Home Live Review Live Review: DelFest 2023 @ Allegany County Fairgrounds — 5/25-5/28/23

Live Review: DelFest 2023 @ Allegany County Fairgrounds — 5/25-5/28/23

Live Review: DelFest 2023 @ Allegany County Fairgrounds — 5/25-5/28/23
Del McCoury and his oldest son, Ronnie, perform as members of the Del McCoury Band during the fifteenth annual DelFest held over Memorial Day Weekend at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Md. (Photo by Casey Vock)

At 84 years old, Del McCoury has devoted most of his life to bluegrass, an extension of old-time music that he essentially helped define decades ago as a member of Bill Monroe’s famous Blue Grass Boys. And since 2008, Del and his family have celebrated the sounds and people of bluegrass in marvelous fashion at a rollicking, pre-summer bash that’s become a can’t-miss event for both artists and fans alike.

The McCourys hosted a milestone fifteenth edition of DelFest over Memorial Day weekend, drawing a large contingent of bluegrass lovers and an outstanding lineup of musicians to the Allegany County Fairgrounds out in Cumberland, Maryland.

Across four consecutive sunny days, from May 25 to May 28, attendees enjoyed world-class performances on three different stages by some of the most important and inspiring musicians in all of bluegrass, including legendary pioneers and new heroes who are helping the genre thrive from coast to coast and beyond.

As it does each year, the event kicked off Thursday afternoon with a “casual” soundcheck performance by the hosts — the Del McCoury Band — and even with a happy-hour start time, several thousand folks were already settled onto blankets and camp chairs within the large field enclosed by a racecar track.

“Welcome to DelFest, folks,” said Ronnie McCoury, Del’s oldest son and one of several highly decorated and respected members of the group. The widely regarded mandolinist looked to his left and smiled at his father.

“That’s who this festival was named after: Del McCoury.”

Stream the newest Del McCoury Band album, 2022’s Almost Proud, via Spotify:

The enthusiastic applause lit up the elder McCoury, unveiling his signature joyous smile that has charmed his listeners and close friends for many years. And that iconic expression — which has become a cherished symbol of the event and all it stands for, adorning T-shirts, hats, decals and much more — rarely left the man’s face over the course of the four-day affair.

In addition to Ronnie, Del was of course supported by his youngest son, Rob, on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass. More recently added the band’s lineup, Del’s grandson and Ronnie’s son Heaven McCoury was on stage with the group for most of the weekend and Jacob Van Buer — another of Del’s six grandchildren and one half of the duo Heaven & Jacob — also joined the McCourys throughout the weekend.

“We got any folks from Baltimore here?” Del lobbed the loaded inquiry and received an impassioned response from the growing crowd. “Well, I didn’t know, or I’d have done this song sooner.”

Del was, of course, playing coy, knowing quite well that the special occasion has also become an important celebration of the bluegrass musicians and ambitious fans who reside in or around Baltimore.

The early dose of “Streets of Baltimore” sparked the festivities in earnest as part of a terrific Del McCoury Band set that also rewarded with a red-hot take on “Baltimore Johnny.” Glowing back at his crew as they inside joked, Del appeared exhilarated and thrilled to be on stage for another go at DelFest, which is produced in association with High Sierra Music.

After performances from Sierra Hull and Trampled By Turtles, Friday night brought one of Baltimore’s most stimulating bands to the stage in the form of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. Though certainly not defined as bluegrass, the group was welcomed by the many who’d already found their groove, and the masterful jam funk quartet dazzled the crowd to close out the Grandstand Stage.

Fans then shimmied right over to the Music Hall, the lone indoor stage where afterhours gatherings exploded with electrifying performances and some of the most high-profile collaborations of the weekend. Even as those sets were winding down just past 3 a.m., artists and onlookers gathered at spots along the North Branch of the Potomac River that curls around the venue, and picking, singing, and cheering could be heard into the wee hours of each morning.

By 10 a.m. Friday, a mass of attendees was already gathered to take in the early sets, soak the rays and enjoy the breathtaking views of the cliffs towering over the Potomac from the West Virginia side — interestingly enough, to the east of the fairgrounds.

Tubers/Rafters - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.27.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

DelFest 2023 tubers on the North Branch of the Potomac River. (Photo by Casey Vock)

A popular feature of the weekend, many attendees — fans and performers alike — took to the waters armed with tubes or rafts and cold beverages to float downriver while listening to the music echoing off the rock walls above them.

Fans could also listen to the Grandstand Stage sets at their campsite by way of live radio broadcasts transmitted on site. Some fans allotted time to see the impressive model train display presented by the MD & WV Model Railroad Association and located in the Old Jockey Club Building on site.

Like each year at DelFest, yoga options were aplenty and Rhythmetrix returned to host lively drumming classes on Saturday and Sunday morning. Another tradition at DelFest, a food drive was held to benefit the Western Maryland Food Bank.

Friday’s slate brought an assortment of options for attendees, including an early grandstand set by Baltimore’s own Cris Jacobs and his band and an anticipated performance by Jason Carter of the Del McCoury Band, who just recently released his solo album, Lowdown Hoedown, and is set to tour in late summer.

A monumental DelFest performance, longtime event emcee and multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven joined veteran bassist Jim Kerwin, Ronnie McCoury, and Bay area guitarist Stu Allen on the Potomac Stage for what was billed as a “Garcia Grisman Tribute.”

Joe Craven, Jim Kerwin, Stu Allen and Ronnie McCoury - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.26.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Ronnie McCoury, Jim Kerwin, Joe Craven and Stu Allen perform a tribute to the famous album Jerry Garcia / David Grisman at the fifteenth annual DelFest held in Cumberland, Md. (Photo by Casey Vock)

The hour-long set specifically honored Jerry Garcia / David Grisman, the first of several highly influential albums created in Garcia’s deep dive into bluegrass and old-time music that forged his long, fruitful bond with Grisman, the master mandolinist also known as “Dawg.” Craven and Kerwin were in the studio for that album as well as the crucial series that followed — including Not For Kids Only, Shady Grove and So What.

Beyond a splendid and timeless batch of songs, the gathered DelFest crowd was treated to accounts from Craven, who reminisced with glossy eyes about his experience along the late Garcia and Grisman, who has in recent years toured as a duo with Del.

“There’s a lot of memories attached to this music for both of us,” Craven said from behind his percussion setup. And Craven, whose words at the event always ring with poignance and reverence, reminded that these albums from Garcia and Grisman truly served as a gateway to bluegrass and old-time music for the many people who adored Jerry as the leader of the Grateful Dead.

Ronnie McCoury, too, shared some enlightening stories that might help rationalize the cohesiveness between bluegrass and other forms of music that is becoming increasingly apparent as more and more are turned on to it.

Ronnie told of his own early interactions with Grisman, who gifted him the mandolin he held in his hands on the stage. He told of his first time speaking to Jerry — Grisman simply handed Garcia the phone; a 21-year-old Ronnie wasn’t sure what to say.

Back then, Ronnie kept in close contact with Grisman, a world of knowledge on antique instruments who’s known to help get them into the right hands. The two had communicated about a few old-time, open-back banjos Ronnie’d acquired.

Grisman told him he had an interested buyer: Jerry wanted them.

A few weeks later, Ronnie took a trip from Pennsylvania, where he and his family still lived at the time, to the old Capital Center just outside of D.C. to hand-deliver the banjos to Jerry. Ronnie had been to a few shows already, but his father had not yet experienced the Grateful Dead live in concert.

“But my dad had never seen the band, so I took my dad.”

Revisit the influential album Jerry Garcia / David Grisman that was paid tribute at DelFest 2023:

The DelFest crowd was indeed entertained by the idea of Del smiling ear to ear as Deadheads with dilated pupils twirled all around him. But what transpired before that evening’s set, as Ronnie described, was a reunion for musicians who’d crossed paths years earlier.

Jerry first saw Bill Monroe perform in 1963. Del was a key member of the Bluegrass Boys at the time. About ten years later, Del and Jerry met in Virginia when Garcia was touring with Old & In The Way along with Grisman and a posse of virtuosos.

“They had some time together there,” Ronnie said. “So, we sat down, and he stayed with us for like an hour, hour and half. Just visiting and talking about old times. … He turned to me, about the end of the conversation … ‘I want you to know that your dad was a big inspiration to me when I started out.’”

“These fellas know better than me, but this was a big release for (Jerry) to play this kind of music,” Ronnie went on. “I’m just so delighted to be able to do this in honor of that record.”

A band Ronnie’s father has seen numerous times from the stage side, The California Honeydrops creates songs outside the bluegrass realm, instead gushing a flavor of soul that is uncommon today. With the magic to enamor and satisfy, they’ve become a Del McCoury and DelFest favorite, returning in 2023.

As the Del McCoury Band played its second set of the weekend to close out a Friday packed with music, the elder McCoury took great pleasure in inviting Honeydrops head singer Lech Wierzynski and the band’s sparkling brass trio the stage for a couple tunes, even a Honeydrops original.

It was a warmup for what turned out to be one of the most inspiriting performances of the weekend, as the complete Honeydrops returned to the stage to deliver a 90-minute set pulling from the band’s growing catalogue, including 2022’s Soft Spot.

Endearing to the crowd, Lech made it clear how much he appreciated the McCoury family, Del’s kind words and the love he felt from the bluegrass community — he was nearly speechless to start, still processing that Del had chosen to cover a Honeydrops song.

A DelFest regular, the band showcased its rich, soulful R&B sound, a perfect complement to a day’s worth of string-band music. It culminated with yet another terrific drop-in, as singer-songwriter and guitarist Lindsay Lou joined the group for a take on Bobby Charles’ “Street People.”

Each day enticed with established and budding acts on the docket — some tough choices but made easier thanks to the DelFest app that regularly sent out schedule updates and suggestions to help with decision making.

The Infamous Stringdusters, Sierra Ferrell, and the Tim O’Brien Band were just a few of the notable acts to hit the stage more than once. An unforgettable moment from the weekend, the Dirty Grass Players — an ascending four-piece string band out of Baltimore — packed the Music Hall Saturday afternoon with one of the biggest crowds to ever surround the indoor stage for a daytime show.

Dirty Grass Players - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.27.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The Dirty Grass Players out of Baltimore celebrate their May 27 set that packed the Music Hall at the fifteenth annual DelFest in Cumberland, Md. (Photo by Casey Vock)

In a remarkable scene that spoke to the power of the DelFest community, Dirty Grass bassist Connor Murray was overcome with emotion as he shared with the lively audience that he and his bandmates had been coming to the event for years, and that they’d dreamed of such a day as past attendees of the DelFest Academy.

Held in the four days leading up to the event, the McCourys hosted another successful edition of the DelFest Academy this year, providing a valuable opportunity to learn directly from members of the Del McCoury Band, The Travelin’ McCourys and some of their close friends as part of a rotating roster of instructors each year.

The staff this year included all the members of The Travelin’ McCourys, an offshoot of the Del McCoury Band that formed in 2009 and takes a progressive approach to bluegrass originals and select covers. Amazingly, each member — Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Jason Carter, Alan Bartram, and prolific guitarist/producer Cody Kilby — has won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual award given to the most outstanding player of his respective instrument.

After a riveting performance by the Alabama-born soul outfit St. Paul & The Broken Bones, The Travelin’ McCourys headlined the Grandstand Stage Saturday night, covering songs from the Grateful Dead, The Band, and even the recently departed Gordon Lightfoot.

The McCourys showcased pieces written by its members, too — with takes on tracks penned by Carter, Kilby and Ronnie McCoury. Fittingly, the finale included the band’s illusory cover of “Bird Song,” a favorite Jerry Garcia original.

Saturday’s late-night bonanza was one to behold, as The California Honeydrops put on their own tantalizing performance before joining Charm City’s Cris Jacobs in a showcase of charismatic entertainers.

Cris Jacobs plus The California Honeydrops - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.27.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Cris Jacobs impresses everyone, even his guests, The California Honeydrops, in an afterhours show at the fifteenth annual DelFest held in Cumberland, Md., over Memorial Day Weekend. (Photo by Casey Vock)

Jacobs, undoubtedly one of the area’s most dynamic and vital musical figures, hosted a terrific tribute to John Prine just a few weeks ago at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival before treating DelFest fans to two unique sets and taking part in Saturday afternoon’s Troubadour Sessions alongside Anna Moss and Lindsay Lou.

Culminating Sunday, the event saw another assortment of legends and rising stars take the stage.

Performing his own set in the Music Hall early in the day, Craven said he hoped got “a sense of the community that’s created because of the McCoury family,” requesting a “DEL YEAH!” from onlookers who, if they weren’t already, became familiar with this and other DelFest customs, such as the playful greeting tap known as the “Delbow.”

Del McCoury Projection - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Del McCoury’s glorious smile is projected onto the rock wall just to the east of the Allegany County Fairgrounds during DelFest 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)

AJ Lee & Blue Summit and The Gibson Brothers entertained late afternoon crowds at the Potomac Stage, while the great Peter Rowan — a close pal of the late Garcia as a member of Old & In The Way — and later, the one and only Sam Bush, each had runs on the Grandstand Stage.

Molly Tuttle, perhaps one of the most influential humans in bluegrass today, captivated just about everyone in attendance early in the evening with her high-flying crew, Golden Highway, saying she felt “lucky” to be able to play the festival for the second consecutive year.

Del was lively and in high spirits from start to finish, and his band’s Sunday night set — its third of the weekend — was arguably its best and it made history by featuring notable guests to commemorate the occasion.

“We’ve got so much talent here this weekend,” Del told the crowd.

Rowan joined Del and his gang, and in one of the warmest moments of the whole four days, Del welcomed his brother, Jerry, to the stage to play the bass for a portion of the set.

Del and Jerry teamed up for a Rounder recording back in 1987 titled The McCoury Brothers. But as Del pointed out, the brothers ended up taking different paths with Del eventually settling in Tennessee and Jerry in Pennsylvania. Worth the price of admission, it was a heartwarming reunification.

Another of Del’s longtime pals, Sam Bush had played solo last year at DelFest, but his talented bandmates joined him this time around. They would, however, step aside when Del himself emerged to join Sam for one of the most enjoyable and amusing segues of the festival.

With a collective sense of humor as wide as the oceans, Bush and Del amused with their back-and-forth and cackling alone. But as expected, they served up some terrific songs as Sam heaped praise on Del for all he’s done to grow bluegrass music.

“I thought I was tired but now that I’m out here with you I feel like I could stay up all night,” Del laughed.

All weekend long, Del shared stories of his younger days with tales about famous pickers like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and he spoke of wilder times in the company of rock ‘n roll legends like Jerry Lee Lewis. With Del’s beaming countenance projected up on the rocks each night, even the most distant outsider would have felt invited to relish in the pageantry and friendly vibes.

Listen to The Travelin’ McCourys Grammy-winning, self-titled studio album released in 2017:

To put the bow on a week at the fairgrounds, The Travelin’ McCourys turned in the final afterhours performance of the weekend, an epic late-night set that again highlighted the seamless connection bluegrass can form with progressive rock, jazz, country, and other styles of music.

The colorful set went past 3 a.m., and though few youngsters were awake for it, Rob McCoury’s son, Vassar, joined his cousin Heaven as guests during the kaleidoscopic display of synchronicity and individual skill.

“I know it’s late, but it’s his birthday!” Rob revealed to the crowd as his son helped provide rhythm to the jams and the songs drifted well into Memorial Day morning.

The Travelin McCourys - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.28.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The Travelin’ McCourys, with some family guests, close out the fifteenth annual DelFest by way of a late night set on May 28 that went deep into the next morning. (Photo by Casey Vock)

By welcoming not just artists but fans, too, with open arms and treating them like members of their family, the McCourys have made DelFest a nerve center for this style of music and a sacred experience for an entire community.

So, while he’s known to have given so much to bluegrass already, some of Del’s most enduring contributions might be the platform he’s given it and the people he’s helped bring together the past fifteen years.

Here are images of DelFest 2023 held at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Md., from May 25 to May 28, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.

Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band Del McCoury Band Del McCoury Band Del McCoury Band Del McCoury Band Del McCoury Band Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong Pigeons Playing Ping Pong Pigeons Playing Ping Pong Pigeons Playing Ping Pong Pigeons Playing Ping Pong - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.25.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Cris Jacobs

Cris Jacobs Band - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.25.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.26.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The California Honeydrops

The California Honeydrops - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.26.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The California Honeydrops - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.26.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock DSC08392

St. Paul & The Broken Bones

St. Paul & The Broken Bones - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.27.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The Travelin’ McCourys

The Travelin' McCourys - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.27.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Peter Rowan

Peter Rowan - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.28.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway

Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.28.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.28.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush Band - DelFest 2023 Cumberland MD - 05.28.23 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock



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