4th Annual Delfest Music Festival
May 26th - May 29th
Words & Photos By Jon Irvin
Delfest and Memorial Day weekend met once again to throw one helluva stomping party to kick off the summer festival season. With family in tow we embarked on the short 2.5-hour drive and prepared ourselves for what could be a busy weekend filled with music, rain... trains?
We arrived in Cumberland, MD, shortly after 10 AM to find the Allegany County Fairgrounds hustlin' and bustlin' with patrons setting up their weekend home as well as Thursday arrivers recovering from the late night music and torrential rain that had swamped the grounds.
Trying to find dry land around Family Camping was easier than expected due to the lack of early arrivers. After setting up camp, I took my usual park stroll to gain my knowledge of the area. Nothing's worse than not knowing where necessary locations are, and when taking children to festivals, being aware of the surroundings is crucial. After lunch and a much needed nap, we headed to catch the Infamous Stringdusters at the Potomac side stage. I’d heard rave reviews about the band, and by the size of the crowd that had already gathered, I knew what I had heard was true. Unfortunately the rain kept us from staying long, but from what I gathered from the my time at the stage, the praise was well warranted.
We headed back to the Kids Zone pavilion next to our tent for some shelter from the rain and to let our sons unwind. Throughout the weekend, both campers and small Bluegrass Competition acts could be found playing to a small crowd around the pavilion. Camping in the Family Camp section and next to the Kid Zone proved to be a blessing.
After dinner, I took off solo in the drizzle to catch Chris Robinson's set, but instead I was met with a team of stage hands attempting to fix the breaker that had blown during the storm. Word was that the set would be moved inside. As I headed into the back of the Delfest Music Hall trying to beat the crowd, I was lucky to catch Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi sound checking for their set.
After hearing that the main stage was back in operation, I rushed over to find Chris Robinson joined with Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal about to go onstage. I clopped in the mire with a few other brave souls for several songs, mostly from his solo work including "Like a Tumbleweed in Eden" and as well as a solid cover of Eric Clapton’s "Poor Elijah". An acoustic setting was perfect for Robinsons soulful voice but did very little to change the dismal feeling the rain was bringing.
I headed back to the camp to help my wife with the boys' bedtime, attempting to dry off for the evening. It had been a long day and I knew it wouldn’t be long until the rain finally had won. I managed to catch a few tunes of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury Band, and I’m glad I did. It was interesting to hear New Orleans big band jazz teamed with the patent golden voice of Del McCoury.
I mustered up my last few ounces of energy to see the first part of Old Crow Medicine Show. OCMS is bluegrass at 100 mph with a pinch of southern humor, just the right pill for the soggy onlookers to end on an high note. I was lucky enough to catch a few of my favorites; "Alabama High-test", "Minglewood Blues" and "Humdinger" were busted out before I heading back to camp. Unfortunately I missed "Wagon Wheel" but luckily I could hear it perfectly back at the tent. Overall, the weather overshadowed the music on day 1, but the forecast was bound to get better... and so was the music.
We all know rain grows grass, but the rain at Delfest grows the best bluegrass in the country. As the fog lifted so did our spirits, knowing that today would be filled with main stage goodness. After breakfast and a quick trip to Walmart for some forgotten necessities, we took our spot in the fairgrounds lawn for the afternoon.
First up, Trampled by Turtles, a band that reminds me more of a folk acoustic group than bluegrass, left an easy feeling with their catchy rhythm and powerful lyrics. Being the first time I had heard TBT, all their material was new to me. I have some catching up to do. The 75-minute set came to an end with "Wait So Long", a fast-paced ballad of their new album that left me pining for more.
Trampled by Turtles Live at DelFest on May 28, 2011.
Since I skipped the Emmitt Nershi Band indoor show on Friday to see Chris Robinson, I was primed to catch one of my favorite acts of the weekend. Ever since "New Country Blues" came out I’ve been waiting for my chance to see them live. Introduced by MC Joe Craven as two of the favorite foods in the jam band community, “Salmon and Cheese”, he described the new group's musical taste so poetically as “DELicious”. The duo, Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon) and Bill Nershi (String Cheese Incident), were joined onstage by Andy Thorn (banjo), Johny Grub (bass) and Jason Carter (Del McCoury) on fiddle. I knew what to expect from both Emmitt and Nershi, but Andy Thorn blew me away on the 5-string banjo, especially on the featured jam "The Thorn Pipe". The band ran through Emmitt and Nershi originals as well as a play-on-words cover of Bob Dylan’s "Tangled Up In Blue (Drew)" and calmer versions of SCI classics "Black Clouds" and "Restless Wind".
Emmitt Nershi Band Live at DelFest on May 28, 2011.
I had just a few minutes while Railroad Earth set up to grab some grub. I love festival food because there's usually such a wide variety of interesting choices, and you can never go wrong with pizza from one of my favorite vendors, “Pie for the People”. These New Yorkers can sure make a mean and interesting pie. You'll see these guys at most of the big festivals so make sure you stop by and try a David Bowie (white pizza, buffalo chicken, caramelized onions and pepperchinis). The weather stayed beautiful as Railroad Earth hit the stage. As soon as they started I regretted missing their late night set the night before but was glad that I had a second chance. A perfect match of talented musicians led by violinist Tim Carbone and the gifted singer / songwriter Todd Sheaffer, RRE has such a distinct sound that can almost pass as the love child of celtic and bluegrass. Their set opened with "Potters Field", a track off their newest release that should be played at your local Irish pub. The 90-minute performance seemed to go way too fast with crowd favorites "Long Way To Go", "Black Elk Speaks" and "Seven Story Mountain". Before long, Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band) joined RRE on stage for a one final set-closing violin jam in "Bringin‘ My Baby Back Home".
After RRE, it became time to return to the campsite for some late dinner and the boys bedtime. After relaxing for a few, I went to see the hardest working man in music, Warren Haynes. I’ve seen Warren times before in several different outlets (Gov’t Mule, Allman Bro. Band, The Dead) and was excited to see a solo set. His powerful voice and magical guitar riffs earns Warren Haynes admiration as one of the most renowned musicians on tour. I was expecting a set heavy with new material from ‘Man in Motion’ but instead, not a single song from the album was played. The set was filled with his usual choice covers "Indian Sunset", "China Doll" and "Wild Horses" scattered around some of his Mule classics including powerful versions of "Railroad Boy" and "Fallen Down". Midway through the set, Warren's friends began to surface on stage beginning with a collaboration featuring Tim Carbone on "China Doll". As each song passed, the star-filled stage grew. A slower tempo bluegrass version of ‘Soulshine’ featured the dream team of the Del McCoury Band, Drew Emmitt, Bill Nershi, Ron Holloway, and Carbone.
Sunday brought the heat both in temperature and music. The day started a little shaky with a trip to the first aid station to remove a tick from our 3-year-old, but from that point forward, the day was went on without a hitch. While waiting for some breakfast I struck up a conversation with Luke Stamper, a member of the Bluegrass Competition winning group The Mon River Ramblers. Per our conversation, I was invited to check out their main stage set that would kick off the days music. I was impressed by the group of youngsters from Pittsburgh who'd opened for bands including The Infamous Stringdusters and Emmitt Nershi Band. The quick but filling 30-minute set included an instrumental original, "Economic Breakdown", and an amazing fast-picking version of "Sweet Child of Mine". Usually I have a hard time catching smaller acts but I’m glad I checked these guys out.
Delfest not only prides themselves in offering the best bluegrass but also advertises the host city Cumberland as a can't-miss experience. After checking out The Mon River Ramblers, we took off for downtown Cumberland and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Downtown Cumberland is a beautiful area filled with Victorian buildings and historical sites. We were fortunate enough to time our trip perfectly so that we could see their historic steam engine make its way into the station...
After a brief walk around town, we headed back to the fairgrounds to see the final day of music. As a big Bela Fleck fan, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to check out Psychograss, an all-star picking supergroup including Fleck’s teacher Tony Trishka, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, and David Grier. Psychograss offered some of the best and flawless instrumental jams I'd ever heard. The guys took turns throughout the set showcasing why each are renowned for their solo accomplishments.
After Psychograss, we took a break for lunch and cooled off in the small run-off creek that split the Family Camp section. Unfortunately I missed the Punch Brothers set. I’ve wanted to check out Chris Thile for some time and was hoping he would at least stick around to join Del later in the evening. Since I only caught a few minutes from their first 2 sets, I was primed to see the full closing set from the Del McCoury Band. Del McCoury has been honored for several years as both the Male Vocalist & Entertainer of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association... I knew I was in for a treat. The Sunday set started with a list of thank yous from Del himself and a complete family introduction. There’s no smoke and mirrors with Del and the boys. They bring the traditional bluegrass sound like no other. I was happy to see that Chris Thile in fact did stick around and ended up joining Del for a few songs, strengthening my regret that I missed him with the Punch Brothers earlier.
The night was about to be turned up a notch as the jam-grass style of Yonder Mountain String Band followed the peaceful easy feeling that Del McCoury left on the audience. YMSB never shies away from a set filled with jams, but their set list on this night was a bit lackluster. Maybe it was their busy schedule with both Summer Camp and Delfest that weekend, but the high energy I was expecting never reared its head. Fortunately they redeemed themselves somewhat when joined by Drew Emmitt, Ronnie McCoury, and Jason Carter as they finished the set with a masterpiece, "On The Run > Death Trip > On The Run". I was hoping for a Darol Anger sit-in, but no such luck was to be had.
Yonder Mountain String Band Live at DelFest on May 29, 2011.
Later that evening I took a trip to catch Drew Emmitt’s 50th Birthday Bash. Entering the rear of the indoor music hall I hit with a wall of beer odor. It definitely smelled like the crowd was having a good time but the beer-soaked floor left a grody feeling. Fortunately most of the mess was in the back of the venue so I wouldn’t have to deal with it while watching the show. Emmitt shared the stage with multiple performers throughout the weekend with most sticking around to join him on this special night. At times, majority of both the Emmitt-Nershi band and the Del McCoury Band were seen onstage as well as Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain. The band ran threw in some unfamiliar songs and serenaded the birthday boy with cake and birthday wishes.
Overall Delfest presented some of the best bluegrass bands I have ever seen. I want to applaud Delfest for providing such a family-oriented event and also for allowing folks to leave and come back, allowing the opportunity to really explore everything Delfest and Cumberland, MD, had to offer. I would also like to thank Chris from McCoury Music for the opportunity to experience this premier bluegrass event as well as give a big shout out to the volunteers at the First Aid center! I look forward to making Delfest a regular family camping experience for as long as it's around.
Jon Irvin's Delfest Photo Gallery