Cumberland, MD • May 21-24, 2015
By Matthew Bowers • Videos by Pigwarden1 • Photos by Brady Cooling
As I start to try and wrap my head around all of the great things I can say about this past weekend, the one thing that really stays with me is how much I didn’t want it to end. It’s the only complaint I have about the entire time I spent at Delfest. I didn’t want to come home.
This would be my third time at the festival and so I was familiar with the grounds and where all of my friends were scattered around. This is a festival that truly gets better every year, and each year offers something different that keeps it fresh and makes you almost have to come back every year. Obviously the music is what brings us all together to that piece of land in western Maryland, but the people who show up to dance and smile all weekend are the ones that really make this festival as special as it is. It’s something that’s hard to describe, but everyone there seemed like they were at home. Exactly where they needed to be. I don’t know if I ran into a single person without a smile on their face the entire weekend.
When I arrived on Friday night, I parked in the off site camping which had an extremely convenient 24 hour shuttle back and forth to the festival grounds. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as I could hear Railroad Earth starting their set as I was walking onto the grounds. I immediately ran into some very dear friends that I would end up camping with all weekend, and I knew right then that it was going to be a memorable couple of days.
Having missed RRE’s late night show the night before, I was really happy to catch the main stage set and they did not disappoint. Playing some of my personal favorites such as “Head,” Mighty River,” and “Like A Buddha” they kept the energy high and showcased their skill and ability to improvise. While many fans (admittedly me too) were hoping they would play The Dead’s “Terrapin Station” after the song was cut from the Dear Jerry tribute show, in the end it was irrelevant because the band left everyone satisfied by the time they were done playing. This would set up a closing main stage set by Old Crow Medicine show that would make everyone sweat despite the cold weather that night. I personally had not seen them before, and I was really impressed with the energy they brought and the way they worked the crowd. Of course most everyone there was familiar with “Wagon Wheel” and it was a lot of fun to hear the entire crowd sing along. They even threw in a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” which made for another great crowd participation moment.
When this set was over, Greensky Bluegrass was next in the late night barn. Unfortunately for this festival goer/reviewer, I did not have a ticket and there weren’t many to be found by the time I got over to the barn. As much as I would have liked to see this set, the thing about Delfest is that there’s always a friend to hang out with. So I spent the night hanging at the campfire with great people just laughing and having a good time, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Saturday would be my first full day at Delfest, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to wake up to the sun beating down on me in the morning. The excitement of the day was enough to make any lack of sleep an afterthought, and it was time to go explore and hear some great music.
It was impossible for me to catch all of the music on Saturday and Sunday, but I will highlight the best of what I saw. I have to say though, that this is my favorite festival for those “in between” the music times. Just walking around checking out the great vendors and the great food (shout out to the cheesesteak egg roll guys, those things were delicious), not to mention floating on the river and lots of shenanigans with good friends.
After wandering around a bit on Saturday morning, I finally made it back to the Potomac stage for the Brothers Comatose. These guys were great and they kept everyone dancing in the sun. It was a perfect warm up before I headed down to the main stage and caught one of the sets I was most excited to see, Del & Dawg (David Grisman). These guys are both legends and it was so much fun to see them on stage together doing what they love to do best. It was certainly a treat, and I’m glad anytime I can hear Del sing tunes.
At this point I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to stick around for Jeff Austin Band, or head back to the Potomac stage for Oteil & Roosevelt. Being that JAB was opening for the Mccoury’s late night Sunday, I chose the latter and went to the Potomac stage. Glad I did. This was the funkiest set I would see all weekend, and it was a nice short switch up from the bluegrass I was becoming accustomed to hearing around the grounds.
Knowing that the Travelin’ McCourys were going to hit the stage at 10, and Leftover Salmon was playing the late night show, I decided to hang out at camp and refuel so I would be ready for the all night party that I knew was coming.
The McCourys, as usual, did not disappoint. These guys are the definition of pros, and the top notch musicianship was on display the entire set. A smokin cover of the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues” would be my personal highlight of the set, as well as a heartfelt and beautiful cover of “Loser” that would keep with the Grateful Dead theme that was peppered throughout the weekend.
Then, it happened. My favorite set of the weekend by far, Leftover Salmon late night. When these guys step on stage in this barn room, they turn it up to eleven every single time. Nonstop energy and fantastic jams, these guys brought flames to a room that was already dripping with sweat. I will admit I did not take any notes during this set, because I was not in any mood to stop dancing, I can only hope someone got a recording of it. After the set was over, I wandered around and caught a few campfire jams and hung out with some familiar faces before I decided to crash just as the sun was peeking out.
Sunday at Delfest is always bittersweet. On the one hand, you know you still have an entire day and night of music and fun, but on the other hand, you know that when you wake up in the morning it’ll be time for all those goodbye hugs and a drive back to the “real world.” So knowing that, it’s best to just soak in every bit of that last day that you can.
The first music I would hear of the day would come courtesy of The Broomestix, who in the same fashion as Oteil & Roosevelt would switch things up a bit and add a bit of funk to Sunday afternoon. This band features Ronnie McCoury’s son Evan on guitar. Young vocalist Briana Middelton really shined during this set, she is great and this young band has a lot of potential. After some lunch and a few liquid desserts, I hit the main stage for Hot Rize. For anyone familiar with bluegrass bands, this was a set many people at the fest were really excited to see. Featuring Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton, these guys are right up at the top must see bluegrass groups. They never disappoint and it was the perfect afternoon set to chill out and listen to these guys do what they do best.
When I wandered back over to the Potomac stage, I got my surprise set of the weekend. Having honestly never heard of Billy Strings and Don Julin before, I had zero expectations of what the music would sound like or even what kind of instruments would be played on stage. Well, this three piece band blew me away. Billy Strings is an amazing flat picking guitar player, right at the top with the best I’ve seen personally. Don Julin is no slouch on the mandolin either, complimenting each other perfectly. You can really see the chemistry these two have on stage together, and it shows in the music and tight jams that come out of the songs. The bass player (who I can’t find his name anywhere), held the low end rhythm down for the two featured musicians to play over. Personal highlight of this set would be the spirited Old and In The Way cover of “The Hobo Song.” Stretched out and taken for a ride, Billy and Don would show off all the chops they had and leave everyone wanting more by the end. They made quite an impression on the crowd, and I kept hearing murmurs about them as I walked around the festival for the rest of the night. If you don’t know who they are now, you will very soon.
Then it was time for Leftover Salmon round 2. The main stage set would be just as energetic as the late night set, but I think what made the late set so special was because all of that energy of the music and crowd was trapped in that small room. This set would get it’s special touch courtesy of a few choice sit ins. Del McCoury himself came out and sang a tune, and then Hot Rize’s Tim O’Brien would make an appearance for a few songs to many smiles in the crowd.
After Salmon, I decided to once again sacrifice some music to rest up for the all-nighter that I would never miss for anything. After a break, it was time for Trampled by Turtles and the last main stage set of the weekend. These guys can do it all, blazing fast bluegrass tunes or heartfelt ballads with great songwriting. They put on a great show, and it was the perfect way to close out the main stage for the weekend. Personal highlight for me was once again another Grateful Dead cover (there’s a theme there I know) as they played a fantastic version of “Brown Eyed Women” that would put a stamp on a great set and a wonderful weekend of music right under those beautiful rock cliffs above the Potomac river.
The night wasn’t even close to over yet though, there were still two late night bands and an unlimited amount of fun to be had. This was the last night at Delfest, no reason to half-ass it now! First off would be the Jeff Austin Band, who would kick things into high gear right out of the gate. Mixing traditional bluegrass with a psychedelic touch, these guys jam and turn standard bluegrass tunes into mind-benders. It was the perfect way to start the late night festivities before the Travelin’ McCourys would arrive on stage. What a show they would put on. Anyone who was tired before they hit the stage found a second wind by the end of their set. At this point I think everyone started to realize that this was the last music they would see on any of the Delfest stages until next year’s festival, and so all of the people in the crowd decided to make the most of it and gave all their energy back to the band. It couldn’t have been a better stamp on the weekend, and in typical fashion Ronnie and the boys set the room on fire with their second to none musicianship that has kept them at the top of the scene for so long now. As the final notes played and the crowd cheered their approval, everyone filed out of the late night barn to enjoy their final night with family and friends old and new. Walking around until the sun came up with great people, we ran into campfire jams and endless smiles all night. The happiness of everyone the entire weekend was palpable, and as I crawled into the tent at sunrise, I couldn’t help but smile and feel all of the love that had been spread around those few acres of land.
Leaving Delfest is always tough, but the best thing about leaving is knowing that I’ll be back. This is a fest that for me, is not to be missed. Hopping in my car and turning my keys to head home, I had to pause for a second and just reflect on everything that I had just experienced. Choked up is an understatement. I truly had an amazing time, just as I have every single time I’ve been there. It’s these types of feelings and experiences that I think everyone should have to be happy and healthy. It’s soul cleansing, and it lingers with you. Delfest provides all of those feelings and more than that. It’s a big family that comes together every year to dance and smile, and to create lifelong memories and connections that are priceless to anybody who has been lucky enough to stand underneath those cliffs on the Potomac, and hear that train whistle as it rolls by the grounds. I’ll be seeing you guys up there next year, and I’ll have a great big hug and a smile waiting for anyone who wants one. Del yeah indeed.
Day 3 & Day 4 Photo Recap