Not counting the mud, I came away from this year’s Delfest with a new respect for Ted Lehman and his intrepid blogging of bluegrass festivals all over the country. My dreams of daily Delfest reporting were met with the realities of weather, family, the need for a real vacation and lack of WiFi. Life intervened and it has now been several weeks since the mud has dried, but here are the memories I wrote down during and right after the festival of Del.
We arrived later than expected amid the large, cold rain drops of a rolling summer storm. This contributed to long lines and confusion at both the check-in and the campsite, where misdirection and conflicting orders from security led us on a forty five minute goose chase for a place to camp (there were plenty of sites available in the main field where we have camped every year, but for reasons that were never made clear to me were not allowed to set up there). Eventually more staff were released from emergency storm duty and helped us find a place to settle, but it was the most chaotic arrival I have experienced at four years of this festival.
The rain let up just enough for us to set up camp and eat dinner, though we were bummed to have missed both the Del McCoury Band’s festival opener and most of Donna The Buffalo. At least we made it out for The Infamous Stringdusters in the crowded but rain-sheltered Delfest Music Hall. Having recently seen the ‘Dusters in Falls Church, VA a few weeks prior, it was amazing to see how the happy-go-wild festival crowd energized the band even more than at the previous show. I saw Chris Pandolfi point his banjo cam at the call and response Ronnie McCoury/Jesse Cobb mandolin break on Deep Elem Blues, then Del joined the party on stage for “On My Way Back To the Old Home”. The Stringdusters fed on the festival crowd energy and gave it right back with a great performance.
Cramped quarters and confusion continued in the campsite as folks arrived the next day to find that non mud-pit camping spots were few and far between. Our baby was too young for the kids activities, but we joined our camp mates down at the make-your-own tie-dye event at Kid’s Pavilion. We proceeded to the main stage for festival M.C. and multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven, whose traditional Delfest morning set mixed old time fiddle tunes with world music and jazz influences. Using found object instruments such as the “Bedpan-dolin” and the “Paint Can-jo” along with several other percussion and string instruments, Joe Craven imparted a love for the the creative process and respect for musical tradition to the eager-eared audience.
We moved up to the Delfest Music Hall for another highlight of the day – Ronnie McCoury’s Family Jamboree, where the Del McCoury Band showed that family is at the heart of everything they do. Parents and kids danced and sang along with the host band on songs like “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”, “The Monkey And The Engineer”, “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” and “This Land Is Your Land”. By the time the show ended, our cheeks hurt from smiling.
We went back to the main stage for Sierra Hull”s first Delfest appearance, but ended up rushing back to camp at the approach of another series of storms which let up just enough for us to see a scant three songs of the Stringdusters’ second set before pouring again in earnest, turning roads to rivers and deepening the mud. Although the clouds cleared by evening for Chris Robinson, Del McCoury & Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Old Crow Medicine Show to take the main stage as planned, we stayed back at camp and listened to the stage on the radio and were grateful that it was being broadcast locally so that we could still enjoy the music from the comfort and relative dryness of our camp.
As the morning sun burned away the heavy dew, we tuned on Delfest radio once again and were soon bobbing our heads to newcomers Hoots & Hellmouth, followed by western swing-rock of The Sweetback Sisters. Even through the radio, both of these bands made a big enough impression on me that I came home with recordings from both groups and am happy to be a new fan of these bands. Saturday also presented one of my festival highlights – mandolin innovator and bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds’ set of classic bluegrass and Grateful Dead songs from his latest recording, A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter. His cover of “Black Muddy River”, sung with the deep soul and sincerity of McReynolds’ eighty three years of life experience, clearly moved the Jerry-friendly audience. He went on to perform several more Grateful Dead gems like “Deep Elem Blues”, “Alabama Getaway” and “Ripple”.
Back at the Music Hall again, we caught part of a violin workshop with Jason Carter, Darrol Anger, Tim Carbone and Joe Craven. When not playing tunes, these four fiddlers imparted knowledge about playing by ear, playing backup, practicing and jamming tips. After the workshop, we strolled back to the main stage for a superb Emmit-Nershi Band set that had the late afternoon crowd dancing in the sunshine. This band of jamgrass veterans has solidified into a formidable foursome, and it is my hope that they can ride this groove for a long time to come. Setting a high bar, Emmit-Nershi were then followed by the best Railroad Earth performance I have seen since the very first time I saw them five years ago. Whether on old material or new, RRE played with a energy you could almost touch, and I can’t wait to relive this set though the fan recordings.
Saturday’s finale was provided by blues guitarist Warren Haynes, who brought soulful singing and haunting tunes which, like the David Rawlings Machine who closed Delfest last year, may have been too mellow for the groove-thirsty audience. His material was deep and thoughtful, but required more attention than the dance-happy audience seemed to be willing to provide.
Some bands fall victim to festival schedule overload, and I’m sad to have missed both of the Rockin’ Acoustic Circus sets, but the last day offered many other highlights, such as the “Man Oh Mandolin” workshop with Ronnie McCoury, Chris Thile and Mike Marshall which was nothing short of amazing. The triple mandolin tremolos on “Wayfaring Stranger” were unforgettable, and even oft played session tunes like “Angelina Baker” found new life in the hands if these masters.
I came out of the workshop inspired to go practice my mandolin, but walked smack into the second set by The Sweetback Sisters who withstood the withering afternoon sun to deliver a sizzling set of country-rockabilly-swing. The heat continued over on the main stage with Punch Brothers, who despite their ability to journey into musical astral planes remained firmly grounded and delivered an exciting set of their own original music as well as a few juicy covers like The Band’s “Ophelia” and Josh Ritter’s “Another New World” and Beck’s “Sexx Laws”. After a lengthy thank-you session from the stage, The Del McCoury band lit up the stage for the final time that weekend with the classic “Rain and Snow” and closing with a fan request of “She Can’t Burn Me Now”, with fan support on cue cards for the lyrics which Del had forgotten the year before. Chris Thile joined the McCourys on stage to tear it up on the Ronnie McCoury instrumental “Baltimore Johnny” and they closed with a tribute to the surrounding hills with “Sweet Appalachia”.
The festival finale by Yonder Mountain String Band gave the fans all the groove they could want and more, cranking the bluegrass to eleven with Jeff Austin urging the crowd to channel healing energy back into the earth with their dancing feet on new material like “Sideshow” and YMSB classics like “On The Run”. Joined by Del & Ronnie McCoury and later Drew Emmit for a the second triple mandolin jam for the day on “Death Trip”. The consensus back in camp was that this was a most excellent way to close the festival, and Yonder Mountain String Band provided a display of musical fireworks that made Delfest 4 go out with a bang.
Once again, Delfest provided the perfect mix of progressive and traditional sounds for my ears, and I was able to see many of my favorite musicians as well as discover some new ones. There was quality beer from Lagunitas and Starr Hill and good choices of food that went above (but also included) the common festival fried fare. The great music, family atmosphere and neighborly attitude that carried the fans through the storms, mud and heat will no doubt bring many back for Delfest 5 and beyond.