Del Yeah!: Delfest 2011

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Del Yeah! It is the popular refrain yelled by the crowd, seen on t-shirts, shouted from the stage, and shared by fans throughout the weekend at Delfest, the four day bluegrass inspired festival in Cumberland, Maryland.  The refrain is a playful take on Delfest founder, namesake, and bluegrass legend, Del McCoury.

The festival, now in its fourth year, is McCoury’s way of keeping alive the long tradition of bluegrass festivals he grew up playing in about which he remembers, “Those festivals had so many musicians, including Flatt and Scruggs, me, Carter Stanley, Don Reno, Jimbo Norton, Sonny Osborne, they would all come up and do a number or two, maybe something they had done with Bill Monroe. It was amazing. It was a great show. It would take up the whole Sunday afternoon, and Bill would stand up there and sing and play that mandolin.  This day and time I am bringing in people from other musical genres to play with us. All music is all related you know. It is all kin somehow.”

 

 

Partnering with the same people who put on the High Sierra Music Festival, Delfest has blossomed into one of the hidden gems of the festival season.  McCoury serves as the ever gracious host, and can bee seen all weekend zipping around the grounds on a golf-cart while his immaculate white pompadour bounces in the breeze, taking time to meet fans with a simple “shake & howdy”, grooving off to the side of the main stage throughout the day or sitting in with seemingly every band that plays throughout the weekend.  And that is the beauty of Delfest; the ability to blend the traditional bluegrass of McCoury’s past and meld it into a cohesive lineup with the younger bands who are keeping that old-timey sound alive in their own unique way.

156.jpgWhere else can you see 80 year old legend Jesse McReynold‘s cover a Grateful Dead song before giving way to upstarts Trampled by Turtles and their raucous take on bluegrass?  Or witness Pyschograss with its murder’s row line-up of Darrol Anger (fiddle), Tony Trischka (banjo), Mike Marshall (mandolin), David Grier (guitar), and Todd Phillips (upright bass) dazzle before passing the stage off to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers and their wholly unique approach to the string band sound?

At the core of the weekend though is McCoury. Every band who takes the stage throughout the weekend seem to give him praise, which is then followed by McCoury or one of his insanely talented sons, Ronnie (mandolin) or Rob (banjo), sitting in with said band.

As with year’s past, the weather played a part this year in the shape of severe rain and thunderstorms that moved through the area Thursday and Friday. Despite the marshy mess this made, it did prove to be a positive for one reason on Thursday; it forced the main stage to close and forced the evening’s headliners, The Infamous Stringdusters, to play their set in the indoor music hall, which allowed them to ignore the usual main stage curfew of midnight and play into the wee-hours of the night with a set that unsurprisingly included a Del McCoury sit-in.

The rains returned Friday with a vengeance, leading to a soggy set from Chris Robinson, and an impromptu unplugged set from The Infamous Stringdusters on the walkway next to the second stage after their set was cancelled due to the rain before finally giving way for good just in time for McCoury to play the first of his three sets through out the weekend. Friday evening found him joined by Preservation Jazz Hall Band, and pulled heavily from their recently released joint album, American Legacies.

060.jpgOld Crow Medicine Show closed out the main stage in fine fashion with a high octane set that closed with a full McCoury band sit-in for the closing “Wagon Wheel” and “Tell it to Me” combo, before sending everyone over to the music hall for the late night show of Trampled by Turtles and Railroad Earth.  McCoury again found his way to the stage, where mistakenly and then after being informed of his mistake, jokingly he kept referring to Railroad Earth as Cornmeal (Cornmeal played late-night at Delfest last year so it made sense).

Saturday started with clear skies and bright sun that would permeate the rest of the weekend and start the drying process of the muddy quagmire that had formed in front of the main stage. Saturday also provided a chance to get an early start to the day with a visit to the second stage.

Part of what makes Delfest so great is the size and scope of the Festival. It is a relatively mid-size festival that seems content to stay that way. It also tends to book bands for multiple sets throughout the weekend, so no matter what conflict may arise on your daily schedule, you can usually find a chance to see every band throughout the weekend. If you missed the Emmit-Nershi Band closing out the side stage on Friday, it’s ok. You can catch them on the main stage Saturday or headlining the late night music hall Sunday.

There are also artist playshops throughout the weekend in the music hall that allow you to catch bands and musicians in intimate settings with unique pairings. Couldn’t see the Punch Brothers? Head to the music hall and listen to Chris Thile pick with Ronnie McCoury and Mike Marshall.

The second stage also provides the opportunity to be introduced and discover some younger or less known acts. This weekend that was highlighted by an impressive early Saturday set by Colorado’s Head for the Hills, and even more impressive set Sunday morning by singer/songwriter Nathan Moore (who was playing his third set of the weekend). Moore’s set was a memorizing display of his unparalleled songwriter talents.

042.jpgSaturday night closed with perhaps the most discussed set of the weekend. Warren Haynes played an acoustic set with an impressive set of rotating friends that included members of his current touring band, Railroad Earth, Drew Emitt and Bill Nershi, and McCoury’s band.  The set was wide ranging and included Govt Mule tunes  such as “Railroad Boy,” solo Haynes songs such as “Patchwork Quilt” and “I’ll Be The One,” some strong covers including the Grateful Dead’s “China Doll” and “To Lay Me Down” and Sam Cooke’s  “A Change is Gonna Come.” It all came to culmination with the Haynes staple, “Soulshine,” that found McCoury joining in as he sang from a folded up piece of paper with the words on it. One critique was that the set a bit subdued in light of its billing as the night’s closer. A comment overheard seemed to sum this up perfectly, “He even slowed down (The Rolling Stones) ‘Wild Horses.'” “Who knew that was possible?”

Sunday’s closers were the complete opposite energy wise. Following what was McCoury’s strongest set of the weekend, Yonder Mountain String Band made a return visit to the main stage which they had graced last year and delivered their usual full-on, balls to the wall bluegrass thrash; they closed things out in style.

Not one to miss out, McCoury led the way through a powerful “Prisoner’s Song.”  Ronnie McCoury, Drew Emmitt, and fiddler Jason Carter then joined for a lengthy “On the Run” > “Death Trip” > “On the Run,” which was followed by an encore of the Bill Monroe rarity “Southern Flavor.”

As the crowd filed out into the warm, May night, there was only one thing left to say to wrap up the weekend, two words, a thanks of sorts to an ever gracious and thankful host who seemed to be everyone at once through out the fest that carries his name, a simple shouted playful refrain, “Del Yeah!”

Click the thumbnail to view more images from the fest by Tim Newby

 

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