Review: 5th Annual DelFest

DelFest @ Allegany County Fairgrounds, May 24 – 27

The 5th annual DelFest, curated by bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his family of bluegrass all stars, took place over Memorial Day Weekend and brought together big name acts such as Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, and of course all the McCoury bands, from Del Band to the Travelin’ McCourys. As a family-oriented event that’s kept its roots at the Allegany Fair Grounds in Cumberland, Maryland, this festival draws not only kids and parents alike, but all your typical festival-attendees: the flower girls, the bros from college, the hoopers, the Deadheads and all sorts of music lovers. DelFest has always been a destination for bluegrass bands of any size, but this year’s event blew previous ones out of the water with three separate stages, multiple headliners every night and full swinging, dirt kicking, badass bluegrass all weekend.

Spoiler alert: I ADORED this festival. I went in with very little expectations (no offense McCoury clan!) and left the event simply amazed. Everything from the organization and the lineup to the setting, the vendors and the people, this little festival, truly blew me away.

Because of work, I arrived to the festival later on Friday and was enthusiastically greeted by other festivarians as I drove slowly down the tent-lined road to park. Only a small amount of people are able to camp next to their car, so I parked and walked my stuff in to my group who was waiting anxiously for me to get to Yonder Mountain String Band. We made it right on time and with their energetic set, my festival season was in full bloom. I realize I had missed a lot of great music already – Del performed twice, Devil Makes Three and Railroad Earth played on Thursday, while Split Lip Rayfield, Della Mae, David Mayfield and Luther Dickinson has performed earlier that day. But something about that Yonder set made it a perfect way to start an intense season of live music. Like so many of the sets this weekend, they invited special guests on stage to share in the moment – Darol Anger, Tim Carbone of RRE, Jason Carter, and of course Del himself sat in for a couple songs. In bringing him on, Jeff Austin compared Del to Jerry Garcia in his level of influence, and I’ve never seen a happier birthday boy than Jeff was in playing with McCoury; one of the first very special moments at this very special festival.

I was obviously itching for more music, but the late night sets were an extra $20 and sold out very quickly. This is where I will call DelFest’s bluff – while I agree with their reasoning to exclude it from the general ticket price (it is a family festival, after all), each time I went into the air-conditioned building where late nights were held, there was excessive space. Organizers “sold out” their late nights with plenty of availability to invite more people in. I felt for the groups standing outside, and was peeved when I couldn’t get in to Greensky Bluegrass and RRE on Friday.

But the show must go on, and there was more music to be had on that blistering Saturday. The heat was unforgiving, that is until the torrential downpour that lasted about an hour. God bless its cooling powers, but the whole beautiful scene got thoroughly wet, and stayed so through the weekend, which is apparently typical for DelFest. After a delightful swim in the Potomac River (note to self: bring an inner tube next year) and a subsequent rinsing in the rain, I made it in for The Travelin’ McCourys featuring Keller Williams. Another fantastic set of music, notably covers like Born to be Wild and Hot Stuff that really blew me away, and it’s this exciting new style for both Keller and the Travelin’ McCourys that their new album Pick draws from.

One of the many great thing about DelFest is that most of the bands play twice, if not more due to guest appearances, so you really get every dime of music you pay for. If you missed anyone Friday, for a lot of them, you got a second chance on Saturday, and for the first appearances from Emmitt-Nershi Band and Leftover Salmon, we would see them again later as well. The Del McCoury Band’s best set was on Saturday, when Del chose to play classic bluegrass tunes, inspired covers, and of course, welcomed guests for a slew of stellar sit-ins, but the real treat that night was Leftover Salmon.

Now, forgive me for being naïve, but I did not know that Leftover could rock a house like that. From the very first chords, the energy was vibrant, the band was running around stage having a great time dancing in the colors, and it did not stop for their whole performance. Even listening back to the set (which I could and did buy from the fest the very next morning), there was not a break or skip in the beat or lag of enthusiasm once. When I saw them for their 20-year anniversary two years ago, I don’t think I saw the same band, and now, I can’t stop listening to their collection. It’s truly radiant, and I hope we see a strong return from them in the next couple of seasons.

As quite a perfect follow-up, late night sets by The David Mayfield Parade and Infamous Stringdusters were speedy, intense and really fun. Infamous Stringdusters are taking the bluegrass community by storm, and it only seems appropriate since their music is a whirlwind in itself. Their originals sound like instant classics fueled by a modern newgrass high, and their shows are nothing short of a full jam band experience, which also featured one of the only The Band covers of the whole weekend. Thank goodness this band plays pretty much everywhere these days; you will have plenty of opportunity to see for yourself what I mean.

Another great aspect of DelFest is its willingness to nurture young bands through their Bluegrass Band Competition. Over Friday and Saturday, eight smaller acts competed for a half hour Sunday morning slot on the main stage, and an invite to next year’s event. Being that it was Memorial Day Weekend, no one was in a rush to get out of the beautiful Allegany County Fairgrounds, especially not the musicians. Possibly the most stacked day of the entire festival, each stage featured a lineup of killer performances and jams, leaving attendees unwilling to depart from the concert fields through the heat and rain.

A McCoury Family Jam was the perfect way to start the last day, followed by Sara Watkins, the Sam Bush Band, the Larry Stephenson Band, Bela Fleck and the Bluegrass Allstars, and then…a second wild and powerful storm. Headed by strong gusts of wind that at first felt awesome, then got scary, and huge bolts of lightning that crashed right over our heads, the fans made a great moment out of a stranded situation. As we waited for word on when the rest of the music would happen, fans started self-entertaining in the Grandstands. Hundreds of us did group waves, sung the National Anthem, and eventually, started mud wrestling. From two, to four, to ten and more, eventually we were being fully amused by a large group of brave, wet souls running around on the slippery horse track.

The rain eventually let up for an excellent set by actor, comedian, and banjo player Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. He did a lot of talking in between songs, but it was informative, interesting, and, of course, funny. Never taking it too seriously or making too much of a joke, Martin traversed the bluegrass stage with relative ease and impressive skill. Nothing could have topped the guests he had with him – bluegrass fame simply pouring off stage – with everyone from Del, Bela, Jason Carter, all the McCoury’s, Darol Anger, Drew Emmitt, Bill Nershi and more. It was an unreal spectacle.

The rains came again and the festival moved the last set of the weekend into the DelFest Music Hall, where the late nights and workshops took place. This Del set with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was the cherry on top of a perfect weekend, the tiny stage packed with explosive energy. On the whole, there was very little to complain about with DelFest. It was well run, at a amazing venue, a perfect size and featured an amazing bluegrass lineup to get us into that hot heat of summer music that’s ahead. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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