2022 DelFest Unites Strings, Harmonies & Ace Players: Tyler Childers, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Sierra Hull, Steve Poltz & More (FESTIVAL REVIEW)

Photo by Casey Vock

“Del Yeah!”

Since 2008, that rallying cry of exaltation has been echoing around the picturesque hills of Cumberland, Maryland every Memorial Day weekend as thousands of live-music fans descend upon the cozy confines of the Allegany County Fairgrounds for four days of live music featuring some of the most talented bluegrass musicians in the world at an event simply known as DelFest

Named after one of bluegrass’s last remaining patriarchal figures, Del McCoury, who was tabbed by Bill Monroe himself to provide lead vocals and guitar accompaniment for his group The Bluegrass Boys in 1963, DelFest has steadily grown from a small regional festival with 3000 attendees for its inaugural affair in 2008, into one of the nation’s premier music events with three separate performance stages thanks to its eclectic lineups that, in addition to featuring bluegrass mainstays such as Béla Fleck, David Grisman, The Seldom Scene and Hot Rize, have also showcased legendary acts spanning myriad genres including the Trey Anastasio Band, Warren Haynes and Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers

Molly Tuttle by Marc Shapiro

There is also something to be said about the palpable sense of community and kinship that seems to permeate throughout the festival grounds for the duration of the event amongst the staff and attendees alike. In addition to the top-shelf musical attractions, the festival organizers continually dedicate an equal amount of time & resources to facilitating a welcoming environment with activities & workshops such as a well-equipped “Kids Zone” and the one-of-a-kind “DelFest Academy”, a multi-day learning experience that immediately precedes the festival itself where some of today’s finest bluegrass musicians serve as instructors for those patrons with musical aspirations of their own, all of which contribute to the infectious warmth that is simply unparalleled in today’s music-festival scene. 

Tyler Childers by Casy Vock

After canceling the event in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Delfest made its triumphant return to western Maryland this past Memorial Day weekend for its fourteenth iteration and, once again, featured a diverse lineup that ran the musical gamut with artists such as Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, Sierra Hull, Robert Earl Keen, Cris Jacobs Band, and Tyler Childers

Join us as Glide takes a look at ten highlights from this past weekend (5/27-29) at DelFest:    

The Del McCoury Band: There’s no such thing as too much Del McCoury, which is a good thing considering Del’s band, whose makeup consists of his sons Ronnie & Robbie McCoury in addition to Jason Carter & Alan Bartram, performed three headlining sets on the main grandstand stage over the course of the weekend. Attending the Del McCoury band sets at DelFest is akin to attending a family reunion with a few thousand of your closest friends & relatives, and this weekend was no different as the affable guitarist treated the crowd to a mix of cuts from his latest album, Almost Proud, as well as a litany of traditional bluegrass standards, including fan favorites such as “Nashville Cats” and “Hotwired”, that afforded McCoury multiple opportunities to hit those trademark high notes that often elicit the loudest cheers of the entire festival. Also worth mentioning is Del’s often hilarious & heartwarming banter in between songs that is as much a highlight of his sets as the music itself. 

Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart: This revolving all-star cast of musicians curated by Mr. Fleck has taken the bluegrass world by storm recently and did not disappoint as one of this weekend’s most anticipated sets. Featuring the likes of Michael Cleveland, Cody Kilby, Jacob Jolliff, Justin Moses & Mark Schatz, this stalwart sextet tore through a fiery set of tracks from Béla’s My Bluegrass Heart LP with all six musicians trading licks back and forth in mesmerizing fashion, however it was Mr. Cleveland who ultimately stole the show with a seemingly infinite amount of blistering-fast fiddle licks that worked the rain-soaked crowd into a frenzy. 

Bela Fleck by Marc Shapiro

The Ghost of Paul Revere: Returning to Delfest for the first time since 2017, this hard-charging acoustic-rock quintet from Portland, Maine delivered a pair of strong sets before packed crowds at the smaller Potomac Stage and indoor Music Hall. One of only a handful of bands throughout the course of the weekend to employ a drumkit, The Ghost of Paul Revere kept energy levels high for both of their sets with strong vocals and impressive original material, particularly their Civil War-era composition “The Ballad of the 20th Maine”, which became Maine’s official state song in 2019.  

The Dirty Grass Players: Arguably the surprise breakthrough performance of the weekend belonged to Baltimore-based jamgrass upstarts The Dirty Grass Players. Fueled by the dexterous fret-work of guitarist Ben Kolakowski, along with members Connor Murray, Alex Berman and Ryan Rogers, this quartet lived up to their name, delivering a blistering set of psychedelia-fueled newgrass that focused mostly on original material from their 2017 eponymous debut album and upcoming studio LP (which just so happens to be produced by Travelin’ McCoury’s guitarist Cody Kilby and features a cameo from renowned McCourys fiddle player Jason Carter), along with a small handful of choice covers, including a raucous medley consisting of Lorde’s “Royals” and Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” that helped close their set on a high note. Perhaps most impressive about this performance is the fact that the Dirty Grass Players managed to fill the intimate music hall to standing-room-only capacity, a nearly unprecedented feat for a band making their DelFest debut with a pre-noon timeslot. 

Steve Poltz by Marisa Muldoon

Steve Poltz: The lovable Canadian-American singer-songwriter entertained the crowds with a pair of sets featuring his trademark hilariously quirky storytelling with material like “A Brief History of My Life”, an autobiographical Dylan-esque yarn that covered everything from Major League Baseball play-by-play announcers (complete with spot-on impressions of Jack Buck, Vin Scully, and Harry Caray) to Catholicism, as well as the 90’s FM radio hit “You Were Meant for Me”, which he co-wrote with Jewel after the pair witnessed a drug bust in 1992 while out whale-watching with Mexican Federales. Seriously. 

Sam Bush: The legendary mandolin master eschewed his usual touring quintet for an intimate solo performance Sunday afternoon on the main grandstand stage. A memorable guest appearance from Del – whom Bush referred to as “the king of bluegrass” – on a handful of songs, including Bill Monroe’s “Roll on Buddy”, rounded out an entertaining set filled with Bush originals such as “Circles Around Me” in addition to a typically diverse palette of cover material including Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and a smattering of well-received John Hartford tunes.

Sierra Hull: The four-time IMBA Mandolin Player of The Year award winner and her band treated the crowd to a duo of inspired sets that warmed the soul with their inviting blend of bluegrass, pop & country. Sticking to setlists filled with mostly original material, including several tracks from her latest release 25 Trips, Hull showcased her remarkably impressive instrumental skills, firing off continuous measures of volcanic mandolin runs. 

Sierra Hull by Marissa Muldoon

Pert Near Sandstone: This Minneapolis-based sextet returned to DelFest after a five-year hiatus and made the most of their opportunity with their own pair of sets teeming with Appalachian-infused folk & bluegrass material that perfectly accentuated the festivals’ rustic environs. However, the highlight of their set was undoubtedly when fiddle player Matt Cartier switched out his sneakers for a pair of clogs and proceeded to regale the audience with some old-fashioned authentic clogging.

The California Honeydrops: Perhaps the highlight of the weekend came courtesy of the soulful Oakland, California ensemble, The Calfornia Honeydrops. After making a name for themselves while busking in various Oakland subway stations in the 2000s, the Honeydrops have established themselves as one of the nation’s top live-music acts, primarily thanks to the angelic voice of lead singer Lech Weirsynski and the authentic New Orleans-soaked sound provided by the rest of the group, particularly the three-piece horn section. As the only act not named “McCourys” to perform a trio of sets over the weekend, including an impromptu campground performance Sunday night that lasted several hours, the group instantly won over the audience with material that would fit right in at a prohibition-era speakeasy and often evoked the gypsy jazz sounds of Django Reinhardt

Tyler Childers & The Travelin’ McCourys: Arguably the most anticipated set of the weekend – the crowd size increased noticeably as Sunday evening’s performance approached – country music darling Tyler Childers joined forces with the Travelin’ McCourys, a Del McCoury Band spin-off group, for a somewhat subdued set that mixed Childers originals, including some new material such as “Phone Calls & Emails”, a forlorn tale about being ghosted, along with a slew of covers that ranged from traditional bible standards to the Grateful Dead’s “Greatest Story Ever Told.” There was a memorable moment when Del came out to sing with Tyler on The Stanley Brothers’ “Old Country Church”, however, the clear focal point was Tyler’s emotional mid-set solo-acoustic performance of “Nose on the Grindstone”, “Lady May” and “Follow You to Virgie” which silenced the stunned crown thanks to Childers’ powerfully heart-wrenching vocals. 

Honorable Mention – The Late Night Shows: While the bulk of DelFest’s musical activity takes place during the daytime hours, it can be argued that some of the festival’s most legendary exploits have occurred well after midnight in the relatively intimate on-site multi-purpose building eloquently referred to as “The Music Hall.” This year’s late-night shows followed suit as nearly every band – there are two different artists each night from approximately midnight to 4AM – satisfied the buzzed reveler’s seemingly insatiable musical appetite night after night with high-energy performances and unexpected guest appearances that make the resulting lack of sleep well worth the effort. Whether it was Railroad Earth closing their set with an epic reading of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station”, criminally underrated banjoist Mike Munford trading licks with blues-rock icon Cris Jacobs, or the Travelin’ McCoury’s cranking out bluegrass versions of classic-rock covers, the DelFest late-night shows were truly a force to be reckoned with. 

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