Delfest 2018 Review: Delfest Bluegrass Festival
Delfest 2018 Review, courtesy of Dark City Strings
(Featured Photo courtesy of The Lot Scene)
When the fine folks at FestyGoNuts asked us to cover this year’s Delfest, we happily obliged!
The Delfest lineup is always ridiculous (overwhelming really), and the setting is quite literally magical. It’s so magical, that in 2012, it turned a bunch of brooding rugby players into a semi-competent bluegrass band!
Yes, indeed, that’s exactly how Dark City Strings formed.
The cliff notes version goes like this: I grew up around bluegrass my whole life (My first festival was Winterhawk 94’, now known as the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival– you should go!). I always wanted to be a picker growing up, but was too busy running into other kids and chasing various balls around parks. That led me to Rugby and the guys who are now in Dark City Strings. Believe it or not, Rugby and Bluegrass have a lot of similarities, none more important than drinking copious amounts of alcohol until all hours of the night.
Fast forward to 2012 where I “convinced” my rugby mates to join me at Delfest that year. Most of them had no idea what to expect. Lucky for them, their introduction to the bluegrass world was consecutive sets of Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, & Railroad Earth. All three bands CRUSHED us. When we returned home, we drew straws after rugby practice as to who would play which instrument (poor Joe got the bass!), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Let the DelFest-ivities Begin
Driving that last tent stake into the soft soil of the beautiful Alleghany County fairgrounds felt a little more rewarding this year (Del7 for the squad), this being the latest we’ve started our festival season in some time. The greens and blues of the Delfest festival grounds absolutely amaze and set a picturesque backdrop for what’s become one of our favorite gatherings of the season.
Having arrived to Delfest earlier than expected on Thursday morning (and been pleasantly surprised by the boys from Serene Green picking at the County College for the folks in line!), we were prepped for soundcheck at 4:00 to kick-off what would be an incredible first day/night/morning! A soundcheck from Del McCoury in the afternoon followed by performances from California HoneyDrops and Rhiannon Giddens set the stage for our first headliner.
The Infamous Stringdusters headlined the mainstage for the first time ever this year and, as they’ve been known to do, completely blew the doors down.
We’ve dubbed this crew “the smile guys” because you’d be hard-pressed to find a frown or a stagnant set of feet at a Dusters show! (Seriously, take a look. It’s just not possible to keep a grin off your face.) Thursday night was no different, and there was a healthy dose of originals, traditionals, and covers on offer. Most notably “Possum” which had all the Phish Phans dancing and grinning from ear to ear. The boys closed their epic show with a nod to the Grateful Dead, and their endearing crowd clapped and sang to “Not Fade Away” as the boys walked off.
Having caught The Lil Smokies in action in Asheville a few weeks ago, we knew what we were walking into; but, WOW, did these boys deliver AGAIN. The Lil Smokies remind us a lot of early Greensky Bluegrass. Much like GSBG, they’ve been at it for a long time, both bands winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition and gaining fans one show at a time. They’ve also both had a few lineup changes, most notably Anders Beck joining Greensky and Jake Simpson joining The Lil Smokies just over a year ago.
Let me tell you something folks, Jake Simpson is an absolute ANIMAL on stage. There were several times I thought his fiddle was going to spontaneously combust. Frontman and Dobroist, Andy Dunnigan was another highlight, often finding himself in a “call-and-response” sonic battle with Simpson.
After The Lil Smokies finished a rousing rendition of “Paint it Black”, Fruition took the stage and played through a number of tunes off their new album. A bit slower than the blistering pace the Smokies displayed, Fruition showed off their amazing three-part harmonies that left everyone tugging at their heartstrings.
Mountain Ride and breakfast burritos (of which there were many choices this year) was the way we greeted the day Friday.
Mountain Ride worked hard all weekend and made fans everywhere they went. They had big performances on the Potomac stage and in the dance hall before taking it to the streets and busking well into the night for those of us wandering the camp. Well done, team!
The Jon Stickley Trio took the stage in front of an eager and a bit sweaty Potomac stage crowd. The Trio is absolutely firing right now and new(ish) drummer Hunter Deacon is air-tight. After the uber-talented Linsday Pruett dazzled the crowd with a display of technique that left most jaws on the floor, Jon Stickley took a minute (during the stunned quiet after applause ha) to speak to the crowd.
Jon is a devout Tony Rice fan, and it was amazing to see him take the time to honor someone he considers such an influence with his version of the Rice classic “Manzanita”. This practice of honoring the craft and craftsmen/women that came before you is somewhat of a theme of this festival in particular, always rooted in the celebration of tradition while showcasing and promoting the new and the next. After watching their performances both Friday and Saturday, JS3 could be a bit of both.
Mandolin Orange took the main stage at Delfest for the first time to a crowd that couldn’t be bothered by the heat. This was too urgent a message to spend your time anywhere else but attentively glued to this group, and their music just seems to get more resonant with every listen.
Greensky Bluegrass has graced the Delfest stage in Alleghany it seems like countless times, but it never gets less exciting and they never fail to bring the goods. The band is finding a new stride right now as they transition once again in front of our eyes. (big to bigger?) (huge to huge-r?) The versatility required to span from the single mic with Del McCoury to Allman Brothers in a single set is mind-blowing. Jason Carter sat in for a monster “All-Four” and Jon Stickley rejoined Broke Mountain Bluegrass colleague Anders Beck to close with “Broke-Mountain Breakdown” and a classic “One-Way Out” cover.
Late-night started with The Dustbowl Revival, quickly climbing our personal lists for favorite bands to catch in the dance hall. California Honeydrops brought swagger to the stage, but a long day in the sun was a little too much for these correspondents and we took David Bowie back to camp (white pizza bacon teriyaki? jalapeño-sought after but recommended) and called it a night.
Saturday morning started with a campsite pick with our neighbors’ banjo & dobro, but the weather was expected to get sketchy by the time The Lil Smokies were set to hit the Potomac stage. As happens so frequently in the valley, the weather was exactly the opposite of the forecast wind and rain and we had another gorgeous day on our hands. The Smokies brought it again, and the crowd was on every beat with them.
Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton were expected to be an incredible performance from the moment we saw it on the bill, but I’m not sure I can express the gratitude of the crowd and the enjoyment of all involved (including another surprise sit-in from our friends Jon Stickley and Mimi Naja!). It’s obvious that not only do both Bryan and Billy have an immense amount of respect for their craft and those who honored it before them, but for one another as well. It was a special thing to witness – when Billy plays a Doc tune, you can close your eyes, and it’s REALLY HARD to notice any difference.
Only in his mid-twenties, Billy Strings will be a headlining act for years to come. Of course, this is no surprise to pretty much anyone reading this article.
Sam Bush played to a jumping crowd as expected, and songs like the Robert Palmer tune “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley” rocked.
After a delay and some heavy rain, the Bluegrass Congress was in session. All who stuck it out were rewarded. Watching legends like this share the stage is one of those truly magical experiences only a festival the caliber of Delfest can create. Richard Thompson joined Del for the first time ever for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning, ” which Thompson originally penned, to top it off.
The late-night brought two welcome sights – dry shelter and a Brothers Comatose-Billy Strings bill that was set to be absolute fire.
The Brothers Comatose made it very clear from the beginning they were going to leave everything they had on the stage, and man did they! After hours in the driving rain, the crowd was firing in the dance hall and the Brothers Comatose lit the place up. It takes a special type of bluegrass band to hit a crowd with covers ranging from the Violent Femmes to Jazzy Jeff and still be able to deliver on foot-stomping tunes like “Knoxville Foxhole” and “Trippin On Down the Mountain”.
Billy Strings opened his set with a “Meet Me at the Creek” that turned the dance hall on its head and might have been 15 minutes long! The whole band charges start to finish and people could not stop grooving. Personal highlights include New Grass Revival’s “This Heart of Mine” and a killer version of the Dillard’s “There Is A Time”.
After a long rainy Saturday, we woke up a bit damp but grateful to still be at Delfest. Ironically, after begging for shade the first two days, we found ourselves praying for sun to help dry the mud. One thing is for certain, when it rains at Delfest, the rain falls and STAYS! I feel for my shire dwelling folks in the woods… if you’ve been, you know what I mean.
We were lucky to get enough sunshine Sunday morning to semi-dry out our camp before the big bolts came back. We were in the middle of a jam before getting stuck under a pop-up clutching to the poles so the weather wouldn’t take our instruments! After about 30 minutes of super heavy rain, and some necessary tequila drinks, the clouds broke, and we would be clear of rain for the remainder of the festival.
Speaking of thunder & lightning, the first set of the day for us was Billy Strings. We’ve had several friends, after seeing Billy for the first-time, joke about how he looks “possessed” when he plays. Today was no different, as he came firing out the gates with the title track of his debut album, “Turmoil & Tinfoil”.
Most jamgrass bands mix it up between psychedelic exploratory jams, choice covers, and traditional grass tunes, but few can match the raw power that Billy brings to the stage. Billy Strings left us wondering whether we were at a bluegrass or heavy metal show, often times within the same song.
Next up – The Wood Brothers. Is there anyone out there that doesn’t like The Wood Brothers?! They certainly brighten up any rainy day. Of all the bands we saw that weekend, none had Delfest moving like The Wood Brothers. It was a borderline spiritual experience. One thing that stuck out to us was the number of artists who were in the photo pit checking out the show. It seemed like every main stage act was there, and they were singing those signature Wood Bros. choruses as loud as everyone else. “I got loadeddddd” “Keep me arounnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnndd!” “Honey drippinnnn offf of your spoon”!
Next up was the man himself, Del McCoury. As I mentioned earlier, Delfest lineups are so great, it’s almost impossible to catch everyone you want to see. Very rarely do we see an entire Del set, as we typically set aside at least 15 minutes to grab some food before the rest of the night settles in. However, on this Sunday, we were determined to see Del’s final set without any distractions. In typical Del McCoury fashion, he had us guessing on whether or not he actually wrote a setlist or if he was really going by audience call-outs. In either case, he always delivers a heartwarming set that makes us all think, “If I could only be that cool when I’m a Grandpa.”
Most iconic vocalists see some degradation in their voice as their careers go on, but not Del. He still hits every tenor note as if he was still playing with Bill Monroe, which was on full display during “Cold Rain & Snow.”
After an inspiring closing set from Del, Joe Craven (the best bluegrass hype man!) delivered a heartfelt introduction for the main stage festival closer, Old Crow Medicine Show. When you see OCMS, you are certainly in for a SHOW. Led by the charismatic Ketch Secor, you won’t find a more animated band at a bluegrass festival.
At one point, Ketch was in the middle of fiery fiddle solo, spinning around-and-around on one leg, and just as he’d finished his last rotation (still spinning!), he was greeted by a stagehand who traded his fiddle for a harmonica, which then led to a perfectly executed harmonica solo. It was one of those moments where you had to turn to a friend to say, “Did you just see that shit?!” This was just one taste of the endless theatrics that went on during their electric 90-minute set. The boys closed with an uplifting cover of “Spirit in the Sky” that left us all beaming as we started to say goodbye to what was another terrific Delfest.
The spirit that permeates this festival every year is pure magic. From the kindness of the “strangers” around you to next level lineups and once in a lifetime collaboration, Delfest is a special place.
Now to catch up on some sleep!!!