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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show at Delfest 2018 -- DelYEAH!

Michigan's Own Greensky Bluegrass WSG Del McCoury!
This past Memorial Day weekend I was given the opportunity to accompany Jerry Eicher and the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show to cover the 11th annual DelFest.  We were there as the guests of the festival's PR team to experience this unique gathering and to do a live broadcast of Jerry's radio show.   Quite honestly, I'm still reeling from the experience!  It's hard to describe all the cool "People, Places and Music" we had the pleasure of interacting with over the holiday weekend.  With a legendary, powerhouse lineup of bluegrass bands led by the one-and-only Del McCoury, there was plenty to love for fans of traditional bluegrass.  More importantly, this festival's embracing of a wide variety of innovative, progressive and derivative music was pure nirvana for us "semibluegrass" and Americana fans as well!  How this enormous (and enormously important) event has stayed off my radar for so long is inexcusable--a mistake I will not repeat.  Will I be back in the future?  "Del Yeah!"

DelFest Main Stage - Photo Credit Brady Cooling
Since 2007, Del McCoury and his family have been throwing a little picking party for their family, friends and twenty thousand or so of their fans.  DelFest is held each year over the Memorial Day weekend on the banks of the Potomac River at the beautiful  and scenic Allegheny County fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland.  With a broad, flat meadow hosting the main stage, and a pair of smaller stages (one outdoor, one indoor) there is plenty of room to spread out and see a variety of music.  Mountains and a shear granite cliff form a backdrop (and a place for a large, projected silhouette of Del's head in the evening!). There is a large grandstand overlooking the main festival ground/stage with seating and SHADE for those in need.  The stages were large and well appointed with professional lighting and excellent sound.  The light show for each night's closing act was unbelievable for an outdoor venue--reminiscent of a stadium touring rock show--and somehow really contributing to the celebratory atmosphere.

Jerry recording some live sound from Serene Green
On Thursday evening, I had the honor of co-hosting the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show with Jerry Eicher from the press tent in the backstage area.  The show originates from Northern Ohio and can be heard live on WQTE, 95.3FM in Adrian Michigan every Saturday from 10pm to midnight.  The show is syndicated on a variety of bluegrass networks thoughout the country and  also streams live on World Wide Bluegrass Thursday from 7pm to 9pm.  Jerry's show features an eclectic collection of national  and local bluegrass acts ranging from purely traditional to decidedly progressive (he calls it "americanagrass").   With a cell phone internet connection, Jerry is able to broadcast "live" from the field and has begun doing his show live from various festivals.  His "Live from the RV" segments are a big hit with the fans.

Jerry with Lisa and Rob McCoury
With some eleventh hour heroics from Trent "the IT guy" at DelFest, the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show went live backstage during the performances of former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens and the Funky, Bluesy band the California Honeydrops.  The show kicked off with an interview of Rob and Lisa McCoury about the DelFest Academy.  This unique event takes place the Sunday though Wednesday leading up to the festival and allows participants an opportunity to hone their pickin' skills with some of the best in the business.  The academy is hosted by the Travelin' McCourys (Rob and Ron McCoury, Cody Kilby, Jason Carter and Alan Bartram) with additional guest instructors--this year they included Frank Sollivan, Mike Munford, Ronnie Bowman, Chris Luquette and Jay Starling).  Not only do students receive group and individual instruction from some of the best in the business, but they also get a chance to participate in the Academy's version of karaoke, where the student gets to perform a song with the instructors acting as the back-up band!  Students also are randomly grouped in a"band scramble" and compete for the coveted prize of a performance on the main stage to open the festival on Thursday!

Heaven McCoury "Hot Wired"
During the show, we were also able to interview a variety of performers on site.  Del's grandson, Heaven, talked about his 10-piece funk/R&B band the Broomestix, and his  historic performance (the first time an electric guitar has ever appeared on a Del record) on the Shawn Camp cover "Hotwired" from "Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass".  Festival EmCee and former Grateful Dead mandolinist Joe Craven popped in and talked about the history of DelFest.  Matt Rieger and Andy Dunnigan from Montana's Lil' Smokies band stopped by to talk about their sound, with guitarist Rieger repping the mitten with a very cool Otus Supply tee!   After a scorching set of hard-driving, funkified, blues-laced and horn driven R&B soul, frontman Lech Wierzynski of the California Honeydrops closed out the show with a discussion of the festival and what makes it so special.  After packing the show up, Jerry and I caught the killer performance of jamgrass masters the Infamous Stringdusters on the main stage before calling it an "early" evening (at midnight!)

Anders Beck at Friday Press Conference
Over the next three days, Jerry and I were honored to be invited to the daily press conferences hosted by the PR team from the Press House.  These daily events featured a variety of the artists and allowed a brief glimpse of the Festival from the performers' point of view.  Friday's conference featured the bands Mandolin Orange, Greensky Bluegrass and Birds of Chicago.  The question of the day revolved around what made DelFest unique and special.  The answer was pretty unanimously "Del...Duh!".  Perhaps summing it up best was resophonic guitarist Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass who--talking about his journey from traditional bluegrass to where the band is now--said "Del comes to our shows.  He LIKES our music.  It's not what HE would play, but he likes it."

Saturday Press Conference at DelFest
Saturday's large panel included representatives of old-time band Rising Appalachia, folkgrassy band Twisted Pine, super-picker Jay Stickley, Heaven McCoury of The Broomesix and mandolinist Casey Campbell of the Bryan Sutton Band.  Perhaps the most meaningful morsel from their spirited discussion came from the women in Rising Appalachia who spoke passionately about the need for music preservationists as well as musical innovators and rule breakers and how a healthy music scene not only tolerates both, but needs both--in balance and harmony.  Due to heavy rains in the forecast, Jerry and I had to pull out early, but did tune in the Sunday evening presser from the RV to hear Del and Ron McCoury, Billy Strings and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show.  Both Strings and Secor talked about learning new things every day and the McCoury's willingness to help struggling bands...both musically, and even catering to their basic needs.  Secor talked about finding "potted meat and crackers" in their car after a show while on tour with the Del McCoury Band--a gift from Jean McCoury.  He joked that he saw her in the wings during Strings' set and could tell "she was thinking that he needed to eat some more".

Joe Craven and the Sometimers Kick Off Thursday
With four jam packed days of music, it's hard to know where to begin talking about the music.  I can pretty safely say that nearly every performance I saw--had it been at any other festival--would have been the HIGHLIGHT of that festival.  Each and every band certainly brings their "A Game" to DelFest.  Between the once-in-a-lifetime events, guest appearances and special events, DelFest was a non-stop treat for fans of bluegrass and Americana music of nearly all genres and persuasions.  Joe Craven and the Sometimers kicked off Thursday's "Cock a Doodle Do" set with some killer covers of Grateful Dead standards from their new album "Garcia Songbook".  Featuring a killer guitarist, funky bassman and groovy drummer, the Sometimers also added a special guest for this show.   Appearing on stage with the band for the first time ever on harmony vocals was Joe's daughter Hattie who confessed she had to tell her dad she had been "experimenting with the Grateful Dead".  Craven's arrangements of these classic tunes pulled heavily from world rhythms and melodies and were eminently enjoyable and danceable under the hot Maryland sun.

Del and the Greensky Boys Having a Great Time!
While there were many such guest appearances at DelFest, there were a couple that really stood out.  After the first hour or so from Greensky Bluegrass on Friday night--a set drawn heavily from their electrified, effects driven, jamgrass sound, the band took a moment to reflect on their roots as a traditional bluegrass band from Kalamazoo Michigan and some of the songs they used to sing.  A single mic setup was brought out as the band stepped up with none other than Del McCoury himself for a rousing rendition of "Country Boy Rock and Roll".  Not only did they nail the harmonies but handled the switch to pure acoustic jamming with easy, combining rock-solid rhythms and lightning-fingered breaks.  Del even threw in his signature raised guitar G-run that had the boys in the band grinning and laughing while they sang. Earlier that evening, Heaven McCoury joined his Dad, Uncle and Grandpa on stage as the band played "Hot Wired".   My favorite part of the song is near the end, when Heaven participates in a call-and-response set of breaks with each member of the band in turn, holding his own and keeping up while adding his own signature sound to the Del McCoury band sound.  A musical coming-of-age and band rite-of-passageat the same time--and he KILLED it!

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning"
British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson put on a tremendous show Friday, interspersing his witty stage comments with some incredible guitar picking to really bring his original songs to life.  He even did one of his "band" numbers, with the crowd divided up to provide various harmony and horn parts.  He seemed genuinely surprised when the crowd sang the words to one of his songs back to him, almost drowning the sound from the PA!  When Del McCoury took the stage later that night after a brief rain delay, he invited Richard on stage to do his song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"..a Thompson song made famous in the US by none other than the Del McCoury Band!  As the song kicked off the rains came pouring back down.  I didn't care.  This was the first time that these two had ever done the song together on stage.  Even with the key changed from Bb to C for Del, Thompson managed to add a killer guitar break, and sang a couple of verses with Del.  A truly historic and memorable event.

Sam Bush
Saturday featured a crazy-good lineup of bands.  One of my personal favorites had to be the Sam Bush Band.  Part traditional bluegrass band, part rock-and-roll icon, this 90 minute set ran the gamut.  One can not help but be entertained by Bush's puppy-dog enthusiasm and visible joy on stage.  His songs are poignant and memorable, and his voice lends itself to the multiple styles of music he plays.  I love that he switches to different instruments to get the sound he needs.  In addition to his F5 mandolin, his set featured a bluesy and dark sounding National Resonator mandolin and a fender electric mandolin.  Bush also whipped out a fiddle and showed he's no slouch on that instrument either.  He closed his set with a hard-rocking duet featuring the timely titled "Stop The Violence" with Stephen Mougin on Electric Guitar and Scot Vestal doing a great job emulating a B3 Organ on a solid body electric guitar synthesizer mashup thingamabob.

A Who's Who of Bluegrass Greats
There were so many incredible bands on the bill for DelFest.  Obviously the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin' McCourys are headliners in their own right.  Throw in the David Grisman Trio, the Bryan Sutton Band, Sierra Hull, The Jerry Douglas Band, The Sam Bush Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder and you have the true royalty of modern bluegrass all in one place.  Add headline bands The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and Old Crow Medicine Show to the mix and you're starting to have something really special.  Late night shows featured some up-and coming superstars including Billy Strings, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and Fruition.  And wait, there's more.  I saw some killer sets from a bunch of bands including the Grateful Dead covers of The Grass is Dead--clad in some authentic Dead-era tie dyes from The Tie Dye Yogi (a super cool cat we met and hung out with for a bit.  Even picked a couple tunes with him).  Heard some cool "semibluegrass" stuff from The Brothers Comatose, Twisted Pine and Rising Appalachia.

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Gathering of the Greats
The signature event of the weekend might just have been the Saturday incarnation of the Del McCoury Band's set featuring a lineup they called the Bluegrass Congress.  After Richard Thompson got the crowd fired up with his appearance, the "Congress" was convened with the addition of David Grissman, Ricky Skaggs and David "Dawg" Grissman joining Ron McCoury on Mandolin.  Also joining in on the fun were Stuart Duncan on Fiddle, Bryan Sutton on Guitar and Jerry Douglas on the dobro.  They took turns trying to one up each other on a series of bluegrass standards--each memorable in it's own way.  However, it was Dawg's campy version of "I'm My Own Grandpa" that set the band to grinning and laughing while mixing in some killer breaks with one member of this super-band trying to one-up the next.  Great fun was had by band and audience alike.

It's About the People, First
There are a few things that really stick in my mind that made this event memorable.  The food vendors were amazing.  Had a watermelon and feta salad from "The Grilled Cheese Incident" that blew me away and a cup of fair-trade, organic coffee that was, quite honestly, the best cup of coffee I ever had.  The staff and army of volunteers that make DelFest happen are friendly, helpful and hard working--the perfect reflection of the community around them.  Picked a few tunes with the Academy guys under the "tin roof"...great guys, great pickers, great fun.  Same true for all the others I jammed with.  All in all, can't think of a better place to go to find not only the best in live, local music, but "the people, the places and the music (in that order)" that defines us a "semibluegrass" fans.  Do you need to go to DelFest next year?  "Del Yeah" you do!

A few pics follow.  Feel free to use/share with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Like what you see?  Follow us on Facebook!

Jerry Interviewing Lead Singer of  Serene green

Batik Artists (and African Drum Jammer!)

Our Backstage Radio Setup

Alexia the"Ambiance Coordinator"

Jerry and Ron McCoury

Bruce MacMillan (Joe Craven and the Sometimers)


Andy Hall

Jerry and Heaven McCoury

Jerry and Joe Craven

Lil Smokies

Joe Craven

Hattie Craven

Sam Grisman and Casey Campbell

Allison Russell

Birds of Chicago

Anders Beck sits in with the Bryan Sutton Band


Ricky Skaggs and Del

Del McCoury

Steve Pruett - The Grass is Dead

Jared Womack - The Grass is Dead

Anders Beck

Hattie sitting in with the Brothers Comatose

Greensky One-Mic Jam

Greensky Lights

Paul Hoffman - Greensky

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

Sierra Hull

Bryan Sutton and Billy Strings

Scott Vestal

Stephen Mougin - Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush Band

Sutton and Douglas

Del Yeah Sam Bush!

Del McCoury



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