So heading in to Delfest this year there were two questions on everyone’s mind. First what would the weather bring? Would it be the Del Hail from 2009, wet and muddy conditions, or the blazing heat that seems to roll it to Delfest every year? It was none of the above as this year brought something never seen before at Delfest, un-seasonably cold weather. While it was possibly the driest Delfest has ever been, a brief rainstorm late Thursday afternoon, and a few sprinkles that same night during Leftover Salmon’s set being the only precipitation seen all weekend it was the cold that will be remembered weather wise this year. The days were generally comfortable and mild, but as soon as the sun set behind mountains, the temperature dipped to near record lows every night, reaching into the low 40s, high 30s most nights. Fortunately the cold temperatures did nothing to stifle the hot-picking on stage at night.
The second question revolved around the inclusion of the Trey Anastasio Band as a headliner. While there is no doubt of Anastasio’s love of bluegrass and there was palpable excitement leading up to the fest in anticipation about his set (actually two sets), there was some trepidation about the influence his addition might have on the family-friendly-easy-going nature that usually permeates Delfest crowds. The phrase “Please Don’t Wook Delfest” was bandied about quite a bit before the weekend, but it ended up being lot of worry over nothing. There may have a been a slight increase in crowd size, but whether that was due to a natural growth in the size of the fest or because of Trey was really a moot point as the same easy-going-laid back atmosphere that is so pervasive every year at Delfest was evident again. And since Anastasio’s set and appearance was so heavily discussed before the fest, it should be as equally discussed after. To sum up his set in as few words as possible, quite simply he killed it.
Anastasio’s two sets were fairly typical song selection wise for what he has been doing lately with his band. He pulled from all of his various solo albums, though his set this evening was weighted heavily with songs from his self-titled release playing, “Cayman Review,” “Last Tube”, “Drifting”, “Push on till the day”, and “Money, Love, & Change,” this evening. He included the obligatory Phish songs that are a regular part of the Trey Band rotation, “First Tube,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Sand”, and “Heavy Things.” The “Heavy Things” encore was particularly nasty with the inclusion of Ronnie McCoury’s mind-blowing mandolin work and the tasteful addition of Jason Carter on fiddler. The real highlight of the set was perhaps the worst kept secret of the weekend, the mid-2nd set sit-in of the Del McCoury Band. Rumors had been circulated in the weeks prior of a collaboration between the two. Anastasio in his trademark rambling-story-telling-style explained how he had gotten a copy of a Del McCoury album from the guys in Aquarium Rescue Unit back in the early 90s and was hooked since then. While onstage Del and Anastasio recounted their time playing together back at Phish’s Camp Oswego in 1999, before launching into a brief two song collaboration, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” and “Beauty of My Dreams,” which was in the running for the most smile inducing song of the weekend.
As with every year at Delfest the McCoury family are perfect hosts, and Del and his two sons Ronnie and Rob seem to welcome almost every band to the festival by joining them onstage at some point. Del seemed to sit-in a little less frequently than he has in years past, but in addition to his four main-stage sets, an afternoon Masters of Bluegrass set, and the annual McCoury Family Jam, he still found time to join the headliners, Leftover Salmon, Trey Anastasio, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Yonder Mountain String Band for a couple of tunes each night. He also took to the stage with dobro master Jerry Douglas, and walked on with Keller Williams and the McCoury’s to sing his verse in “Bumper Sticker.” Younger brother and banjo picker Rob, while sitting in less than his Dad and brother, made the most of his limited guest spots, with his full set sit-in with the Rambling Rooks (Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby & Kenny Smith from the Lonesome River Band), a real Thursday treat.
The MVP of the McCoury family for the weekend and of the entire festival was hands down mandolinist Ronnie. Already a busy man as it was with his four appearances with The Del McCoury Band, a set with Keller & the McCoury’s, a late night set opening for Leftover Salmon with the Traveling McCoury’s, and a Saturday afternoon inclusion as part of the special one-off All-Star band of Pikelny, Sutton, McCoury, Bulla, & Bales, Ronnie still found time and the energy to grace the stage with a variety of other bands countless times over the weekend. His set with Pikelny, Sutton, McCoury, Bulla, and Bales was a nice surprise Saturday afternoon. Assembled by banjo picker Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) and including guitarist Bryan Sutton (Hot Rize), fiddler Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett Band), bassist Barry Bales (Allison Kraus & Union Station), and McCoury, the all-star collective blasted through a set through that pulled tunes from all of their vast repertoire’s.Â The set was a picker’s dream, highlighting some of the best young musicians in the bluegrass world. In addition to all his regularly scheduled sets, Ronnie was a ubiquitous present throughout the weekend, seemingly playing with every band that was at the festival. The phrase, “And will you please welcome to the stage, Ronnie McCoury,” just seemed to be how bands introduced every one of their songs all weekend, as it would then be followed by Ronnie ambling on stage to rip through yet a mind-bending mandolin solo. Listing all the bands who he sat in with would be akin to listing all the bands that were at Delfest. Late night, mid-day, main stage, music hall, it did not matter Ronnie was there. He was not the only musician in Cumberland, it only seemed like it.
As usual the Delfest line-up was stocked with classic legendary bluegrass musicians as well as younger emerging stars. One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was the Masters of Bluegrass, or as Del called them, The Mob. Comprised of Del on guitar and vocals, his brother Jerry McCoury on bass, JD Crowe on banjo, Bobby Osborne on mandolin, and Bobby Hicks on fiddle, The Mob is truly an once-in-a-lifetime line-up of living legends who can all trace theirÂ roots back to the earliest days of bluegrass. They all joined Del on Saturday night for a brief main-stage appearance that was a showcase for their unparalleled talent. But it was their Sunday afternoon set in the music hall then exemplified their true greatness. Playing without the constraints of time inside the spacious music hall. (Who is going to tell you to wrap it up when your name is the name of the festival?) The five legends played a set that was a journey through the history of bluegrass with Del as your narrator. They played without a set list taking requests from the crowd and each other. The discovery of a previous band’s set list still taped to the stage lead to a humorous exchange within the band about what they should play next.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were those younger bands who are hoping to become the next legends of the genre. At Delfest there were a trio of bands that all seemed to fit that description. Two of them have stormed the jam-grass scene lately. They both arrived on the scene a few years back in a swirl of high-energy picking and jams that finds them easily seguing from a classic Jimmy Martin tune, to a Grateful Dead song, to some random rock cover. The Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass have both seen their respective audiences explode over the past few years, and their rise at Delfest has mirrored that same explosion. They both started as early afternoon bands on the side stage their first years only to quickly find themselves main stage stalwarts and headliner late night acts. This year they both played a pair of main stage sets, as well as each serving as a late-night headliner. And they did not disappoint during either set. Unsurprisingly Ronnie McCoury made an appearance with both of them during their late night sets, joining Greensky for “Eat My Dust”, and the Infamous Stringdusters for a double shot of “Pioneers,” and “Wheel Horse.”
The other band that seemed to garner so much attention over the weekend was Colorado’s Elephant Revival. Elephant Revival is a five-piece band that mixes subtle strains of folk and bluegrass, with dreamy heart-felt lyrics that float along a river of gentle melody weaved by gypsy souls. Every year at Delfest there is that band that seems to burst out of nowhere and Elephant Revival was that band this year. Their two-sets on Friday, on the side-stage and in the music hall were both must attend moments of the festival. Their Behind the Music Artist Play Shop in the Music Hall was overflowing with people and provided a unique insight into the band and their music as they told stories about themselves and their music throughout the set.
As with years past at Delfest, one went into it worried about the weather and anxiously looking forward to the music. And as with years past the weather threw a curve-ball that no one saw coming; this year being the crazy cold temperatures. But at the end of the weekend, as it always does, the weather became a distant thought when thinking back on the weekend. And whether you caught every appearance of Ronnie McCoury, or heard every glorious note that Del sung, or were worried if the world was going to end because Trey was there, in the end it did not matter because just as it is every year at Delfest not matter where you looked, whether on the main stage with the Masters of Bluegrass, in the music hall with Elephant Revival, on the side-stage during the band competition there was some hot picking happening and some incredible music being made, and as it does year after year, Delfest showed why it is one of the best festivals around.