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DelFest Returns to Allegany County Fairgrounds

(All photos taken by Melissa Steinberg except for the crappy cell phone shot of Brothers Comatose with Sierra Hull at 11 AM on the last day of the festival. Sleep? That’s for other people!)

DelFest, Allegany County Fairgrounds Cumberland, MD- 5/26-29

Due to a conflict during the Northwest String Summit weekend this year, my needed bluegrass festival fix would have to come from the east coast. Yes, it’s annoying to fly with camping gear, and the DelFest has a reputation for questionable weather, but there’s nary a soul who attends who doesn’t become addicted. It was time to head to Cumberland, Maryland and see the hype first hand. While we did get the joy of experiencing the heat and the rain, along with a few other disasters, the appeal was obvious.

With three stages and multiple acts playing, there was more music than one person could see. Sets such as Cabinet’s late night and the Hillbenders Tommy performance won’t make this list simply due to festival logistics causing me to miss them. However, there still was plenty of music that I was present for. When I look back upon the festival years later, this is what I will remember.

An On Stage Proposal

DelFest started out with a set listed as “The Del McCoury Band Soundcheck.” In all practicality, it was a Del McCoury Band set, only with the band wearing casual clothing. From the start, one thing was obvious. DelFest was about family.

Lots of festivals talk about family, but it usually means that they really like having young fan there or that there is a strong community spirit behind the event. While both of those were true about DelFest, the family spirit in this event comes from the stage. The very first act had three generations of McCourys on stage, including almost but not quite 4-year-old Vassar McCoury – his birthday would be later that weekend – playing what could be best described as the Fischer-Price My First Standup Bass.

When you have a festival that is that family focused, it’s quite appropriate what happened after the first song – ironically due to future events titled “Rain Please Go Away” -concluded. A fan by the name of Mike Hayden was brought on stage. He came out and said that he loved the community and invited his girlfriend Therese Mance out. He then got on one knee and proposed to her. She said yes – it would be difficult to not do so, seeing how she was wearing a “Del Yeah” t-shirt – and the 9th DelFest become so family friendly that a new one came into being before our very eyes.

Security setup

No festival is perfect when it comes to security. There’s always a fine line between being strict enough for safety (and to keep the local constables off of your back) but lax enough that people are able to enjoy themselves. With the Maryland police hanging out on I-68 and pulling over anyone who was brave enough to have festival related stickers on their car, it would have been easy to expect extremely tight security.

While frequent returnees to the festival had some complaints about rules that had changed from prior years, from an outsider’s perspective, there were some amazingly lax rules. Sure you had to obey some extra rules to do this, but DelFest has absolutely no problem with you having a campfire by your tent at night. There were even locals right outside the fairgrounds selling firewood. Traffic entering the venue went quite smoothly as they didn’t search incoming vehicles. They even allowed people to set up shade structures in the back third of the field, an act unheard of at festivals but crucial on those hot, humid afternoons.

Sure it was somewhat annoying to have to go through a checkpoint to go from the Music Hall stage to the other two – especially as that was the location that had WiFi and western Maryland is where Verizon connectivity goes to die, so I would occasionally wander over there for a minute to upload some photos, and then have my Camelback searched again on my walk back to the Potomac Stage as though I managed to do something nefarious in the few minutes there – but a flip side of that is that anyone local could take the shuttle to the fairgrounds and see music at that stage without having a wristband. That’s a very cool consideration for those affected by the festival. It was worth putting up with a few extra quick security pats to help out the Cumberland music lovers.

Mipso – “Purple Rain”

Before the festival, I tried to set the over under over how many times I would hear “Cumberland Blues” get performed. Perhaps that song call was too on the nose. I only saw it during the Saturday Travelling McCourys set. While that was less frequent than I expected, it also was an open question of how many tributes to the fallen heroes of 2016 we would hear. Bowie was represented in an odd fashion. The Lil’ Smokies played a song written about the day when David Bowie died and tried to reclaim the date from the event.

The only Prince cover I caught was early Friday afternoon. North Carolina’s Mipso had a bit of a weird schedule. They had two sets: the secondary Potomac stage at 10:15 on Friday and the indoor Music Hall at 12:15. I was just wandering past the Hall when I heard an interesting melody. I ventured inside to hear Mipso performing the Prince classic. It was a mellow arrangement, showing off their harmonies and Libby Rodenbough’s sweet fiddle skills. While originals will always be what will excite crowds about a new band, a well placed cover can always stop someone in their tracks and get them to check out the set.

Fruition with Allie Kral – “Fire”

A month prior to DelFest, Fruition had a CD release long weekend of shows. The Friday night concert at the Wonder Ballroom featured Allie Kral for the second half of each set. The end of the first set [1] was the Jay Cobb Anderson original “Fire.” Allie went off on that, bringing the already high-energy song to new heights.

When the schedule was announced, it stood out that Yonder Mountain String Band would be closing the Grandstand stage on Thursday and Fruition would be opening up the late night. That would give Allie time to make it to the second stage. The only question is if she would be inclined to do so. Not only did she make an appearance, but once again “Fire” was the song selection. I suppose it could be possible that they could join forces on this track one day and have it just be alright, but that would not happen on this night. Allie was jumping up and down, Jay ended up on his knees a couple times, Kellen Asebroek, Mimi Naja, and Jeff Leonard formed a wall on one side of the stage, Ally and Jay took the other and they faced off against each other firing chords like rival gangs. The moral of the story is that when Fruition finally make a studio version of this song, Allie Kral had better be in the studio. It would have a chance to be one of the all time great Jamgrass studio tracks.

Before that happens though, a good general rule at any festival would be to just go to any stage where you think Allie might sit in. When camping, we end up consuming all sorts of prepackaged and easy to eat products but my personal favorite is Instant Euphoria. Just add Allie!

Horseshoes & Hand Grenades with Tim Carbone – Crazy

Outside of the palate cleanser headliners like Tedeschi Trucks Band and Bruce Hornsby, there are two main categories of bands at DelFest. You have the classic old school pickers who have seen everything and played with everyone and know just know how to pick. Then there are the newcomers who are incredibly exciting as we don’t know how good these bands can be; all we can do is watch them rise and see what happens. Somewhat forgotten in that mix is Railroad Earth.

It seems odd to say that about a band that had a strong prime time performance on the main stage, one that showed from the “Seven Story Mountain,” to their cover of “America,” to just shrugging off a moment where the power went off, that they can always put on a great show. It just seems to be that they’ve been so solid for so long, that everyone takes it for granted that they will put on a great show.

Horseshoes & Hand Grenades are on the other side of that spectrum. The young band from Stevens Point, WI, is out there having fun, honing their skills, drinking various beverages, and seeing where the music world takes them. On Saturday afternoon, that was the rather muddy Potomac Stage. During their performance, they invited a guest: Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone. They joined forces to perform Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” which then morphed into more bluegrass standard covers of “Dusty Boxcar Wall” and “Danville Girl.”

While Horseshoes & Hand Grenades can rock out this song on their own – I would see them the following weekend in Seattle and they did a great job on it – it was Carbone’s contributions that brought it to the next level. The excitement of H&HG mixed together with the experience of Carbone and created a spectacular moment, one that was largely responsible for me deciding to go to that following show. Sure, it might not have made the top 5 in this list, but in the case of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, close does indeed count

Brothers Comatose Sunday Morning Grandstand Stage

Festivals, especially ones with weather issues, can be rough on the body. We push ourselves hard to see as much music as possible. There are even rumors that some people like to consume some beverages to help them enjoy the concerts. By the end of the long weekend, we were all tired, caked with mud and sweat, still having fun, but perhaps a little burnt out from seeing so much music. Maybe that’s why my initial reaction to this 10:45 set started out a little underwhelmed. Greensky’s late night show – about which there will be more below – didn’t get out until nearly 4 AM, and I just might not have been in the mindset to listen to new music. However, a few songs in came “Modern Day Sinners” and then all of that changed.

They started singing “Oooooh, wooooo-oooo-ooooooooh,” with tight harmonies, and I suddenly turned. What is this? Covers can provide a great path to getting the attention of a bystander, but it’s even more fun when a brand new original is what suddenly grabs you and forces you to pay attention.

Later in the set, artist at large Sierra Hull came out for a few songs and the contrast was amusing. If their stage banter was anywhere close to being accurate, the Brothers had obviously been up all night playing in the campgrounds and having a blast. They looked a little burnt but still up to play. Meanwhile Hull seemed to have emerged from a much different festival. Her hair gently blew in the wind, immune to the ravages of both the festival and the endless humidity, she represented the world at large, one where we have beds and showers and conditioned air. Fortunately, she also brought sweet mandolin riffs from her cleaner and purer world, a welcome reminder that we might soon be leaving DelFest, but at least there will still be music.

The Setting

Del McCoury: The Man, The Myth, The Ridiculously Nice Guy

It’s hard to get my head around Del McCoury. There are tons of nice people in the music industry but he has turned generosity into an art form. He has decades of experience playing music. He formed a band with his family. He’s funny and outgoing. He’s so willing to take photos with fans that the term “Delfie” has been coined. When encountering a kid who made stickers saying, “Del Yeah,” McCoury immediately put one on his outfit. Oh, and there’s also the minor detail that he spends his free time building houses for people.

This kindness isn’t just an offstage persona. Del McCoury is as much of a storyteller as a musician. He loves to give the background of songs or come up with some random asides. He’s willing to sit in with seemingly anyone who asks him to, and it’s not a chore or an annoyance. He always seems to be having an absolute blast.

If that isn’t enough, he’s great at playing the self-depreciation game. During Sam Bush’s set, Del was invited onto stage. Sam told a great joke at his expense. “We have a sheet of paper down here that tells us the start of each verse. That’s actually what you call a Del-eprompter.” Later Bush told this great story about riding in McCoury’s tour bus just to see what Del’s usually perfect hair looks like first thing in the morning. Much to Sam’s surprise, it looked just as amazing after waking up from sleeping in a bunk. “So I ask him, ‘Del how do you do that?’” Del then gladly took the punchline of, “Well I just reach out for it and put it on.”

Being that much of a generous spirit pays dividends. When McCoury messes up a line, everyone just smiles and gives him the mulligan. So many times the relationship between fan and band can become adversarial. With Del McCoury, it’s just a love fest between him and the audience. Even if there were no other bands, even if he just came on stage and played a few songs and told some stories, that itself would be worth the trip to Cumberland.

Greensky Bluegrass Saturday Late Night Set

When I defined the festival as largely being classics and up and rising bands, there was one additional exception I wanted to make to the list. Greensky Bluegrass is entering some rarified territory here. While they’ve already reached the point of practically co-headlining Northwest String Summit, and they were given the honor of closing out the Grandstage stage for DelFest this year, they still are giving the impression of a band on the rise. Their last album If Sorrows Swim has some of their strongest material they’ve written including songs like “Windshield,” “Burn Them,” and the show stopper “Leap Year.” It feels like they should be entering a phase where they start to plateau, but instead their jamming is becoming more proficient and their song writing is still improving.

Solely in terms of the music, my favorite set of the week without question was Greensky late on Saturday night/early on Sunday morning. The 75-minute set alternated nicely between three jams – “Kerosene” was played towards the beginning of the set instead of closing it so it was more of a slow burn, “Don’t Lie” which emerged from a long mellow space to his some intense peaks, and the high-energy “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” which really picked up once they started integrating Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling;” it turns out that “Oh what a feeling/Dancing on the ceiling,” works really well sung over the peak of a jam – mixed with some intriguing setlist calls.

Perhaps the most amusing selection was at the end of the set where they decided seguing the Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower” into Billy Joel’s “Big Shot” would somehow be an amusing idea. That almost sounds like a goofy novelty call, something a jamgrass parody act might try to do, but the outro jam that threatened to go into “I Know You Rider” but never quite did ascends to heights that Joel never could have imagined when he was being annoyed by Bianca Jagger.

The combination of humor and chops (such as Paul Hoffman singing “Easy Like Sunday Morning” at 3:45 AM over the encore), song writing and jamming ability, being able to take songs outside of their normal spots but still keep people attentive in the middle of the night, that’s something that very few bands have. Greensky Bluegrass has gotten big, but there really is the sense that they can get bigger even still.

Fruition Rain Set

The Grateful Dead had a tradition of playing RFK Stadium in DC every summer. Every year it would do the same thing. It would be hot and humid until a thunderstorm would hit. We’d all run around in the rain and slide on the grass. The field at the stadium would become a giant mud pit and the usual joy present at a Dead show would somehow find a way of ratcheting up a notch or two. The aftermath might be annoying, but that was for later. This was a time for bliss.

Early in their afternoon set, Jay Cobb Anderson looked at the clouds and taunted them a bit. They’re from Portland after all; they could handle a little rain. Unfortunately east coast rain is a bit different than the glorified mist of the Pacific Northwest. This was a flood inducing, campsite destroying [2], batten down the hatches, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya,” storm. Fans rushed to shelter, but I was having none of that. I dropped my backpack off under a tent and proceeded to go back out.

As the storm started to fire up, Fruition were joined on stage by Elephant Revival’s Bridget Law. Before the set had even started, Jay had vowed to her that, while he knows she likes to play beautiful runs, he was going to make her shred. “Boil Over” was going to be her opportunity. This is one of Fruition’s faster numbers, one that’s hard to stand still to under normal circumstances. With a chance to reenact the rain dances of my youth and a completely open front of stage, it was impossible. There was a moment of perfection where we fed off of each other, dancing inspiring the band to greater heights – and yes Bridget did indeed shred – which meant I couldn’t slow down anytime soon. Work stress, money issues, all of that was meaningless in that moment.

More than anything, festivals are about creating memories. When I look back on my first DelFest, more than anything I’m going to think about this epic battle between the band and the elements, of Kellen walking to the front of the stage and tilting his head back to witness the waterfall coming down from the front of the stage, of roadies rushing to cover more and more exposed outlets as the wind pushed the storm further onto the stage, of the appropriateness of “Mountain Annie” for the line, “It’s raining like it’s never going to stop,” of the moment during “The Meaning,” where the rain crossed the microphone line and there was no choice to abandon the song halfway through and call it a set. Most of all though, it will come down to the “Boil Over.” For a few minutes, there was nothing else in the world, just the rain, the music, and the joy of movement. Surviving that storm with their instruments intact was impressive but to rage during it?

The legend lives on from the Potomac stage on down
Of the big stage they call the Grandstand.
Rainstorms, they said, never make perfect sets
‘Cept for the rock of the Portland Fruition.

[1] Actually it was supposed to be the penultimate song but Allie broke a string.

[2] We received some damage from this storm; returning to a wet tent with an air mattress that was unable to stay inflated. After a miserable night sleeping on top of tree roots in the damp, we gave in and drove to a Walmart in La Vale. While checking out, I examined the local paper and saw a photo of me dancing in the rain on the front page.

What makes that shot so funny is not me, but rather everyone else. Their expression is what I nicknamed the DelFest Look of Resignation. I never knew a face could clearly convey, “Yes, I’m having fun. Sure, I hope to return next year. This is indeed pretty good music. However, does the weather really have to be doing this right now?”

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and “his Create Space store.”: https://www.createspace.com/4667209

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