Sunday, June 6, 2010

DelFest - Cumberland, MD May 27 - 28

This was the 3rd annual DelFest and we've enjoyed watching it mature into certainly one of the premier venues for bluegrass and Americana music. As I reported in this space last year, the Allegeny County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland is a beautiful place to be on Memorial Day Weekend. Although the festival continues to grow in popularity, the festival organizers still fit everyone in without much crowding and they handle the festival logistics quite well.

But the music is the reason everyone shows up and the revered Del McCoury attracts an all-star lineup that fills (now) four days with continuous musical highlights. This festival is especially great for the music fans because there is so much "cross pollination" with musicians jumping from one stage to another and sitting in on each others' sets. Del and his sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) must have played with two-thirds of the performers over the 4 days. And the fine fiddle player of the Del McCoury Band, Jayson Carter, was quite busy also. Also the sound systems at each of the three stages were great and you could easily get up close to see your favorite performers. 

Here's a brief rundown of the performers that I saw, because they have overlapping sets and you have to occasionally eat or sleep, it's impossible to see everything, but it sure is fun trying.

After arriving in the afternoon and setting up our campsite, we headed over to the Main Stage to catch the end of the Travelin' McCourys' set. The Travelin' McCourys are really the Del McCoury Band without Del. They are a little more experimental and are willing to stretch out some more improvisational jams then when they're in the full bluegrass mode. But guess who was sitting in with them when we arrived? Del of course!

I always like it when you go to a festival and see a band that you've never heard of, you have no expectations about their music and you walk away thinking that was probably the best music I'll hear all weekend. That was my experience with Mountain Heart this year. These young bluegrass musicians were midway through a great set of tunes when the bass player moved to the center of the stage with his stand up bass and started banging out the opening riff of "Whipping Post". They proceeded to whip the crowd into a frenzy with a rendition of this Allman Brothers classic that the Bird and I later agreed might be the best version of that song that we've ever heard. They also did a nice "Statesboro Blues" and, believe it or not, "Back in Black" from AC/DC.  A couple of the McCourys joined them and they did a real nice "Rollin' in my Sweet Baby's Arms".  The were followed by Railroad Earth, but due to a misjudgment on my part involving ingesting corn from a jar I had to retire to the camper. But the Bird listened to the whole set and said it was one of the best she has heard. Oh well.


Mountain Heart played another set early Friday afternoon, we enjoyed listening from the campsite. These guys must be real Allman Brothers fans, as they did a nice version of "Soulshine". One of the best aspects of DelFest is the workshops (or as they call them "playshops") which are held in a recreation center (cool and air conditioned). On this day a band that I had wanted to see for some time was playing, Greensky Bluegrass. They were young talented musicians who were thrilled that Ronnie McCoury was sitting in with them. They did a very good set, and were even joined at the end by a couple of guys from Railroad Earth.

That evening we headed back to the main stage and the Del McCoury Band was playing  with Bobby Osbourne. Bobby Osbourne was one half of the Osbourne Brothers who started recording bluegrass tunes in the 1950's (with Jimmy Martin, Red Allen, and others). They have had a long and successful career, including a giant hit with "Rocky Top". They were inducted into the IBMA's Hall of Honor in 1994. Brother Sonny retired a few years ago, but Bobby continues to play with a band called the Rocky Top X-press. With Del they played lots of old classics, Del was claiming that they had not rehearsed many of them, but when you've been doing something as good as these guys for over 50 years, is rehearsing really necessary? This set was simply bluegrass being done by the masters.

They were followed by the headliners, the Avett Brothers.  These guys are very popular with the younger folks, some songs I enjoyed, others seemed too pop/commercial. One thing that I had never seen before was there cello player stood and played the entire show.

Then we made it back over to the recreation center for the late show, which started with another band that I was not familiar with, Trampled by Turtles. While this band has the traditional bluegrass instrumentation (guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass, dobro) I would not classify their music as bluegrass. They sit down rather than stand and they have more of an old time folk sound. But they play really hard, loud, fast and furious. These guys go at full speed from the first note of the first song to the last note at the end of the set. I was very impressed and it was a lot of fun.  After the Turtles, Railroad Earth came out for the really late show (it was after 2 am by now) and they were sounding as good as ever but I only lasted for half of the show before stumbling back to the camper.
After a little breakfast I took my coffee cup over to the main stage and listened to Bearfoot, an acoustic band from Alaska. Although they played well and sang well (female lead singer) there wasn't much spark or emotion in their performance.   

We then went over to the smaller stage and saw a great set by an all female acoustic band called Uncle Earl. Now these gals had some energy and stage presence and got the crowd up on their feet and dancing. They've been around for 10 years with several different members, the current incarnation includes founders KC Groves (mandolin, guitar) and Kristin Andraessen (guitar, fiddle, harmonica) along with three other talented gals. They all took turns telling stories and singing their own songs. This is a band that I would happily see again. (Also worth noting is that there last album was produced by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. He is quoted on their myspace page as saying "it was definitely one of the most enjoyable productions that I have ever been involved with.” 

Then it was back to the recreation center to see what was billed as a McCoury family reunion, it was the Del McCoury Band along with a couple of Del's brothers, very talented musicians in their own right.  We saw another set by Greensky Bluegrass before heading back to the campsite for dinner. 

For us the Saturday evening set kicked off with another rousing set on the main stage by the Del McCoury Band. John Cowan joined them for a song. 

That was followed by the Yonder Mountain String Band, the Saturday night headliners. I saw YMSB at the AllGood festival last year and was very impressed with their high energy bluegrass, and again this time they took the stage with enthusiasm and the full "rock star" treatment (lights, smoke, etc.). But having seen so many true master craftsmen of bluegrass (like Del, Bobby Osbourne, Ronnie McCoury) I felt like this was a little, well, sloppy. But it was  entertaining, Darroll Anger sat in on fiddle for entire show and the crowd liked it so what the heck. They closed with a nice version of Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Blue Sky" (that's when you bring on the lights and smoke!).


Day 4 takes us into the final stretch. First up for us was David Grisman's Bluegrass Experience. Once again we were back to seeing true master craftsmen and Dave turned it into a little bit of a "History of Bluegrass" seminar as he described the origins of the genre and played songs from each major period. Of course he described Del's impact and influence and brought Del on stage to sing one with him. Del didn't have his guitar with him so he just came up to sing, but he said "I don't have an axe to play and I don't have an axe to grind!". It was a good time. 

The next act was the last one for us and it was a great way to end the festival. Keller Williams, joined by Jeff Austin (mandolin, from YMSB) and Keith Mosely (bass, from String Cheese Incident). I always enjoys Keller's shows, especially because they're so unpredictable. Keller has been spending much of the summer playing with Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart, so it seemed natural that he would kick off his set with three Dead tunes. That was followed by a mix of originals and covers (including "Midnight Moonlight") and four more Dead songs. He was also joined at various times by Joe Craven (who I forgot to mention was the MC for the entire weekend), Darroll Anger,  Larry Keel, and others. 

All in all, another great DelFest, well managed, superb line up (truly too many acts to see), and a beautiful venue. Bluegrass and string music is alive and well in the hills of Cumberland!