Images by: Nick Price
DelFest :: 5.21.15 -5.24.15 :: Allegany County Fairgrounds :: Cumberland, MD
Read Carly’s review after the gallery.
This year’s 8th annual DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland, was another stunning example of the beauty of the festival world. Set against a slice of the Allegany Mountains where the Potomac River cuts a trail deep into the earth, the scenery perfectly reflects the magic of the event: serene and rejuvenating, calm yet exciting. Hosted by Del McCoury and his family (and, in a way, High Sierra), they stuck true to their roots in bluegrass and Americana more so than in previous years, while still inviting bands from the rock and country world to join them on the Allegany County Fairgrounds.
Thursday started out as it traditionally does, with the Del McCoury Band sound check, which is really just an all-request hour with Del. As the crowd shouted out suggestions from classics to covers, like “Cold Rain and Snow” they recalled songs not played in years, as fans stood in awe at Del’s prowess after so many years on the road. He sung as wonderfully as ever and played with the same enthusiasm that shined from his face.
The first band to officially open the festival was Steep Canyon Rangers, starting it off on the right foot with classic bluegrass performed by award-winning artists. Shovels and Rope was up next, and though the duo didn’t conform to the festival’s most prominent genre, the fans seemed to appreciate their folk-rock storytelling set. Closing the main stage Thursday night was Greensky Bluegrass, described by emcee Joe Craven as “a churning whirlpool of strings and wood and vocal magnificence.” The praise was well-deserved as they came out of the gate with their highly-anticipated “Eyes of the World” Grateful Dead cover, followed by a rocking set of hit after hit.
In the late-night hall on Thursday night, Larry Keel Experience played some revved up bluegrass standards and jammy originals before Railroad Earth brought the barn down with their whimsical Americana. As fans wandered back to their campsites, past The Plate Scrapers picking in the gazebo, past fire pit jam sessions and groups of players hollering in a circle, everyone buzzed with excitement for the next three days ahead.
Friday was a music-packed day kicked off by the emcee himself on the Grandstand stage, Maryland pickers Grand Ole’ Ditch on the smaller Potomac Stage, and a wildly popular mandolin workshop with David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury and Sierra Hull.
The Brothers Comatose, one of the many bands that came east from California, played their first DelFest set that morning and proved to be one of the standout discoveries of the weekend with their infectious new-grass style. The Larry Keel Experience took to the main stage next, performing one of many Dead covers fans heard that weekend and classics that had everyone kicking up dirt.
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers were belting out familiar stories of love and loss while jamming out their folk-rock tunes in a way that the acoustic bands just couldn’t. It was a nice switch up, but shortly after their set, Del McCoury Band unfolded a set that so many had come for. As children chased bubbles and friends swayed arm-in-arm, the living legend and his family picked and strummed their way back to the Grand Ol’ Opry, and took the field of admirers right along with them.
As if the day hadn’t been stacked enough already, Railroad Earth took to the stage for another raucous set. Fiddle player Tim Carbone was on fire all weekend, sitting in with as many (if not more) artists as Del did, and simply tearing it up with his long-time band. Closing the Grandstand on Friday was Old Crow Medicine Show, whose mason jar chandeliers decorated the stage all day and finally lit up the band at night. The energy pouring off stage was infectious -each band member danced all over the place, jumped off amps and even tapped across stage for multiple songs. They played a welcomed rendition of “Wagon Wheel” that strayed from what everyone has heard too many times and closed their set with a whiskey-fueled “American Girl” cover.
At Late Night, fans were treated to an amped up Steep Canyon Rangers set and another spectacular Greensky Bluegrass show where they solidified the theme of the weekend- “Don’t under do it,” they sung, “put your whole self entirely into it.” The crowd happily obliged.
Saturday was ideal in terms of the weather -a bright, hot sun shining down as rushing breezes swept through the fairgrounds and the river trickled quietly, cooling the warm air from so many dancing bodies. Eddie from Ohio and the Black Lillies played their second sets on the main stage to start the day before the Seldom Scene, a band with over 40 years on the books, took over to bring it back to bluegrass roots.
Del and David Grisman, performing as Dawg, did a duo set that included stories from yesteryear, memories of coming up together after meeting during Del’s first show with Bill Monroe, and historical songs that made the gentlemen smile ear to ear. Over in the Music Hall, rising stars Billy Strings & Don Julin took the classical guitar to outer space with their unfathomably fast picking and shortly thereafter, Oteil Burbridge and Roosevelt Collier spiced up the Potomac Stage with an exciting collaboration.
Jeff Austin Band had taken to the Grandstand stage by this point, his easily identifiable voice echoing off the mountainside. Austin mentioned his thanks to DelFest and the fans for their support, especially during 2014 in his first year at the festival without his longtime Yonder Mountain String Band band mates. And though the set may have been bittersweet for some, he played a few songs he wrote for YMSB, which may have offered some relief. He also introduced a whole new sound, via a wandering yet pointed and creative extended jam with heavy support from Danny Barnes on banjo, that was impressive and inspiring. Up next, there was another solo artist formerly of another major band, Jason Isbell, who performed a more country-leaning but danceable list of hits and new songs. When the Travelin’ McCourys closed the stage that day, they did so with special guests (like Ronnie’s son) and special covers (like “Cumberland Blues” and “Loser”) and the kind of stage presence that can only be born into you. Dead Winter Carpenters and Leftover Salmon were in the Late Night Hall on Saturday, both injecting energy into the fading fans and keeping the hall bumping early into the morning.
For the first time in many years, it felt like DelFest was back where it started, in the best way possible: no rush of people coming in just for the big headliner, no negative vibes from folks who were protesting some major act, plenty of room to dance in the field.
Appropriately, Oteil and Roosevelt got back together for a moving Gospel Set to open the Grandstand on Sunday. The McCoury Brothers played an emotional set in the Music Hall with their father and some of their children, extending the family love to every member of the DelFest community. Lake Street Dive took the main stage reins midday and drove their rocking folk-bluegrass truck all the way down the Potomac and back. For folks who hadn’t heard the band before, the general consensus was that they were mind-blowing.
Leftover Salmon kept that spirit alive during their Grandstand set, inviting Del to join them for “Midnight Blues” and helping people forget it was the last day with their cajun stomp-grass cover of “Rag Mama Rag.” Del made one last appearance at the festival with his band before Trampled by Turtles closed the weekend with covers of “Brown-Eyed Women” and “Hallelujah”by Leonard Cohen.
As music floated through the campgrounds and children ran wild with parents close behind, this festival yet again proved that with music comes joy, with festivals comes a sense of tight-knit community, and with summer comes DelFest. Like a fine wine, Del McCoury has aged exquisitely, that iconic voice and hair still perfect. He and his family curated another beautiful tribute to music that was once only heard in the mountain towns played by mountain folk on three-stringed instruments, and an awe-inspiring display of how far it’s come since then.
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