Wednesday, May 30, 2012

DelFest 2012

It's been a while since I've been able to sit down and provide some bloggage on my live music experiences. In early April we traveled back to Maryland from Arizona, stopping along the way in Memphis to visit Graceland and the famed Sun Studios. This was quite a treat and I highly recommend touring both places if you're ever in Memphis. 

Once back on the East Coast, I started immediately sampling from the live music smorgasbord that is available here in the DC-MD-VA area. We saw the John Jorgenson Quintet on April 12 at the Weinberg Center in Frederick. I was not familiar with John Jorgenson, but he has been playing acoustic gypsy jazz with a wide variety of artists for many years. He has played with Bonnie Raitt, Earl Scruggs, and many others, including David Grisman. Next we caught two great sets by our friends the City Farm at the Tiffany Tavern, they're sounding good as ever and it's always a fun night. Check their upcoming shows here. Then the following week we saw the amazing and incomparable George Clinton with his wild ensemble, Parliament/Funkadelic. This show was at the Ram's Head Live in Baltimore, it was the first time that I had seen them close the upper levels of this venue and they packed the crowd on the first level for a cozy and crazy performance.  Next up was John Kadlecek taking a break from Furthur and performing with his own band at the State Theater in Falls Church. Todd Schaefer (singer and guitarist of Railroad Earth) performed a solo set to start the show. We've also become fans of the Alive @ Five series happening almost every Thursday evening, nice outside space with free music and great beer. 

Anyway, now the festival season is in full swing and leading off is the fifth annual Delfest. This festival, at the Allegheny Fairgrounds in Cumberland Maryland, is distinguished by its torrential thunderstorms and top quality bluegrass musicians. The line up for this year was incredible, so much good music packed into four days. On Thursday after establishing our base camp, we went over to the main stage to hear the Del McCoury Band soundcheck, which is basically an informal performance by the host band. Informal because they're in casual clothes (instead of their normal suits) and the crowd pretty much shouts out requests for them to play. Del and his sons are the hosts for the weekend, they often sit in with other musicians and you can run into them nearly anywhere throughout the weekend.

Pinnacle Base Camp at DelFest
Later on Thursday evening we saw Devil Makes Three, a band that I was unfamiliar with, but they were certainly quite good. I would say they are genre unspecific rocking trio. I was also impressed that their new album is called "Stomp and Smash and Slash and Crash and Bust and Burn" which is of course a line from "Trouble Comin' Every Day" by Frank Zappa. The headliner Thursday night was one of our favorites, Railroad Earth. They did a great show (as usual) this one a little more song focused and not as much "space jam" as the last few concerts that we've seen.  Great music on a beautiful spring evening, the festival was underway!

On Friday we started off with Split Lip Rayfield, another band that was new to me, but I grew to like them quickly. This trio (mandolin, banjo, and bass) plays high energy original bluegrass and they were just the ticket to get us up and movin'. One interesting aspect of this band is the bass is constructed from the gas tank of a car. Check the photo below of Jeff Eaton playing this auto-musical conglomeration. 

Gas Tank Bass from Split Lip Rayfield
We then caught a set by Della Mae, a bluegrass band with all female players. They were very entertaining, and they seem to be doing fine in the "man grass" genre as they called it. Next up for us was a band I was really looking forward to, Luther Dickinson and the Wandering. This is a new project for Luther, who was formerly guitar player for the Black Crowes (which I didn't know until someone told me at Delfest) and is one third of the the North Mississippi Allstars. The Wandering is a new project where he is playing with four female singer/musicians. They are Shannon McNally (guitar), Amy Lavere (upright bass), Valerie June (banjo) and Sharde Thomas (fife). This was the last weekend of their month long tour in support of their new album and for whatever reason Thomas was not there. Luther assembled this group together because they all had connections to music from Mississippi and this project is a tribute to that music. They did some great songs ("Mr. Spaceman", "Old Joe Clark", and Kris Kristofferson's "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do)").  Luther's guitar and mandolin playing was exceptional (as always). I especially like Amy Levere, who we saw back in December warming up for Donna the Buffalo. On Saturday they did another set on the smaller stage at DelFest, Valerie June had left for St. Louis ("to elope" according to Dickinson). They had David Mayfield sitting in on mandolin and guitar. Although they repeated several of the songs from the day before, the intimate setting and the reshuffled line up made it even better than the first time. 

Friday evening continued with the Del McCoury Band on the main stage, you can see this band anywhere anytime and it's going to be top notch, professional bluegrass, played the way that it's supposed to be played. Friday night they did not disappoint. I skipped the Yonder Mountain String Band set, because I knew that I would be going to the late show. The late show is in a relatively small room in a rec building, Friday night's line up was Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth. I had seen Greensky Bluegrass at Delfest before and I really like them, mixing traditional bluegrass with modern more progressive style. And always mixing in a few covers of rock classics. The late night set was full of energy and great tunes, but I was out of gas by the time Railroad Earth took over (2 am), so I stumbled back to the Pinnacle base camp to rest for the next day. 

Saturday kicked off for us with something like I had never seen before. The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys is fronted by three brothers, Tommy age 14 (guitar), Robbie age 13 (fiddle), and Johnny age 10 (banjo). These three kids can cook up some blazing bluegrass and it's amazing how comfortable they are on stage. I was thinking that their parents must have been playing bluegrass music for them since the cradle, but Tommy explained that their parents never listen to bluegrass music, instead they found a copy of  Earl Scrugg's  "Cripple Creek" and got into it on their own. You can watch their recent appearance on David Letterman here:

Next up was Greensky Bluegrass, following up their late night show with an early afternoon set on the main stage. Then it was one of the highlights for me for the weekend, Keller Williams performing with the Travelin' McCourys.  The Travelin' McCourys is the Del McCoury Band without Del, they often perform on their own and are a bit more experimental with the bluegrass form than the DMB.  Keller has collaborated with them on an album called "Pick" that will be released in July. I had high hopes for this performance and it exceeded my expectations. They did a great 10 minute version of the KW classic "Freeker by the Speaker" that started very slow and evolved into a great jam session.  I can't wait for "Pick" to be released, I'm going to definitely "pick" it up (har har).

Keller and the Travelin' McCourys. (Check out Del watching from behind the stage)
Keller did another solo set later in the afternoon with his trademark multi-instrument loop system. It was good, that type of performance was what first got me interested in his music many years ago, but I think he has evolved past that and now his collaborations with the McCourys, the Keels, and others is where his  strength is. 

Saturday night finished (for me) with a strong performance by jam band stalwarts Leftover Salmon. They were joined by Darroll Anger on fiddle and eventually Bill Nerschi (guitar) and Jayson Carter (fiddle) for a great rocking session to end a long day. Later lead singer Vince Herman was spotted next door to the Pinnacle base camp picking and drinking "ice water", but I was busy sleeping in anticipation of Day 4.

Sunday had the best line up on paper and DelFest made good on the promise with a full day of prime music. The Infamous Stringdusters kicked things off for us with a great set, followed by the Sam Bush Band. I was disappointed that Sam didn't ask the crowd "Who's been here for all four days of the festival?" like he has the last 17 times that I've seen him, but it appeared he was having a good time and the music was great. They finished with a song that I think was originally done by Journey and evolved into what could only be described as progressive rock. Definitely a detour from the bluegrass theme of the day but it was fun.  Bela Fleck and a "Bluegrass Allstar" lineup followed Sam, the players included Jayson Carter, Ronnie McCoury, and Rob McCoury. 

Sam Bush
At 10 pm (after a rain delay) Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers took to the stage. Their album "Rare Bird Alert" was one of my favorites of last year and I was really looking forward to seeing them perform. The sound was top quality and they played some great music. There was more comedy interjected into the show than I expected, but Steve is quite funny and kept it all very entertaining. By the end of the set they were joined by most of the McCoury's, Sam Bush, and Bela Fleck for an all star finale.  Delfest offered more music late into the night (including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band) but I was satiated with four days of music and I retired to the Pinnacle on a very high note.

All in all it was another great Delfest, I saw some of my favorites, made some new favorites, and had a great time. Del Yeah!