“Music is harmony, harmony is perfection, perfection is our dream, and our dream is heaven.” ~Henri Frederic Amiel
A community of music aficionados amassed Memorial Day weekend below the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. Location is the first noticeable observation. Two mountain ridges overlap to form a V shape and an enormous American flag proudly waved in the tender breeze in the forefront. The natural and vast stonewall embedded into the mountainside provided a sense of security. The trees lining that same stone ridge were so green summer dripped off the stems of the distant leaves but ever so gently whispered “love,” from, earth. One could sense that something great would happen.
In its largest attended event, the seventh annual DelFest kicked off with host The Del McCoury Band breaking wide open the second observation: that music would achieve excellence whether it be felt by the souls of the listeners or performed by the masters. Music would take on a leading role in the senses of the receiver’s mind, body and soul. The identity of DelFest is defined through lack. It lacks the mainstream energy in spite of approximate 10,000 gatherers. DelFest lacked in a garbage strewn concert field, instead a lush green lawn cushioned dancing feet (thanks to Clean Vibes). DelFest lacked individuality dictated by ego of its guests but rather like-minded strangers embraced diversity and co-creation was encouraged. DelFest lacks in standardized instruction but rather affords educational mind expansion by offering guests The DelFest Academy. Chosen student musicians were given the opportunity to perform on stage Thursday night. Cheaper by the Half Dozen played the traditional version of “CC Rider” and Caterpillars on the Bow rocked a bluegrass version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” DelFest lacks in providing popular genre yet nurtures niche music with roots so deep only those that know it, understand it.
As the long weekend began to take shape, the third observation began to unfold – a sense of community. If music had the sun, community had the moon and under puffy white clouds by day and a billion stars by night, those elements co-mingled in harmony. Nothing and everything mattered at the same time. Acceptance was immediate and therefore fear of everyday life dissipated into the distant forests. Whether it was hula hooping or dancing or arts or picking at a campsite, ancient tribal rituals were called into play giving birth to a spiritual movement.
Every community develops its own tradition and DelFest is no exception. Although the DelFest dictionary has not been written, a spoken language has emerged. A rather simple collection of phrases, words and actions gave rise to an even greater sense of community and Del McCoury himself was not only center stage, but often interacted as well. The “Delfie” (think Del selfie) was an added goal of festival attendees. The “Delbow,” the act of touching elbows was another way of giving love (unless a hug was otherwise expected). Del is a prefix for any exclamation of excitement such as “Delmazing” or the first and most common term of absolute joy, “Del Yeah!” A group of men gathered together and wore “Delmets,” grey and white wigs to honor Del McCoury. Photographer Pati Bobeck was present when the “Delmet” boys were able to reach Mr. Bluegrass himself backstage for the most honorable “Delfie” of the weekend. Onlooker and wife of a “Delmet” boy proclaimed, “Del has the best hair in bluegrass!” The photo, turned Internet meme, captivated the unspoken kinship.
Kinship was celebrated on stage as well. Multiple guest sit-ins, collaborations, and honorable song covers sprinkled throughout artists’ sets for the duration of the weekend. Emcee and musician, Joe Craven introduced each band with eloquent words. The moment the newly rearranged Yonder Mountain String Band appeared, no one could have expected the exceptional delivery. Famed dobro artist, Jerry Douglas, John Frazier on mandolin and The Traveling McCoury’s packed a wallop to a receptive and appreciative crowd.
Headlining Friday and a late night set Saturday, Railroad Earth is the true embodiment of colliding energy defying the natural. Opening with “Seven Story Mountain”, with its mystic middle jam immediately secured the enchantment of the dream. The set was bolstered with songs of distinction attracting more of the same brilliance the weekend was offering. Mysteriously appearing out of the fog of the late night stage, mandolin maestro’s Ronnie McCoury and artist at large Jeff Austin collaborated for an extraordinary version of “Head.” Fiddler Timothy Carbone could not hold back his excitement and bellowed out mid song, “Look who!” Download the show here.
First time to the DelFest stage, Ricky Skaggs and fellow bluegrass hero brought his Kentucky Thunder and a special partnership with piano virtuoso, Bruce Hornsby for an unfathomable combination of artists that astonishingly flourished. Community was the thriving theme of the weekend. The Del McCoury Band often fielded song requests from audience members. After performing late night and then again for the wake up slot the very next morning, Cabinet was not alone with bloodshot eyes hidden behind sunglasses. The crowd and Cabinet supported each other like the hazing initiation into the bluegrass club had been successful.
Both Carolina Chocolate Drops and The Reverend Payton’s Big Damn Band equally embodied the unrestricted communal ideal, which interpreted into major crowd participation. Creatively, Carolina Chocolate Drops, a traditional African-American string band included historical facts with talk sets between songs. The anomaly of a black man and a banjo was quickly erased when Rhiannon Giddens factually tutored the crowd. She expunged racial inequality by speaking truths such as that of the history of the banjo; initially the picking instrument was traditionally a black instrument until the mid-nineteenth century. Whites integrated the instrument into the mainstream to what is now known as modern country and bluegrass. Download their show here.
The most poignant performance was also a most tranquil and comfortable release of any emotion that may have been left over. Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott dug deep, a subterranean level reaching the core of human emotion. At any moment during the duo’s set, a stream of consciousness could be attained and catharsis being the end result. O’Brien opened with “Walk Beside Me,” a song made known by Railroad Earth and anyone familiar with their setlists would know it as “TOB” – Tim O’Brien’s initials. O’Brien is the place where songs begin and just as his webpage states, “things come together.”
For the grand finale, The String Cheese Incident took the stage Sunday night opening with “Song in my Head,” the title track from their first release in nine years. String Cheese fused bluegrass, rock and slight elements of electronic, reaching in and pulling out the inner child, squeezing the last ounce of time left together at DelFest. The crowd was particularly receptive to an orchestra of players, including Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and Jeff Austin during a rendition of Grateful Dead’s, “I Know You Rider.” Included in the second set was a nod to album producer Jerry Harrison, with a cover of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” Download the show here.
Indeed, it was the place. An adjacent railroad on one side and a river yonder provided the texture reminiscent of Americana sustaining the essence and the very music heard at DelFest. Everything came together with great success as though the collective whole swallowed the Divine and breathed it out onto the fairgrounds. Music provided harmony, the harmonization was perfect, the dream was attained and heaven was found on earth.
Download more music from this weekend from etree!