Delfest Moves Forward by Reaching Into the Past
By Josh Klemons
Delfest isn’t so much a music festival as it is a massive family reunion. Delfest is built around the charms and talents of one man, Del McCoury, who has been playing this music since before man landed on the moon. In spite of the fact that he is doing the same thing today that he has been doing since the early sixties, he is doing it with the same passion, the same skill and he is having just as good a time doing today as he ever was.
In many ways, Delfest is a celebration of the past. Del’s own band, the Del McCoury Band (DMB) which features MCoury and his two sons Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo, respectively, along with Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass – plays traditional bluegrass music the way that it was meant to be played: by masterful musicians standing around a single microphone and telling a story with each tune. Doyle Lawson, who sat in for a majority of the DMB Saturday night set, is a bluegrass gospel master. Ironically, one of the purest throwback groups of the weekend was the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. It’s ironic because the band is fronted by three brothers from New Jersey ranging in age from 10-14. But these boys play straight ahead, Flatt and Scruggs-inspired bluegrass. And man can they play. They are an anomaly in the bluegrass world; they went viral on YouTube. And they can pick. Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars along with his new group, The Wandering, masterfully played several sets of old time blues music. All of these groups help keep the past alive and tangible. They are historians as much as they are musicians and the world is a better place for all of them.
Delfest also featured many bands still striving to hang onto the old traditions but also looking to make them their own. The all female Della Mae seemed to be everywhere throughout the weekend, playing their own sets, doing a group playshop and sitting in with various other musicians. They play sweet and soulful bluegrass, centered largely on original songwriting. Birds of Chicago, an enchanting group centered around a male and female vocalist, took pop and soul and turned them on their heads just enough to create something new and beautiful. And Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek might be young, but she has a sound and a voice that date back generations.
But Delfest does not settle for the past, rather it is constantly looking to the future. The festival featured a slew of bands that use bluegrass instruments – masterfully – to create whatever sounds are in their heads. The Emmitt-Nershi Band, centered on Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Bill Nershi of The String Cheese Incident, obliterates everything you think you know about bluegrass. They believe in the traditions and they hold them true, yet somehow are constantly breaking boundaries and exploring new musical ground every time they play. Other bands in attendance following in the footsteps of these two giants are The Infamous Stringdusters, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass and Friday night’s headliner, the Yonder Mountain String Band. Bands like these are helping to bring whole new generations into the fold, to keep it evolving and growing as any such movement must. But even as they look forward and make their way further and deeper into the unknown, they are constantly looking back. And what a blessed tradition in which the trailblazers cannot only look back to their heroes and idols, but get to share the stage with them. That is what Delfest is all about.
And then there is Bela Fleck. Bela was only at the festival on Sunday, but his dance card was full. He did a Bluegrass All Star jam on the main stage. He sat in with practically everyone on several stages. All that is to be expected by someone of his stature. But he also did something completely different. He played a full-on jazz set along with the Marcus Roberts Trio. The trio consists of a pianist, upright bass player and a drummer, and they all are serious jazz musicians. And then there was Bela with his banjo. What he brings to the table is simply incredible. On some numbers, he played along with them and passively mastered their sound. On other numbers, he took the lead and led them into territories that were so outside the box, there isn’t really a label for them. When he took charge, it was less a Flecktones sound and more of a solo, acoustic Bela feel. But it was also something completely different. The trio was clearly thrilled to be playing with Bela, as was Bela thrilled to be sharing the stage with them. The real winners however were the few hundred people who got to enter the room, escape the sun, and witness the magic unfold.
As always, Joe Craven served as MC of the main stage, welcoming each act onto stage and whetting the musical appetites of those in the audience. Joe writes, or improvises, beautiful, poetic mini-essays about every group set to take the stage. He sets the mood for what is to come. He also led his annual playshop on improvisation in which he strives to help us all remember to be children in our lives, everyday, not just in the open and understanding atmosphere of Delfest. This year, he also brought with him the Joe Craven Trio, where he was backed by a keyboard player and a drummer. When he wasn’t playing nasty fiddle or mandolin with these guys, he was rocking a solo on a cheese grater or scatting beautiful nonsense with perfect rhythm and intention.
The Travelin’ McCourys are the Del McCoury Band sans Del and they have become the house band for bluegrass music. Motown had The Funk Brothers, bluegrass has the Travelin’ McCourys. Four masters on their instruments, these guys did back up sets with Keller Williams, with whom they just released a new album, backed up Bela Fleck’s All Star Bluegrass jam (sans Robbie) and sat in and backed up over a dozen artists throughout the weekend, either on their own or in a group. They are pitch perfect bluegrass musicians, both vocally and instrumentally, and while they are usually seen playing bluegrass the way their father taught them, they looked just as comfortable playing Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” or “Freaker by the Speaker” alongside Keller. The headliner of Sunday night was the DMB along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Preservation Hall is New Orleans in a suit and tie. With a horn line (featuring two sousaphone players!), piano, funky drums and killer vocals, these guys merged their sound with Del and the boys for a killer set following the second massive storm of Sunday night.
Oh right, there were storms. In the words of Del: it wouldn’t be Delfest without a couple of storms. Unfortunately, this is a true statement. It is worth mentioning that the fairgrounds were better equipped for rain this year than they have been in the past, having laid fine gravel over the dirt to avoid turning the first fifty feet of ground in front of the main stage into a massive mud pile under the weight of thousands of pairs of dancing feet. But not to worry, there was mud! There was one massive storm on Saturday evening and two on Sunday night. During those times, everyone without an RV or a wish to get massively soaked headed into one of only two (relatively) dry areas in the fairgrounds. One was the indoor music hall and the other was the bleachers that sits alongside the main stage. The entirety of the main stage area is surrounded by a track and the bleachers sit outside of that. Thousands of people came together to sit in the bleachers and watch the storms pass. But this was no boring crowd. There was singing and chanting and several impromptu waves. There were also the brave few who decided that no muddy field should go unplayed in. There were full on touch football games, wrestling, relay races and even an (attempted) human pyramid. Delfest had seen its first muddy Delympics!
On Sunday evening – in between the two storms, replete with huge gusts of wind, heavy rain and breathtaking lightening that lit up the sky over the mountains – everyone in attendance was treated to something truly special. Steve Martin did a set, backed up by the Steep Canyon Rangers. This set was one part comedy show, one part great bluegrass set and all parts awesome. Steve Martin definitely has his shtick. He dropped one-liners between every song and had whole bits worked up with his backing band (who clearly had many fans of their own in the crowd). But he is not a comedian who plays the banjo, he is a banjo player who tells jokes. He plays – with picks and clawhammer style – like an old pro. He left most of the singing to the Rangers, but did bring out one original a cappella song, performed with the band, that was something special. He preempted it by leaving stage and letting the Rangers do a gospel a cappella number. He then returned and made a comment about how unfair it was that Atheists do not have songs of their own. So he had written one called “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” This song bridged the gap between Steve’s two massive talents. It was a splendidly written, arranged and performed piece, but was made complete by the insertion of his comedic skill. Before the set was over, he had also welcomed to the stage Bela, Sam Bush and Del and the boys. At its peak, there were four banjos, three mandolins, two guitars, two fiddles and an upright bass on stage.
The weekend ended with Leftover Salmon and the Travelin’ McCoury’s doing an epic late night set that went and went and went. With each song, the group of musicians on stage grew. And the night just got rowdier and rowdier. Everyone knew that it would be another year before this family reunion met again and they wanted to squeeze every last drop of magic out of the weekend, now spilling over into its fifth day.
There is something timeless about bluegrass. It is a young music in the scheme of things but it comes from somewhere deep inside. Del McCoury is an embodiment of that depth. He conjures up ancient sounds and distant places as he sings songs, new and old. Del was sitting in with sets throughout each day of the festival. He was still there as the late nights were winding down. He may be eligible for social security, but he never tires. He never slows down. He is always standing, always smiling, always excited. As another Delfest comes to a close, it becomes clear what it is we love about Del McCoury. We keep getting older, but somehow, he stays the same age.
Delfest: More than just a namesake
By Tim Newby
Nestled at the base of the Appalachian Mountains near the northern end of the Potomac River and just outside the city limits of Cumberland, Maryland, is one of the true hidden gems of the ever-expanding festival season. It is a festival that is unique in its approach and scope. Whereas most festivals are made up of a collection of genre specific or completely random bands, Delfest, though held together by a vague notion of bluegrass, is really all about the festival’s name sake and founder, Del McCoury. The 73 year old bluegrass legend’s personality, music, and incredible spirit permeate everything about the festival. From the music on the stage to the family atmosphere that is in the air and the genuine appreciation and joy each band and every fan seems to carry with them throughout the weekend, McCoury is the inspiration for it all.
During his headlining set Friday night, Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin, made his feelings regarding McCoury quite clear. “One of the great joys of getting to play this festival is there are a lot of people in the music world who I admire,” Austin proclaimed from high atop the festival’s main stage for the third year in a row. “The top two are Jerry Garcia, who I never got to meet, but I admired from afar and who inspired everything I do,” he continued, “and the other one [Del McCoury] is about to walk onstage and sing some songs with us, and that is just awesome in so many ways.”
But McCoury’s appearance throughout the weekend was not limited to his couple of sets and a sit in with Yonder. McCoury is omnipresent all weekend. If one turned spotting McCoury around the festival into a drinking game, he would be mighty drunk pretty quickly. Whether seeing a blurred version of his immaculate white pompadour zipping around on a golf cart, spotting him hanging by the merch tent, looking away and turning back only to see that he had somehow jumped on stage with Leftover Salmon during “Midnight Blues,” the statesman of string music makes the rounds. But the true sign of a great host is not just how well you can mingle with your guests, but which guests you choose to invite.
An impressive array of headliners topped the guest list, including a band that is now in its junior Delfest year, Yonder Mountain String Band did exactly what they seemingly always set out to do by providing their usual high-octane set. As per usual at Delfest, the sit-ins were abundant.
A highlight of the set came courtesy of a guest fiddle convention that consisted of Darroll Anger (Republic of Strings), Jason Carter (Travelin’ Mccourys) and Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth). The three distinct masters of the same tool of their trade literally held church before a fully engaged crowd. The lengthy once in a lifetime workout weaved its way through a trance infused “Dawn’s Early Light” that was succeeded by Talking Head’s “Girlfriend is Better” and wrapped with “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown.”
Amongst a pioneer heavy lineup — that also included Sam Bush — was Saturday’s poly-ethnic Cajun headliner, Leftover Salmon, who brought their festival perfect sound in a set that relied heavily on the recently released Â Aquatic Hitchhike.
Sunday headliners, Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, had to endure a brief rain-delay before talking the stage, but after they did, they showed why they were named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the year for 2011, a fact that Martin was more than pleased to remind the crowd of during their set.
As with years past though, Delfest is not just about having a couple of big headliners carry the day. The beauty and strength of the fest is in how the bluegrass spectrum is spanned, from an early morning gospel set from someone with as long a history in the genre as Doyle Lawson & Quicksliver to the thrashed out rockabilly-punk-grass of Devil Makes Three, the jam-friendly sound of Railroad Earth and the legendary banjo work of Bela Fleck. Herein lies yet one more great aspect of Delfest. While many events seem to pride themselves on forcing their attendees into the all too common schedule dilemma, Delfest gives some of the bands multiple sets throughout the weekend. As a result of this, the festival holds onto what many value most about an event of its type: discovery of new acts, something that is all but lost when forcing decisions that typically end up in the sacrificing of the unknown in the name of certainty and familiarity.
While at its thematic core, the festival can be summed up as a “Bluegrass Fest,” the theme is not limiting. Bands that teeter on the edge are always included. This year, in addition to his main stage set with what was billed as The Bluegrass All-Stars, Bela Fleck also played a set with the Marcus Roberts Trio that found the common ground between the smooth jazz trio and the more traditional sound of Fleck’s banjo. Another guest whose band challenged the label was Delfest Freshman, Luther Dickinson’s (North Mississippi Allstars) latest all female backed ensemble, The Wandering. who masterfully played several sets of old-timey roots music.
It is hard to list all that make Delfest such a unique and smooth-running festival. You can talk about the stellar lineup that is billed every year. In fact, there are so many honorable mentions in regards the summary of its greatness that it is staggering. It is great to be able to see bands multiple times through the weekend. The annual band competition that is held on Friday and Saturday afternoons has birthed new favorite bands for attendees over the years. That is great too. Of course, your feet would be most congratulatory to the organizers for putting together a layout that does not force you to walk to the ends of the earth in order to get back to camp, buy ice or visit the stages.
The fact is that the list of things that go into making Delfest great each year would be as long and as impressive as the guest list each year. In the end though, it really comes down to one thing that makes the whole festival so special: Â the aging legend with perfect white hair to match his faultless voice that causes the crowd to go crazy each time he hits one of them high notes that only he can reach. That is right, its greatness can be boiled down to one man, Del McCoury.
Click the thumbnail(s) for more images from the fest by Tim Newby…
See Below: links to download choice audience recordings from the fest and to stream a preview of YMSB’s soundboard recording.
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May 25, 2012
May 25, 2012- Yonder Mountain String Band (AUDIENCE) with guests: Darol Anger- fiddle, Tim Carbone- fiddle, Jason Carter – fiddle, Del McCoury- vocals, guitar, Ronnie McCoury- mandolin
May 25, 2012- Yonder Mountain String Band (SOUNDBOARD) — Preview Below
May 26, 2012
May 26, 2012- Emmitt-Nershi Band with guests: Andy Hall- Dobro, Jason Carter- fiddle & Vince Herman- vocals, guitar
May 27, 2012
May 27, 2012- Leftover Salmon with guests: Jason Carter- fiddle, Ronnie McCoury- mandolin, Robbie McCoury- banjo, Courtney Hartman- guitar, Del McCoury- vocals, guitar, Billy Nershi- guitar, vocals, Andy Falco- electric guitar, Alan Bartram- bass & Chris Pandolfi- banjo
|Yonder Mountain String Band
5/25/12 Delfest, Cumberland, MD
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