DelFest is a festival that scores high on the musical quality scale and I believe that is due mainly to the fact that it is hosted by the legendary Del McCoury. Del McCoury started playing bluegrass in the early 1960's and in 1963 he sang and played in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. In the 1990's he formed the Del McCoury band with his two sons, Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) and they have achieved great success over the last twenty years. Their style of playing is very pure and disciplined, with beautiful harmonies and very tight and fast instrumental breaks. I believe that a big reason for the quality of the musical performances at DelFest is that all of the other performers have such great respect for him they "step up their game" a notch when performing at the DelFest. And it's not unusual for Del, Ronnie, Rob or Jason Carter (fiddle) to sit in on one or more songs with each of the performers. This makes for some memorable musical moments and there were plenty of those this year.
Thursday afternoon some thunderstorms, complete with hail, came through Cumberland and soaked the main stage area enough that the evening's performances were rescheduled for the fairground rec center. This is actually a good thing as the rec center is a nice indoor space, dry and cool with quality beer vendors. Del and the boys kicked things off with what was billed as a "soundcheck". One of the rare times you get to see them perform in casual clothes and not their typical fancy suits and ties. The Del McCoury Band was followed by Donna the Buffalo and then the Infamous Stringdusters. That's a great evening of musical entertainment and we were only in Day 1 of the four day festival!
Del McCoury Band "Soundcheck"
Day 2 was a nice day with some excellent bluegrass bands performing during the day, but in the afternoon the skies darkened and another round of thunderstorms rolled through. The stages were too wet for the Infamous Stringdusters to perform, so they just headed out to the parking lot and played a great impromptu set with no PA or mikes. Another great DelFest moment!
Infamous Stringdusters play in the parking lot
After the Stringdusters we were able to catch Chris Robinson from the protection of the grandstands, which was dry but somewhat distant from the stage and then as the weather cleared we made it to the stage grounds to hear Del McCoury again, but this time performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This is a new project that at first may seem an odd combination, a classic bluegrass band with a New Orleans jazz band, but they find a lot of common ground and this was one of the highlights of the festival. They have released an album together ("American Legacies") that has some new tunes ("Banjo Frisco") and some classics ("Jambalaya"). And they have created and recorded the official theme song for Bonnaroo, which starts up this weekend. Click on this link to see an impromptu performance of the Bonnaroo theme song. Del and the PHJB were followed by a rocking performance by Old Crow Medicine Show, who got everyone on their feet, stomping in the mud and having a good ol' time.
One of the nice features of DelFest is the "Late Show". For an extra $20 you can head over to the rec center at midnight and catch some inspired late night performing, Friday night we saw Trampled by Turtles, who play fast breakneck string music, followed by Railroad Earth. I couldn't make it much past 2 AM, but the next day I was told they show went on until 4 - 5 AM.
Saturday's highlight for me was the early afternoon show by Jesse McReynolds. Jesse is another legendary bluegrass musician (performing since 1947, the "Jesse" of "Jim and Jesse", 42 year member of the Grand Ole Opry, winner of the National Heritage Fellowship Award). Last year Jesse released a tribute album to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, and at DelFest he performed several Garcia/Hunter tunes along with several bluegrass classics with Del. Not bad for 82 years old. I bought the Garcia/Hunter CD at the merch tent and he signed it for me. Saturday night we saw Railroad Earth, then the Del McCoury band, and closing things out was Warren Haynes (solo acoustic). I'm a big fan of Warren Haynes and I've written in this space about his performances with Gov't Mule and the Dead. But his song choices and style of play at DelFest was not what one expects for a Saturday night closer. It was a little too slow and downtempo for me. Things picked up some when John Skehan and Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth came out to join him but this set was a bit of a downer.
Sunday (Day 4!) I checked out another cool feature of DelFest... "Playshops" that are conducted each afternoon in the rec center, where 1 or 2 musicians play and discuss music in an informal setting. I was able to sit in on a session with Tony Trischka, one of my musical heroes from college days, as he talked about playing banjo, demonstrating and answering questions from the audience. Sitting at his side and playing with him was Rob McCoury. Then we saw Tony on the main stage with his band "Psychograss", which includes other virtuosos Darol Anger (fiddle) and Mike Marshall (mandolin). Simply amazing seeing that many talented musicians playing together as one. Then I jumped in the truck with the Bird and we drove over the Potomac and up the mountain to look down from West Virginia into Cumberland at the festival site. It was pretty neat.
DelFest as viewed from West Virginia
After our mountain jaunt we made it back down to the main stage area in time to see the Punch Brothers who put a very modern spin on string music. It was a great set (including a Beck song) and I would love to see them again soon. After the Punch Brothers, Del and the Boys did another set and the whole weekend closed out with a rousing show by Yonder Mountain String Band.
The rain (first two afternoons) and the mud (pretty much all weekend) were negated by the comfortable confines of the Jayco Pinnacle and the company of good friends throughout the weekend. So much talent on the stages and everyone is bringing their "A game" because Del and his fans are watching.
A true Del Fan