DelFest 5.22 - 5.23.14

Allegany County Fairgrounds
Cumberland, MD

Words & Photos By Jon Irvin


For the past few years Memorial Day weekend has meant one thing to me, DelFest. What other way to kick off the summer than a reunion with friends and thousands of other fun loving bluegrass fans? The 7th annual DelFest was held once again at the picturesque Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, MD and the McCoury family couldn’t have been more excited to be in the middle of “our people.” The weekend would no doubt be filled with some of the best bluegrass bands as well as amazing collaborations all while celebrating Del McCoury's 75th birthday.

I knew this weekend would be great right from the start when I discovered they had moved their off-site check in to a much easier and quicker location. After securing our credentials, we made the quick drive down to the DelFest Fairgrounds. Now onto everyone’s favorite part of a festival, the unpacking and numerous trips to your campsite. Unfortunately, Delfest does not allow car camping, but thankfully most trips are done on flat ground and there are numerous staffers with atv’s willing to give a helping hand. We were lucky enough to have Ryan do most of the hauling, which was greatly appreciated. Once camp was all set up I took my usual stroll around the grounds and went to meet up with fellow Marauder, Will Rawls, who was also covering DelFest.

After a quick dinner it was finally time to check out some music. We entered the grandstand stage as The Deadly Gentlemen were halfway through their set. The somewhat pop sounding Deadly Gentlemen have an easy going feel to them, especially on the title track of their newest album “Roll Me, Tumble Me." Next up was The Devil Makes Three, whom I made a point to check out this year after only catching a glimpse of their set two years ago. The trio thrilled the early weekend crowd with a set filled with songs that brought out the darker side of bluegrass. The day was long and I was spent, I decided to skip Greensky Bluegrass, knowing they were playing late night on Friday.


Friday came with the promise of a heavy side stage lineup with most of my concentration on newer bands that I have not seen before. This year DelFest changed things up and replaced the Bluegrass Band Competition with an Open Artist Submission. Festival organizers looked over hundreds of band submissions and chose six groups that they would showcase on Friday and Saturday. I did some research and planned to check out a few starting with Dead Horses, a great new folk-grass band from the Midwest jam scene. The youthful group charmed the crowd with foot tapping songs driven by a powerful female vocalist. I checked out most of their set before skipping over to the Del Music Hall to see another open artist act, Kitchen Dwellers. The Kitchen Dwellers were the first of many high energy bands that surprised me this year. With a slight trippy sound and a talent on the fiddle, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get a bigger billing in the near future. After the conclusion of their set I once again jumped back to the nearby Potomac Stage for the third artist submission of the day, Mo Mojo. DelFest seems to usually host a band with a little New Orleans flare and this year was no exception. Mo Mojo is an eclectic band, think Blues Brothers meets Cajun, with an accordion, rub board and a saxophone blended well to give that zydeco/southern bluegrass twist. I thoroughly enjoyed their song “Big Storm Blues” that seemed to resemble Phish’s “Guelah Papyrus.” Replacing the competition with the open artist submission was a huge success. Overall, I felt the quality of music was hands down better this year.

As I was on my way to grab late night tickets, I heard some horrible rumors and came to find out they were true. Late night sold out. No Greensky for this guy. It seems like each festival I usually miss out on one band that I had planned on seeing, unfortunately this year Greensky Bluegrass was that band. After a quick lunch and rest I headed back to the Music Hall to check out a band I looked into before coming to DelFest. I always make sure to listen to each group on the lineup before I head to a festival and the band that caught my ear the most was Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. Yet another high energy and A+ set by a relative newcomer. At times they were peaceful, then when you least expected it, they quickly took you on a 100 mph train ride. The highlight of the entire set had to be their original song “Whiskey” that included a transition into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Time,” only to come back and finish “Whiskey.” You could tell they were feeding off of the growing crowd and even made a comment that “good festivals attract good people.” So far my Friday was filled with some of the best new acts and now it was time to see a band that amazed me last year, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. With Reverend Peyton ripping guitar teamed with gritty washboard and hard drumming, his band is the epitome of power-grass. Most songs are played with a hint of anger that brings passion to the music which holds the attention of the masses.

I headed to the back of the music meadow to lie down and rest up a bit before the start of the Yonder Mountain String Band set. With Jeff Austin leaving the band I wasn’t sure how they would go on and was very hesitant heading into DelFest. Joined onstage by Jerry Douglas and John Frazier, the remaining boys from Yonder Mountain put together a great set. I’ve seen Jerry Douglas before and at times I felt like this was more of a Jerry Douglas & Friends show than a Yonder Mountain String Band set. Though the performance was enjoyable, it just wasn’t the Yonder Mountain that I grew to love and I’m curious to see them with Allie Krall at Catskill Chill later this summer. Friday night closed with one of the classiest and easy going bands I have ever seen, Railroad Earth. Todd Sheaffer’s vocals teamed with Tim Carbone’s joyful violin never disappoints with music that filled your body with positivity, particularly on “When the sun gets in your blood.” Though I was bummed about missing Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth ended my night on a high note that I would ride until the morning.


Saturday started bright and early on the Potomac stage with Cabinet, who seemed to still be reeling from their late night show. A local Pennsylvania band that I have listened to many times, but had never had the chance to see live, drew possibly the largest crowd I have seen at the Potomac stage in the 4 years I have attended DelFest. Halfway through, the Railroad Earth sax player, Andy Goessling, was invited to join them on stage for the remainder of their performance. These fast pickin' boys turned a lot of heads over the weekend and by Saturday afternoon more “High on Pennsylvania Bluegrass” shirts were visible throughout the crowd. I stuck around for the next act which was another non-traditional genre blending band, The California Honeydrops. The Honeydrops brought a very soulful, early R & B sound to the stage with bluesy lyrics and raucous horns.

I had a little break in the action for some food and another dip in the Potomac to cool off before heading back to catch the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Another returning artist from last year, the Chocolate Drops brought their old ragtime-jugband songs to the Grandstand stage with an interesting mix including slave hymns and Scottish jigs. The Chocolate Drops were the perfect band to slow the tempo down and to get the crowd ready for a more laid back evening of bluegrass.

The host with the most and member of the Grand Ole Oprey, Del McCoury, was geared up to hit the stage for his third set of the weekend. Del and the boys are the epitome of traditional bluegrass and should be served as the main course for any fan new to the scene. Even at age 75, Del can still belt out the high notes and is as lively as ever on stage, sometimes seeming to have more fun than the festival goers.

Next up on the schedule was one of the most anticipated shows of the weekend, Grammy award winner and remarkable duo of Bruce Hornsby & Ricky Skaggs. Backed by Kentucky Thunder, Hornsby’s piano and Skaggs’s mandolin playfully bantered back and forth with each other brilliantly. Their entertaining set was filled by great collaborations as well as magnificent story-telling, including a little tongue in cheek joke about 2Pac before playing “The Way it Is.” Saturday evening ended with the ever so talented Travelin' McCourys. Not just a backup band to the host himself, this collection of kin and friends can tear it up with the best of them. Every member is a star in their own regards, but for me the torch is carried by 2014 Fiddler of the Year, Jason Carter. The Travelin' McCourys have a traditional way about them, but they can open up and let loose on many tunes including personal favorite cover of Waylon Jennings, “Lonesome On’ry and Mean.” For most of their set they were accompanied by talented Kentucky Thunder guitarist, Cody Kilby, as well as inviting special guests, Bill Nershi, Tim Carbone and the weekend’s first sight of artist-at-large, Jeff Austin, to end their set with “Raleigh and Spencer.” Saturday was yet another long day of great music without a single disappointment or raindrop.


Hands down this has been the best DelFest I've had the pleasure of attending. Not only was the music amazing, but the weather could not have been any better. After a peaceful and relaxing afternoon I took my last trip down to the music meadow. First up was the husband and wife banjo tandem of Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. Any fan of the banjo can’t miss an opportunity to see Bela play and especially not a chance to see a loving duet with the sweet sounding Washburn. Bela Fleck continues to amaze fans with his flawless style that's made him known to most as one of the best musicians on Earth. After some grub and one last trip around the merch stands it was time to see the fourth and final set from the Del McCoury Band. Their final appearance was just as fulfilling as the first three and ended up being a high point for me as they performed two of my favorites, “Nothin Special” and “Who Showed Who.”

The day and the weekend were coming to an end as the entire crowd was amped with anticipation for the Sunday headliner. It was time to get melted as the String Cheese Incident looked to close out DelFest with a monster two set show. SCI delighted the seemingly record breaking audience with a mix of old hits like “Can’t Stop Now,” as well as some new material from their first studio album in nine years, “Song In My Head.” During their first set they invited friends Joe Craven, Del McCoury, and Jeff Austin to the stage. The second set was the real treat as they opened up their bag of tricks and really explored, especially with set opener, “Bumpin Reel." I must say Micheal Kang continues to amaze me, shy of spouting blasphemy, he has somewhat of a "Gilmorish" sound especially during “Shine.” What an amazing performance to end an amazing weekend! DelFest continues to improve year after year and solidifies themselves as one of the best festivals I have attended!

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