DelFest: A Backstage Perspective
May 26th – May 29th
Words By Tabitha Clancy
Photos By Tabitha Clancy & Jon Irvin
Arrival into the Memorial Day Weekend festival was nothing short of beautiful and majestic. Nestled neatly beneath the Allegheny Mountains is the quaint town of Cumberland, MD. Driving through on the way to the festival fair grounds gives one the sense of nostalgia. The buildings are tattered and torn, the churches sit atop hills as if to claim seniority over its townsfolk and railroads intersect beaten roads like something important once belonged. There was something about this place, like whispers of ghosts welcoming each of us to embrace the new and appreciate the old. Bluegrass music has taken many different forms, it has its own nostalgia and it too hangs on the whispers of the ghosts of the greats. Cumberland playing host was more than a suitable location. It is a foundation firmly rooted in history and a solid platform for the boss of bluegrass and living legend, Mr. Del McCoury.
McCoury was omnipresent for the duration of the weekend which actually began three days prior with the DelFest Academy; a three-day intensive workshop for the serious student at every level for traditional bluegrass instruments. The academy was taught by various musicians that have mastered their tools. Soon enough, students and teachers would transition into festival mode.
While DelFest officially began Thursday evening, most people arrived and settled into camp throughout the day on Friday. With thunderstorms rolling in one right after another, things became more than soggy. The sky opened up and dropped sheets of sideways rain. Mud, mud and more mud was the ultimate outcome and became synonymous with the festival experience. Colorful artistic rain boots were the ubiquitous footwear fashion. Spirits remained high as evident by the mud stompers found dancing in the giant pit in front of the main stage. Perhaps it added to their spiritual enlightenment, while to others, it was to be avoided, even if it meant standing off-sides and farther from their favorite bands.
Between Mother Nature’s elements and setting up, being physically present in front of the Grandstand stage on Friday was a balancing act for anyone. However, the sweet sound of notes bouncing off the cliff walls of West Virginia enabled toe tappers to enjoy the music of Chris Robinson, The Traveling McCoury’s and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from a distance. The storm’s soon passed and nightfall settled in. Old Crow Medicine Show, with an enormous stage presence, fancied the crowd with old-time mountain music blended with new era folk and bluegrass. McCoury sat in, as he did with most performers. McCoury’s presence opened up the opportunity for fans and musicians alike to extend their traditional bluegrass roots into another realm that builds off that foundation.
At the completion of the main stage acts, the party would migrate to the late night stage inside the DelFest Music Hall each night. A separate paid entry fee was required as the room was much smaller than the vast expanse of the outdoors. Late night included acts such as Trampled by Turtles, Psychograss and a Drew Emmitt Birthday Bash. Most late night acts were full of energy, sharing the stage with fellow colleagues. Ronnie McCoury and Jon Skehan tantalized the crowd with the intensity of their back and forth mandolin showcase during Railroad Earth’s late night set.
Saturday was now upon us. Groggy and sleepy-eyed, most muddled through copious amounts of coffee as well as standing in line for the showers. An early morning arousal created an opportunity for folks to take advantage of some of the other highlights offered by the town and the festival. The Model Railroad Association was on hand in their building for campers to enjoy some train history. They showcased a large display of small model trains replicating the railroad in Cumberland, MD. Most folks were amused by the little trains coming out of tunnels and the ding-ding noise of the mini-crossings.
A relaxed morning broke away from the crowd once the music kicked off at 10 AM with Hoots and Hellmouth on the Grandstand stage. A full day of song and dance was ahead of us. Backstage was running smoothly with each transition of bands hitting the stage with ease. On par with the tradition of the festival, guest musicians sat in during various sets throughout the day. Truly, with everyone sharing the same stage, a scorecard was needed just to keep track.
Watching the musician’s embrace each others musical styles allowed the crowd to equally embrace change and differences without sacrificing their deepest and first love of strictly bluegrass. Perhaps, The Del McCoury Band made the loudest statement with their stage clothes. A traditional bluegrass band, known for their traditional suit attire and yet, they sported tie-died ties (made at www.mommastacy.com - socks are available to the public). South of the Mason Dixon Line in the land of cowboy hats and grits, a little bit of hippie surfaced – it’s in us all.
In his first appearance to DelFest, Warren Haynes closed Saturday night with an acoustic set. With an extensive musical background with Government Mule, The Dead and The Allman Brothers, an initial curiosity extended from the mystery of who would be playing with him as well as how his usual heavy guitar playing style would fit the theme of the weekend. Haynes soothed the crowd with his prominent vocals and played his six- string like a patriarch leading a sing-a-along over a camp fire. True to festival form, Haynes began inviting his guests to join him on stage. Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth) joined in on fiddle for “Patchwork Quilt,” an ironic song choice that lent itself to the continued idea of melding musical styles and bringing together sub-cultural backgrounds. Carbone was later joined by fellow band mates Andrew Altman and Jon Skehan for a few more songs. A steady stream of artists moved through Hayne’s set with The McCoury’s closing the night with “Soulshine,” a notable hit from the Haynes catalogue.
A new day was dawning, and it was the last day of the festival. Sunday was in the 90s with high humidity; it was a good day for a swim. A murky, muddy mess with a current so fast, one would think you could be swept out to sea. Some of the braver souls took to floating the Potomac River. Again, the day was filled with so many choices of bands to see and things to do. Scythian (sith-ee-yin) had an early slot, but that didn’t stop the high-energy band from getting the crowd to their feet and dancing to a Celtic, world infused sound of dueling fiddles and a jazz percussionist. Yonder Mountain String Band closed the festival and invited Del McCoury for a sit-in.
DelFest captured the heartstrings of newcomers and held the tie that binds the others who keep coming back. A festival devoted to bringing the best of bluegrass and infusing the genre with new and continued expressions of the music is what keeps DelFest alive. And if there were a quiet moment, perhaps, the whispers of the greats could be heard giving their seal of approval.