson and The Wandering took the stage for their late afternoon slot, most 3-day campers were settled in and ready to enjoy the North Mississippi All Stars guitarist’s take on “You Are My Sunshine,” just as the midday heat began to subside.
Well dressed as always, The Del McCoury Band came on at approximately 8:00 for their Friday night headlining set. Special guests would have to wait for Saturday, as the band stuck to its standard lineup of Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Robbie McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle, Alan Bartram on upright bass and leading man Del McCoury on guitar. The band offered versions of “Nashville Cats,” the instrumental “Wheel Hoss,” Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m In Despair.” Midway through the set, McCoury recalled a Live Phish recording of “Beauty of My Dreams,” and dedicated the tune to Ernest Anastasio, Trey Anastasio’s father, who McCoury said was present at the festival. The band encored with “High On The Mountain” and “Gone But Not Forgotten” before calling it a night.
Progressive jamgrass leaders Yonder Mountain String Band were on for Friday night’s final Granstand stage set. Yonder’s set featured sit-ins from Del and his son Ronnie, but it was the combination of Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone and The Del McCoury Band’s Jason Carter joining Yonder and Darol Anger, who sat in for the entire Yonder set aside from the “I Love My Job” opener, on stage for a powerful three-fiddle take of “Dawn’s Early Light” that segued into The Talking Heads tune “Girlfriend Is Better.” Carter and Carbone remained for “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown.” Takes on “Angel” and “Sharecropper’s Son” highlighted the rest of Yonder’s performance.
Fans then meandered over to the Music Hall for the first of three DelFest late night offerings. Following an opening set from Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth returned to the stage, eventually inviting Yonder mandolinist Jeff Austin on for a version of “Mission Man.” Versions of “Lone Croft Farewell,” “Old Man and the Land” and “Daddy-O,” highlighted the roughly two hour set and anyone losing steam as the clock rounded three a.m. caught a second wind with an energized “Spring-Heeled Jack.” The self-titled ballad “Railroad Earth” closed the set before a “Head” encore finally wrapped up day one at DelFest.
On Saturday, Greensky Bluegrass welcomed Ronnie McCoury for Phish’s “Water In The Sky,” but it was The Travelin’ McCourys featuring Keller Williams who displayed the traditional McCoury boys’ true musical range. The cover heavy performance spanned My Morning Jacket’s “I’m Amazed,” “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People, and “Hot Stuff” as a nod to the career of the late Donna Summer, all leading up to Del McCoury’s sit in for a take on Keller’s ode to bluegrass music, “Bumper Sticker.”
Saturday afternoon also brought the first thunderstorms of DelFest 2012. Fans waited out Mother Nature from under the grandstand bleachers, which look out on the festival’s main stage and vending within the fairgrounds’ dirt racetrack. The interlude allowed DelFest veterans time to reminisce about 2010’s hail storms and cheer on those brave enough to slide through puddles of mud now surrounding the festival grounds. The storm also forced Emmitt-Nershi Band’s Grandstand performance into the Music Hall.
Following a solo set from Keller Williams that included a fitting take on the Grateful Dead staple “Cumberland Blues,” The Del McCoury band returned for their second headlining performance of the festival. The band acknowledged the elements with “Walk Out In The Rain” and “Cold Rain And Snow” before dedicating the banjo instrumental “Earl’s Breakdown” to the late bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. The McCourys welcomed gospel mandolinist Doyle Lawson for the better part of their Saturday night performance, delivering stellar takes on tunes including “Old Kentucky,” “On And On,” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and an encore of Bill Monroe and Billy Martin’s “I’m Blue and I’m Lonesome, Too.”
In Saturday’s final Grandstand show, Leftover Salmon featured several tunes from their forthcoming release “Aquatic Hitchhiker,” also welcoming Del McCoury to the stage for a take on “Midnight Blues.” String Cheese Incident guitarist Bill Nershi and Jason Carter joined Salmon for their last few tunes, highlighted by a set closing cover of “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie” by John Hartford.
On Sunday, the Emmitt-Nershi Band drew a large audience to the secondary Potomac stage for a show featuring SCI standards “Good Times ‘Round The Bend,” “Colorado Bluebird Sky,” and “Texas.” Fans catching the set were also able to make their way back to the main stage just in time for The Infamous Stringdusters cover of the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone.” Later, around seven in the evening, just as Bela Fleck welcomed Sam Bush to the stage, gusts of wind signaled that fans were in for another rain delay.
After nearly three hours under shelter, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers finally received the green light. The band performed several tracks off their album Rare Bird Alert including “Jubilation Day” and “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” as humorous stage banter from Martin, best known for his comedy, gave the show an intimate feeling. “I know what you’re all thinking – ‘Look at the Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride to the bluegrass gravy train,’” Martin said at the beginning of the show. As was customary for the weekend, Martin invited Del McCoury to join him, offering a rendition of the murder ballad “Pretty Little One,” but the most memorable moment came when Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jason Carter, as well as Rob, Ronnie and Del McCoury all contributed on “The Crow.”
After Martin’s set, it was clear that the weekend had at least one more thunderstorm on its way. “It wouldn’t be DelFest without a little rain,” McCoury said, announcing that all fans were welcome to head over to the Music Hall where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the McCourys would relocate to perform the last show originally scheduled for the Grandstand stage. Inside, a damp audience running on adrenaline danced to a “The Band’s In Town” opener to kick off the set of blended bluegrass and New Orleans jazz. The group wished Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman a happy birthday before launching into what may have been the highlight of the weekend in “I’ll Fly Away” and a rousing “When The Saints Go Marching In” encore.