Photos by Jamie Kastriches
The 6th annual Del Fest brought to you by none other than bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his family of bluegrass all stars, took place over Memorial Day Weekend. Some may have been wondering if Del and his family put together another all star line-up with the old classics and some new appearances. Well, the answer is Del yea he could! This years festival brought together big name acts such as Trey Anastasio Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mountain String Band, Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon, and of course all of the McCoury bands, from Del’s Band to the Travelin’ McCourys and as always, this year’s festival was a family oriented event that has kept its roots at the Allegany Fair Grounds in Cumberland, Maryland. The event featured three stages, The Grandstand; The Potomac stage, and the ever-popular late night stage, which was held indoors and sold out all 3 nights this year.
I arrived at the event early Thursday morning before gates opened to be a part of Camp Traction; A clean and sober camping site that Del Fest had set aside for attendees who chose to enjoy the festival drug and alcohol free. Before even getting our camp set up, I could tell that there would be many families and kids enjoying all of the activities that Del Fest offers. Some of these activities included art projects sponsored by The Allegany County Arts Council’s Arts Bus, environmental education events held by Friends of Dekers and Friends of Cheat, music performed by the local children’s school band, tye-dying, and paper mache.
After setting up camp and getting a lay of the land, we headed over to the vendor area, which was full of excellent food options. There was a vegetarian option by the name of Goatocado, which is one of the places I chose to eat. Their quinoa bowl featuring an array of veggies was outstanding, and their quality food was a step above many things I have eaten at festivals in the past. For the omnivores Archie’s BBQ was serving up fresh pulled pork and ginormous turkey legs with cornbread I could have eaten for day. Additionally, there was Pie for The People serving the necessary pizza staple, a taco tent, and Chinese food with the best breakfast burritos. Del Fest offered an exceptional menu full of options that I have never seen at any other festival before.
After enjoying a little afternoon snack and watching people funnel into the campgrounds, I went into the Grandstand field to see the Del McCoury Band’s sound check. It was fun and full of energy and a good sign of things to come. Although I did miss The Rambling Rooks due to obligations at the campsite, I was able to make it back in time for The Jerry Douglas Band. Jerry Douglas, the renowned dobra player and recipient of 13 Grammy Awards, had the crowd laughing with his comical anecdotes and had them dancing with his very unique style. His rendition of Leadbelly’s “On A Monday” featured a sit-in with none other then Del McCoury on vocals was a crowd favorite and stood out as the highlight of the set in my opinion.
Jerry’s set was a real hoot to say the least and left the crowd pumped up for the headliner of the night Leftover Salmon. As the festival-goers continued to arrive and anticipation of a great weekend morphed into a reality, Leftover Salmon took the stage accompanied by a little rain. Leftover Salmon, who formed in Boulder, Colorado in 1989, are the originators of the “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass genre.” Their set was upbeat and featured a variety of classics as well as new songs. Again, Del and Ronny McCoury joined the jam on a fast paced and upbeat version of Midnight Blues and Home Cooking. The positive energy emanating from the stage could be felt throughout the festival grounds.
As the set came to an end, we saw the last of the rain for the entire weekend. This was my first Del Fest, but I am told that the lack of rain was nothing short of a miracle. However, sometime over night on Thursday, cold temperatures started to set in and when I woke Friday morning, it was to a gray overcast sky and temperatures that required a sweatshirt and long pants. Luckily I had been warned that Del Fest experienced strange weather fluctuations so I was prepared. In addition, I knew I was in for a Del of a day musically, so, although I was cold, my soul was warm with the promise of heated dance.
My day was started with a cup of Lemon Tumeric Tea from the Buzzthru Espresso Bar, a crowd favorite as displayed by the long lines for coffee and tea every morning of the festival. However, there is much to be said about their quality and efficiency in a festival setting, and although I only enjoyed teas, my favorite being the Chi Latte with Hemp milk, I heard their coffee was well worth the minor wait.
My day for music started at noon with a visit to the Potomac stage for Blue Mafia, a classic bluegrass band with a strong vocal foundation. They absolutely shredded their set and for a brief moment had me all but forgetting about the overwhelming cold and windy weather.
At 4:00pm I made a visit to The Grandstand for Trampled by Turtles. Although I missed several bands between Blue Mafia and Trampled By Turtles, my traveling companions, all of whom were much larger Bluegrass aficionados then myself informed me that the bands who had played previously in the day which included Danny Barnes, Mamajowali, Davission Brothers Band were all at the top of their game and put on great shows for everyone who was able to see them. Trampled by Turtles, the 5-piece band from Deluth Minnesota has quickly been gaining steam as one of the acts not to miss at many festivals across the country. They played a downright amazing set which included covers of The Pixies “Where is My Mind,” a crowd favorite and a highlight for me. This was my first time seeing Trampled by Turtles, so although I would like to tell you more about some of the songs they played; I have only become accustomed to them after the fact. I can, however, tell you that Trampled by Turtles is a band that I will make sure never to miss when they stop in my hometown.
The afternoon continued with the customary early evening by The Del McCoury Band. Del is always a good time. The Del McCoury Band, the keystone of this festival, consists of Del McCoury on guitar, Rob McCoury on banjo, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Alan Bartman on upright Bass, and Jason Carter on Fiddle. One can’t say enough about what Del and his band have done for bluegrass; they are an absolutely indispensable piece of this scene that has left their fingerprint all over this great country. Their afternoon set didn’t disappoint either, it was upbeat and full of lighthearted bluegrass tunes that would kept the crowd warm and got them ready for the chilly night to come.
Now I would be lying if I didn’t start the next review out by saying that I am extremely biased. I have been a Phish Head since the mid nineties. If it hadn’t been for Phish, I may have never have heard of bluegrass music, and frankly, my number one incentive for attending this festival for was for the 2 sets by Trey Anastasio Band that were scheduled for Friday night. That being said, this was by far the best TAB show I have ever seen, and I would even go as far as to say this set was in my top 20 of Phish related moments, over the course of my 15 years of seeing Phish live, 20 years of listening to their music, and 100 plus shows I have attended. Going into the set I knew there was going to be a sit in by Del, but I didn’t know when, and it wouldn’t come until after a rocking first set.
The set opened with a jammed out “Cayman Review” after which Trey remarked about how beautiful the Del Fest site was to play at, and he was not kidding. The concert field was nuzzled in the Cumberland Mountains and has a very cavernous feel to it. Following “Cayman Review”, the set just gained steam, including a classic TAB cover of “Oo-oh Child,” and finishing with a high speed and rocking “Push On Till The Day”, a song I find comical after all these years of positive living by Trey.
After opening the second set with a song frequently played by Phish, and a crowd favorite “Gotta Jibbo”, Trey began to tell a story about how he came to know and love Del’s music. He explained that during his travels in the early 90s with Col. Bruce Hampton & Aquarium Rescue Unit, ARU mandolin player, Matt Mundy, had turned Phish on to Blue Side of Town by Del McCoury, and how that became a staple of road music in Phish’s van. Trey also mentioned Del’s trip to Phish summer festival in 1999 in OswegoNY. This struck a cord with me, because this was in fact where I had first heard of Del MCoury myself. After that Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter and Rob McCoury came out to play “I’m Blue”, “I’m Lonesome” and “Beauty of My Dream”, a Del tune that Phish frequently plays. They could have walked off the stage at this point and this set would have been a win. However, it was just getting started at this point, after Del and company left the stage, the band played “Valentine”, then “Money Love and Change” and this is were the fireworks started. As the band played the Gorillaz cover “Clint Eastwood”, a full moon began to rise over the Cumberland Mountains and the crowd began to howl. In that moment, it was clear that the frigid weather that had been endured all day was well worth it. Before going into “Sand”, an extremely good song call, Trey had the lights on the stage turned off so his band and he could admire the moon. The full moon rising over the mountain through the scattered clouds on this cold night during “Sand” was absolutely amazing. The crowd continued to howl, and the energy continued to build. When TAB went into “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”, the energy was off the charts! It was mellowed out a little with a “Let Me Lie”, which has some particularly strong connotations for me from an experience in Telluride in the summer of 2010. After this, the set concluded with the ever popular and extremely fast paced “First Tube”. For the encore Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter and Rob McCoury came backstage to sit in on “Heavy Thing” and the classic Led Zeppelin tune “Black Dog”.
As the set concluded, and I walked back to my camp in the cold weather, it hit me that the night was still young and that the cure for my cold feet was soon to come as the late night sets of the Traveling McCourys and Leftover Salmon, which would be held indoors and go till the early morning hours of Saturday. Luckily I had bought my ticket to the Friday and Saturday late nights earlier in the day after being warned that they would sell out shortly because that was exactly the case.
When we arrived at the Field House, there were people offering good money for extra tickets. Part of me thinks it may have been because they were simply looking for a warm place to hang out for the next 4-6 hours because at this point the cold was downright obnoxious and uncalled for…I couldn’t even feel my toes!
Upon entering the hall, I almost felt like I was going to high school dance or something, aside of course for the strong odor of skunk and the beer tables. The warmth was comforting, and I actually briefly fell asleep on the floor in the corner of the hall during the Traveling McCoury’s set, this say’s more about my state of mind at this point then the music, because the music was rocking. After a brief nap I got up and danced with a large crowd on stage left and began to wonder if they intentionally undersold the event because there was plenty of room to be had, that or perhaps I am just accustomed to New York City clubs which are always overcrowded.
After a great set by the McCoury’s there was a fairly long intermission and Leftover Salmon didn’t come on till the early morning hours and played into the wee hours of the AM. It was a good time and the music went on long and hard. After leaving the venue, the prospect of sleeping in this cold was even less appealing and all I could do was fall asleep and hope that tomorrow would bring sunny skies.
The weather Saturday morning started out overcast, but quickly transitioned. Due to commitments at the camp and a general inability to move, due to my lack of sleep from the cold the night before, I hung around the camp and slept in the sun until Greensky Bluegrass’s set at 4:15. Greensky, the Michigan quintet, which are notable for their rouge bluegrass style, was a great start to the day.
Shortly after, Keller Williams and his band took the stage, which was where my day really started to come alive. Keller, who in his usual fashion had a set laced with Talking Heads and Grateful Dead covers, two of my all time favorite bands, had me from the start. On top of the music being great, the crowd really seemed to come alive at this time. There were hula hoopers getting down all over the field, a large crowd dancing behind the soundboard and a general feeling of gratitude that the weather was so nice and the music so upbeat.
After the Keller set came an afternoon set by The Del McCoury Band, followed by a rocking headlining set by Old Crow Medicine Show. I had never seen Old Crow before, but I had been warned that this was not a set to be missed. Old Crow Medicine Show hit the stage full of spit and vinegar, their style was something I was new to and it really took me by surprise. Their energy was off the charts and I could see how they were the perfect fit to headline the Saturday spot of this festival. They had the crowd going nuts with tunes like “Methamphetamine” and “Alabama High Test”. When they launched into their most popular song, “Wagon Wheel”, the crowd went nuts, and the liveliness was palpable. The crowd during this time was treated to fire dancers as well as crazy light up hula hoopers. Overall, their set was great…a real rock and roll show in their Bluegrass meets Punk roll style and was a great close for the grandstand on Saturday night. However, the night was still young and one of the shows that were atop of many people’s list was occurring over at the late night stage.
The mood in the late night music hall was electric and the Hackensaw Boys were a great lead for The Infamous Stringdusters and had the crowd all warmed up when The Stringdusters took the stage early Sunday morning. The Stringdusters show was full of fire. It included sit-ins with Anders Beck on “Head Over Heels” and the busy Ronnie McCoury on “Pioneers” and “Wheelhorse”.
As the night grew late, the crowd slightly thinned out, while others who had been dancing outside the sold out show made their way through the now unguarded doors. The Stringdusters launched into “100 years From Now” into a “Walking on The Moon”, which I hadn’t seen some masterfully covered since I saw String Cheese Cover in Portland, Maine some ten years ago on Halloween. The set closed with an absolutely rocking version of Bill Monroe’s, “Uncle Pen”, another Bluegrass song I had come to know and love because of Phish. A nice long encore of “Moon Man” closed out the show and the electrified crowd spilled out in the night with excitement and awe at the great show they had just been treated to.
The next morning, the Grandstage got pumping early with The Campbell Brother Gospel Sessions. The Campbell Brother’s mix traditional Gospel music with electric pedal steel and powerful voices had the crowd rocking early. I am not sure what to say about this set other then that it was perfect for a Sunday morning and was well worth the early morning trip to the Grandstage. If you get a chance to see these guys do not miss it.
The day continued with a great deal of music, however due to commitments back home we had to leave after this set. The Del Fest experience was a great one though and is not one to be missed, especially if you are into Bluegrass and family fun or even if what you seek is a late night party. The festival strongly reminded me of Nateva, which I attended in 2010 when it came to the atmosphere. Although the music is predominantly Bluegrass they also give you a good mix of other options if that is what you fancy.