And so, after three long, beyond difficult, years of waiting, it came to pass. Once again we gathered on the banks of the Potomac, a motley bunch of long-haired, unshaven, tie-dye swathed heathens hell bent on celebrating all things Americana and all things McCoury.
Like Commissioner Gordon with the Bat signal, they shined Del’s image on the bluffs on the West Virginia side of the river. And like Batman, he came, as he always does. And like the citizens of Gotham, we erupted in dance and celebration, with standing cheers and the occasional Indian war whoop.
DelFest was back. Not the virtual version we all sat in front of our computers to watch two years ago. Not the “lite” version that seemed like such a lifesaver last year. No this was the real thing, with all the sun, sweat, rain, mud, and incredible music we all have come to expect from Memorial Day weekend in the mountains of Western Maryland.
Much seemed the same as we remembered. The coffee vendor was in their familiar spot, right across from the pita guy. Pretty sure it was a different barbecue purveyor, but as customary it was set up right by the ramp to the grandstand. Queen City Creamery and the Paw Paw lemonade stand were in their familiar spots by the infield. Just like always, Queen City was out of all the interesting flavors by Saturday and the lemonade was even better spiked with a little whiskey after a long day shooting photographs.
Yes, it did rain. But we laughed in its face, and danced so hard as the drops fell that, upset it could not disrupt our plans, the rain took its bat and ball and went home. Just pulled up stakes and looked elsewhere for easier victims to bother.
We mentioned the music, and this being a “review” of a music festival, we need to. But at the same time, the fact the music was amazing is not exactly news, at least not to anybody familiar with DelFest. It’s come to be expected, synonymous with the festival itself.
While many mistakenly label it as a “bluegrass festival,” DelFest is not a one genre event. How could it be? Del, and his band whether with him or in the Travelin’ McCourys mode, are hardly Flatt Earth Society bluegrass purists themselves. Del’s sets tend to be more traditional bluegrass, as one would expect from a man who was one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. But even then, remember one of his best known and most requested songs is his cover of a number written by British songwriter Richard Thompson. And his many sit-ins throughout the festival highlighted his musical versatility. Del was as comfortable with Leftover Salmon as he was doing some duo numbers with Sam Bush.
The offerings at DelFest were diverse. We had funky horns (California Honeydrops), drums (Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Cabinet), singer songwriters (Robert Earl Keen, Steve Poltz), duets (Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley), newbies (Fireside Collective, The Price Sisters, Birches Bend), legends (Sam Bush – who played an amazing solo set, albeit with special guests, after members of his band tested positive for covid — Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, of course Del and his band) and legends in the making (Molly Tuttle, Tyler Childers).
Might we add our apologies to those we did not mention here. Our one complaint, a constant since our first DelFest in 2015, is the absolute impossibility of any effort to see every act on the bill. Aside from two very brief forays into the Music Hall to capture some images of Dre and the Collective (lucking out by walking in just as Jakobs Ferry Stragglers sat in for some Fleetwood grass) and Joe Craven with two of the Stragglers playing the role of “Sometimers,” we did not spend time indoors this time.
Of course that means we missed all the late nights, which prior experience leads us to believe likely were a lot of fun. Certainly photos we have seen, and anecdotes related to us would indicate there were some amazing sit-ins during those sets.
That, though, is nothing new. We learned long ago that DelFest is like a musical buffet full of tantalizing treats. Not even Joey Chestnuts could consume everything on this smorgasbord.
Pert Near Sandstone might be the poster children for this affliction. For years now we have wanted to check out that band, having heard nothing but good things about them. But now that we finally had an opportunity, their first set overlapped with Bela’s all-star My Bluegrass Heart and there was just not enough time to catch the end of their Music Hall set and get back to the main stage in time to get a decent photo spot up front for Del.
Saturday their Potomac Stage set conflicted with Railroad Earth, the band we have often referred to as our bluegrass gateway drug. The same night we missed the start of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen’s Potomac set, which kicked off just as RRE was ending, and we missed most of the California Honeydrops Grandstand set because we were at Potomac listening to FSDK.
That, by the way, turned into one of our true disappointments. We really liked what we heard of the Honeydrops, and enjoyed their sit in with Del on Lech Wierzynski’s Other Shore, which Del covered on his latest album. But between our desire to see FSDK (no regrets whatsoever) and being too tired Sunday evening to scramble over to Potomac between Sam Bush and Del, we did not get to see nearly enough of them.
So apologies to the bands we missed and those we did not include in our photo galleries. Wish we could be more like Bluegrass Chicken Man. That dude is everywhere.
It seems a little unfair to criticize the scheduling without offering any suggestions how it might be improved. Short of fewer acts, or more days, we have nothing. The side-by-side stages setup that is so popular at Charm City is the best multistage arrangement we have experienced, but it is doubtful it would translate to a festival the size and scale of DelFest..
If we were to mention one negative it would be what seemed to be a crowd control issue during the final set of the weekend, when Tyler Childers playerd with the Traveling McCourys backing him.
When Childers played there in 2019 there was no noticeable difference in the crowd for his set than any others, aside from the style of music. Apparently his popularity has skyrocketed, with his following seemingly skewed young, drunk, and, in enough cases to merit mentioning it, ill-mannered.
Whether they jumped the fence, or shared wristbands (both methods have been reported), they packed the VIP area like a Manhattan subway car at rush hour. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, thoughts of Astroworld did enter our mind when we tried to make a quick foray up front to grab a few pictures of Childers. It was hard to raise the camera without striking somebody nearby with a lens.
We shot a handful of images quick and then made our retreat, almost having to fight our way out of the crowd. In front of the soundboard was just as packed in GA, but there you could retreat to the more open areas of the music meadow if you felt uncomfortable. People who paid big bucks for VIP packages certainly deserved more comfortable conditions.
It would take much more than a few ill-mannered knuckleheads to ruin what was a much-needed gathering of the DelFest tribe. It was rejuvenating to see friends you’ve seen little, if at all, since the pandemic. We all have friends we only see each year at DelFest, people we hadn’t seen in three years. It was nice to feel normal again, to dance like nobody was watching. And the overall vibe of be kind and love one another was as refreshing as that paw paw lemonade, helping reinforce faith in humanity. We really can all get along.
As we said before, DelFest is more than just a music festival. It’s a community, a spirit, a certain attitude, a happiness best symbolized by that Cheshire Cat grin Del cannot help but flash, even in the middle of a murder ballad.
That spirit is DelFest. Everything else — the music, the beer, the food, the vendors, the campground picking — is the icing on that cake. But you can get those things at lots of festivals. The DelFest feeling, though, is unique. DelYeah, it is.
DelFest Photo galleries: