DelFest, Cumberland, MD- 5/23-26
Photo By: Jeffrey Socha © Cosmicvibeslive.com
“Del-Yeah!” is an appropriate response to pretty much anything at DelFest. The festival, named for Del McCoury, celebrated its sixth year this past Memorial Day and Del played every night. Nestled in the woods next to the historic town of Cumberland, MD, the four-day gathering is a blowout of bluegrass, but also all forms of American music. It was created and is held together by Del and his incredibly talented band and offspring. It should also be noted that that town loves this festival because of all of the money and support Del gives back, and also the family friendly vibe.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Del McCoury, he’s a bluegrass legend, with a voice like the high mountain wind and a full head of silver hair that’s always in immaculate shape. He was born Delano Floyd McCoury and raised in Bakersville, North Carolina. He began his career-picking banjo, but eventually began playing rhythm guitar for Bill Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry. He was a logger for about twenty years while he played music on the side in order to support and raise his family, which the bluegrass community will forever be grateful for: his son Ronnie began playing mandolin with pops at age fourteen, five years later his other son Robbie joined on banjo, and the rest is American musical history.
There are few bands today that play music as Del has for fifty some years, and he’s not only the father of his incredibly talented sons, but also to a whole base of people who love traditional string music. Delfest brings together Christian conservatives dressed for hunting and jamband dreaded hippies alike. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon described Del to me as “the milk of Christian kindness,” and my own description would have been similar, though I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the him myself. The festival is a thing to be cherished like Del himself, that “guitar-picking, bluegrass-singing, never grow up boy.”
The festival officially began at the Del McCoury Band sound check. With a designated slot of an hour and a half, everyone knew it would end up being a show. The band was just warming up and they eased the crowd away from setting up their tents and into the venue, the Allegany County Fairgrounds. It had been threatening to rain all day, and at a festival known for temperamental weather, when the thunder finally struck and the clouds broke, people headed for the covered bleachers and the music took a pause. The rain let up after fifteen minutes, and the crowd carried on to first day festival shenanigans.
Jerry Douglas played that night, and I find it hard to describe his dobro playing as anything but incredibly sexy. With Union Station he’s serving a band and Allison Krauss’ voice, but by himself his music feels like an incredible release, the unbridled genius of a man who’s played with everyone from Ray Charles to Eric Clapton to Paul Simon to Phish. If Delfest has Jerry Douglas on the first night, it was going to be a great weekend. Delfest staple Leftover Salmon followed and it began to really feel like a festival. They opened with “Liza,” and the most shocking development was that drummer Jose Martinez had been replaced by percussionist Wally Ingram, and drummer Alwyn Robinson, who’s show that night was his first ever with the band. Del and Ronnie McCoury joined Leftover on “Midnight Blues,” with Ronnie staying on for “Home Cookin,” and fiddle maestro (and Del McCoury band member) Jason Carter playing throug most of the set. Highlights included “Unplug that Telephone”—the appeal of a week in the woods—and the encore, John Hartford’s “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie.”
There was no late night on Thursday, but the campground jam circles were thriving. A note to all who attend a festival where Vince Herman is also present: if you see him on a golf cart in the campgrounds, follow him. A huge fan of the campsite jam, Vince is notorious for showing up and blending his talents with those of the festival’s attendees. He stopped at one particular site because he saw a mandolin player wearing a West Virginia hat. Having called the state home for a long time, he led the jam circle in a touching, late night rendition of Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home.”
Friday was the full moon, and naturally things would get a little weird. Danny Barnes started off the day with his solo banjo set, filled with his distinct song structure and looping style. Elephant Revival gave a workshop on the indoor stage that was more concert than anything else, but the audience did learn that multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Paine and her sister, Annie, started out in Oklahoma as the backing band for Randy Crouch—Jimi Hendrix on the fiddle. When asked how they settled on their distinct style of heartfelt folk, fiddle player Bridget Law answered that they “just wanted to make authentic music from the heart, and that’s how it turned out.” They shared a new song, and those unfamiliar with the saw as an instrument were floored when Bonnie took a few solos on it. The sound is extremely vocal, a little paranormal, and the indoor setting was the best venue to showcase it.
Trampled by Turtles, and the Davisson Brothers Band especially, upped the ante with their energy; I have never seen someone dance, sing, and play as flamboyantly as Donnie Davisson does. Caught Elephant Revival on the smaller outdoor stage again, where they played to a larger audience, the highlight being “Grace of a Woman.” We got our daily dose of The Del McCoury Band for an almost two hour set that included “Dark Hollow, “”John Henry,” and “Nashville Cats,” before retreating back to camp to regroup before the much-anticipated two sets of Trey Anastasio Band.
The first set was a little slower, and those unfamiliar with TAB were pleasantly surprised that Del had invited them—a rock band that undeniably stood out on the lineup—to his string festival. The second set began with Trey ordering the lights off and everyone watching the full moon creep over the mountains. After “Gotta Jibboo” Trey told the audience how he came to know Del McCoury, who he eventually invited onto the stage. The Del McCoury Band’s Blue Side of Town served as Phish’s road music in the nineties, and Trey had always dreamed of meeting Del. As Del joked, Phish invited him out to their “small festival in Oswego” to play for over 65,000 people, and he was happy to be able to return the favor at his own shindig.
Ronnie and Rob McCoury, as well as Jason Carter were also on stage, and the ensemble eased in with “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” Del led that and “Beauty of My Dreams,” which Trey was charmingly rusty on despite the years Phish spent covering it. It was TAB keyboardist Ray Paczkowski though who seemed to surprise Del with his playing, and added fresh energy and jamband flare to the string number. “Clint Eastwood,” an unbelievable “Sand,” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” were other highlights. The show stopper came when Ronnie, Rob and Jason took to the stage again for a an encore of “Heavy Things” and an inconceivable, string-laden rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” where Jennifer Hartswick’s vocals floored everyone.
Jason and Ronnie also made an appearance at the late night with Leftover Salmon to jam well into the next day. The latenight show doubled as a celebration of Drew Emmitt, Jason Carter, and Bob Dylan’s birthdays, and notable songs included “Sing Up to the Moon,” “Gulf of Mexico,” “She Took Off My Romeos,” Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Walking Shoes,” and the classic made Leftover’s own, “Rueben’s Train.” After the music had ended, and I was preparing to call it a night, Vince pointed at the moon and remarked, in all earnest, “if you write anything about tonight, let it be about that moon.”