DelFest, Cumberland, MD- 5/23-26
I began Saturday lazily listening to Sarah Jarosz from a vertical position in the grass. Her covers of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On” and The Decemberist’s eerie “Shankhill Butchers” were an easy way to start the day. Greensky Bluegrass took the mainstage at 4:20, and gave the audience a taste of their newer album material including “Leap Year,” which should be coming out sometime this summer.
The best set of Saturday was undeniably Keller William’s latest project with More Than A Little, a funk group mostly out of Richmond, VA. The band includes two voluptuous, eye-catching vocalists who have adopted Keller’s signature style of audience engagement. The crowd was treated to two Grateful Dead covers made over in the bands soulful style, “Sampson and Delilah” and “West L.A. Fadeaway,” as well as two Talking Head covers, “Once In A Lifetime” and “This Must Be the Place.” The gogo “Hey ho Jorge” and the sit-ins of Jason and Ronnie on “No Rest for the Wicked,” and “Freaker by the Speaker” really made the show one of a kind.
The Del McCoury Band played another near two hour set that eventually left Del alone on stage as he introduced the night’s surprise, his fellow Masters of Bluegrass: Bobby Osbourne, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, and Del’s brother Jerry McCoury. Between these masters there are four Bluegrass Hall of Famers, two Grand Ole Opry members, and five musicians who paved the way and made bluegrass music what it is.
The Old Crow Medicine Show took the stage to close out Saturday night. Needless to say the audience was treated to a “Wagon Wheel,” but the OCMS is much more than that song, with no member lacking for talent and a stage presence that is pure country rock and roll. Del, Ronnie, Robbie and Jason joined the band for “My Love Will Not Change,” and I enjoyed my first main stage performance of the American classic, “C.C. Rider.” The encore was surprisingly a cover, which had the entire audience singing: Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
The late night was the Virginia-based bluegrass ensemble the Hackensaw Boys followed by the ever-popular Imfamous Stringdusters. Infamous is made up of talented musicians who look more popped-collar than the down-home, fast string music they like to play. Ronnie sat in with them for “Pioneers” and “Wheel Hoss,” and Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck joined them on “Head Over Heels” for some double-dobro action. The rest of Greensky could be found among the audience and backstage, dancing to one of their favorite bands.
Sunday began, as all ideal Sunday’s would, with The Campbell Brothers particular brand of Gospel songs. Larry Keel and Natural Bridge invited the Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin out for the Dead’s “Ramble on Rose,” and everyone packed into the indoor stage to catch another set of The Masters of Bluegrass. Over Saturday and Sunday Delfest had the privilege of hearing the masters play “Cheyenne,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” “Head Over Heels in Love,” “Wheel Hoss” and “Going Back to Old Kentucky.”
The Infamous Stringdusters entertained again on the main stage, followed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops who brought their old time sound to an eager audience. Brooklyn band Spirit Family Reunion played the smaller outdoor stage to an audience that swelled throughout the duration of their set. The Del McCoury Band thanked the audience, handing out awards to those who played an important role in helping the festival come to fruition. Of course they took requests, including a “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” that Del talked his way through before starting over and playing it true.
Delfest veterans the Yonder Mountain String Band closed out the festival’s main stage, with bassist Ben Kauffman expressing the band’s heartfelt gratitude towards Del and his festival family. Yonder is the band that first introduced me to the McCourys, at their own festival in Oregon, so it seemed appropriate that they close things out. Del McCoury joined Yonder that night for the “oldest country song,” “The Prisoner’s Song,” and Jimmy Martin’s bluegrass classic and crowd pleaser “Hit Parade of Love.” Ronnie and Jason took to the stage a couple songs later and stayed until the end, playing through “You’re No Good,” John Hartford’s “Holdin,’” a much anticipated “Rag Doll”—that was only missing Danny Barnes (who had already left the festival)—“Traffic Jam,” and the encore, the traditional “Red Rocking Chair.”
Greensky Bluegrass had the last word at the late night, playing a handful of their older numbers including “All Four” and “Old Barns.” The encore was Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved,” which seemed a fitting end to a string festival that was all about pushing genre boundaries. I wandered among the sunrise jam sessions before making my way back to my river side tent, pleasantly worn out by such an exhaustive, family-filled bluegrass celebration. Five decades in and it’s safe to say Del McCoury knows what he’ doing. As his festival and fanbase continue to expand, you can bet people will keep coming back.