Delfest: A family affair

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Delfest
Cumberland, MD
May 27-30, 2010

Memorial Day weekend, on a small and perfectly flat valley surrounded by rolling green hills, came together something special. Delfest, named for Bluegrass legend Del McCoury, is a festival that has something for everyone. With music from Thursday afternoon until the wee hours of Sunday night, there was plenty to do, lots to see and much to be a part of.

Delfest is one of those special, smaller festivals that has a way of making itself seem huge. It has all of the perks of a small family gathering: intimate playshops with amazing musicians, the ability to bump into musical heroes everywhere you turn, great impromptu collaborations and not a bad seat at any of the three stages all packed with music. At the same time, DelFest boasts all of the benefits of a big festival: great acts, official and unofficial late night shows and an energy that circulates back and forth between the audience and the musicians, keeping everybody moving, smiling and excited.

DSC01818.jpgMusic started early everyday and Friday, Saturday and Sunday each had official late night shows going upwards until dawn. Of course the Del McCoury Band played main stage sunset slots each night, but that only scratches the surface of the dance cards for these five bluegrass masters. Starting with bassist Alan Bertrand sitting in Friday evening with Uncle Earl, a solid all-female string band on a great and fun take of "Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color For Your Eyes" up until the final late night as mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and fiddler Jason Carter sat in with young up and comers Cornmeal, who take bluegrass instrumentation, add drums, and blend the speed, dexterity and harmonies of the genre with the intensity and cohesion of an after-hours moe. show.

Del himself was working the entire festival. He could often be seen riding around between stages shaking hands with everyone and smiling until his face must have hurt. He did a great "I’ll Fly Away" with the Lee Boys, a funky and fresh funk and gospel band during their Sunday morning session for the lord. He sang with David Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience as they rolled through old bluegrass favorites with new and old friends alike. He joined Yonder Mountain String Band, and sang along with Ronnie’s Little Mo’ McCoury kids set as they performed songs for the younger audience and "the kids in all of us." And when he was not on stage, he could usually be spotted just off stage watching and smiling along. 

DSC01860.jpgAnd Del was not alone for getting around this weekend. Larry Keel and Darol Anger often seemed to be in several places at once. Both sat in with a surprising set from Keller Williams. He was billed to be playing with bassist Keith Moseley (SCI) and mandolinist Jeff Austin (YMSB), but that was just the beginning of the lineup as they were joined by Joe Craven, the never dull MC of the weekend, Scott Law and others as they ran through a set consisting primarily of Grateful Dead classics, as well as a few straight bluegrass tunes, "Portapotty," and a rocking take on Erykah Badu’s "Tyrone." 

The headliners on the main stage were successively the Avett Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band and the David Rawlings Machine. Each band took the evening in a completely different way while leaving nothing to be desired. The Avett Brothers, joined by cello and drums throughout the majority of their set, broke hearts with sad songs, wowed with musicianship and made people think twice about what bluegrass instruments are supposed to sound like.

Yonder was joined throughout the entirety of their set by their unofficial fifth member, Darol Anger on fiddle, as well as a few other friends including Ronnie McCoury and Jason Flournoy, the banjo player from Larry Keel’s Natural Bridge. They encored with a great take on an underplayed classic: Pink Floyd’s "Goodbye Blue Sky."

The David Rawlings Machine, on the other hand was country and denim, song struttin’, hootin’ n’ hollerin’. Rawlings, best known for his mastery in backing up Gillian Welch – his partner both on stage and off – has turned the tables for this tour. The two are still together on stage every night, but now it is his show…for the most part anyway. Backed up by a band consisting of members of  Old Crow Medicine Show, these guys opened up the night with "Monkey and the Engineer" and never looked back. They covered Neil Young, sang gospel harmonies, Gillian played crowd favorite "Miss Ohio," and they closed out the set with Dylan’s "Queen Jane Approximately." It did not take long to see that the name on the bill may have changed, but the love from the people for these two remains.

DSC01759.jpgPost-headliner Saturday night, there was an impromptu, or "unofficial," late night performance from members of Natural Bridge, Greensky Bluegrass and others. Trampled by Turtles, a young band from Minnesota who play sitting down but do so with the power to move semis and lift boulders, wowed an audience, many of whom had clearly shown up just to see the Railroad Earth closer. These guys were a big talk of the festival and clearly will be rolling through your town shortly.

On the smallest of the three stages, there were a handful of playshops (like a workshop only all fun, all the time) throughout the weekend. Those inclined got to study clogging, guitar and fiddle with heavyweights, parents got to bring their kids (there were many,) to see the previously mentioned Little Mo’ McCoury show, and a handful of people got the rare chance to step inside of Joe Craven’s head for an hour and look around.

Craven, mandolinist, fiddler and percussion extraordinaire who toured with the David Grisman Quintet, gave a seminar on improvisation and how to incorporate it into both your music and your life. He started with "man in the cave" and walked us anthropologically into the present day. He explained that modern times have, for the most part, removed improvisation from our lives and he gave us some tips to put it back. It involved him riffing with kids, jamming with a man who had never played an instrument in his life and him dancing through the crowd, fiddle in hand, and a song on his voice. 

On the last night of the festival, Del brought two of his brothers and three of his grandkids to join him and his two sons (as well as Jason and Alan and a slew of others including David Grisman) for a song. As he stood up there, continuing his way through a seemingly endless catalogue of music from the better part of the last hundred years, it became clear what this festival was all about: McCoury is a bluegrass man and Delfest is a bluegrass festival.

But from the more traditional McCoury family to Cornmeal, and from old timers like Bobby Osborne and Bobby Hicks to the slew of young bands that were there constantly exploring the possibilities of acoustic instruments, it became clear that we were watching generations of bluegrass collide all in one massive weekend, all part of Del’s legacy. Forget about all of Del McCoury’s albums and his still strenuous touring schedule after all these decades – he’s not just the big smile, giant hair and perfect voice of bluegrass. He is the father of something bigger.

As the weekend came to a close and he was out there with generations of musicians, it became clear: Del McCoury might only have two sons, but he has a whole lot of children. 

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