Review: DelFest 2023 Brings Music to Fill the Cumberland Air

The Travelin' McCourys © Taylor Lewis Photography
The Travelin' McCourys © Taylor Lewis Photography
DelFest brings smiles for miles on Memorial Day Weekend: This year’s annual bluegrass and roots music festival, hosted by the McCoury family, brought together family and friends for a holiday weekend full of music.

Starting in 2008, DelFest has been a staple in the bluegrass community, originating from Del McCoury and the McCoury family; it brings the community together for four days filled with music and a strong community.

As you pulled into The Allegheny Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland (settled right next to the West Virginia) border you could feel the energy from the campsites and RV’s for miles and miles. It was a reunion for many attendees to catch with friends and family that they may only see once a year.

Delfest 2023
Delfest 2023’s lineup

Mid-afternoon on Thursday, the hosts Del McCoury Band took to The Grandstand Stage to welcome back everyone, as the sun shined down and no clouds in sight. There is a certain energy that engulfs the legendary Del McCoury as he, along with his sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Robbie (banjo), perform together. There is something special about the family gathering.

Del loves to throw in his witty banter throughout his performances as he did on the lovely Thursday afternoon in Cumberland mentioning to the festival goers that “This is not actually a show, this is a soundcheck, so don’t be too particular when judging” as the band dove into the opening number. Well, honestly if it was just a “soundcheck,” it was one heck of a soundcheck, as Jason Carter, one of finest fiddle players in bluegrass today was showcased along with Heaven McCoury, Ronnie’s son, as his guitar work was impeccable.

Del McCoury Band © Marc Shapiro
Del McCoury Band © Marc Shapiro

Sierra Hull, who has been paving the way for many years with her angelic singing and mandolin playing, got the DelFest early attendees moving (and grooving) with her bandmates. One of the many highlights of her early evening set, was a unique rendition of “Stomping Grounds,” penned by banjo maestro Béla Fleck. She gave a nod to one of the most prolific jamb ands in history with a beautiful rendition of “Black Muddy River” (Grateful Dead).

As the sun was setting on The Main Stage, Trampled By Turtles, hailing from Duluth, Minnesota, took the stage, as their diehard fans gave them a deafening greeting. Known for their catchy lyrics, footstompin’ melodies, and high energy shows, this was exactly what was in store for the DelFest audience on Thursday. “It’s So Hard To Hold On,” off their 2022 Alpenglow, right off the bat the Minnesotans harmonies were spot on. Throughout the 75-minute Grandstand set you could see smiles for miles. It was an absolutely perfect way to begin the opening night of what was to be an epic weekend for all.

Trampled By Turtles © Taylor Lewis Photography
Trampled By Turtles © Taylor Lewis Photography

In addition to the day time and performances, DelFest offers some very special “Late Night” performances that take into the wee hours of the morning. The first of four late nights featured Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass featuring The Hillbenders. As if you’re familiar with the long-time one man jam band, you know he has been a huge fan of The Grateful Dead for many decades. This was the perfect way to finish off a monumental first day of the festival with bluegrass renditions of Grateful Dead classics such as “Scarlet Begonias.”

As the sun rose on Friday, The Potomac Stage was the place to be. Traveling from The Pacific Northwest, Never Come Down was one (of the many highlights) of the festival.  With their spot on harmonies and fine musicianship listeners were all ears to the five piece band.

One of Baltimore’s own, Cris Jacobs, has been a force in the scene for many decades. The beauty of the singer/songwriter is that he can blend genres from rock to blues to bluegrass. Jacobs delighted everyone trying out new material along with fan favorites “Jack The  Whistle & The Hammer” and “Buffalo Girl.” With the passing of legend, Tina Turner, Jacobs invited Lindsay Lou to the stage for a spot on rendition of the classic “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”

Cris Jacobs © Taylor Lewis Photography
Cris Jacobs © Taylor Lewis Photography

Lindsay Lou © Marc Shapiro
Lindsay Lou © Marc Shapiro

Lindsay Lou, one of the hardest working female vocalists, has such a strong presence onstage. On the heels of her upcoming album being released in September, she brings the emotion out in her listeners. Friday of DelFest was no different. Whether you were a few feet away from Lou (and her stellar group of musicians ) or way in the back she captivated everyone with her heartfelt lyrics and impressive vocal range.

Have you ever been to a performance where you could hear a pin drop?

This was the case at The Potomac Stage on Saturday afternoon. Sierra Ferrell has made her way in the scene, from busking in West Virginia to being in the spotlight. This was a jaw-dropping performance. You could tell by the band’s presence that they were firing on all cylinders whether it was a Ferrell original or an old timey bluegrass cover.

Sierra Ferrell © Marc Shapiro
Sierra Ferrell © Marc Shapiro

The beauty of DelFest is that over the years they have branched out from bluegrass to provide an outlet for a number of genres to be showcased.

Bringing the funk and soul, headlining The Grandstand stage on Friday evening were The California Honeydrops. Multi-instrumentalist and lead vocalist Lech Wierzynkski led the charge with high energy and infectious grin from ear-to-ear. As I glanced over the fairgrounds I saw people getting down for miles and miles, in pure harmony. From the subway stations in Oakland (California) to present day headlining on a Friday night on The Allegheny Fairgrounds, this group of seasoned musicians showed the crowd what hard work and dedication in today’s day you can achieve your dreams.

With a stellar second day in the books, it was time to bring on the late night festivities. With the pairing of The Infamous Stringdusters and Kitchen Dwellers, you know it would be an all out dance party.

The Infamous Stringdusters, one of the hottest touring outfits in the bluegrass scene today, brought the heat. All five band members were firing on all cylinders, especially on their powerful soloing. Their well-thought out set lists, ranged from their stand out originals to covers by the likes of Avicii and The Police. The Music Hall turned into a sweat box after this barn burner of a set. The Kitchen Dwellers, finishing up the late night sessions, brought their psychedelic bluegrass into outer space and hit a home run with a faithful band that stayed up until the early morning dancing the night away.

At noon on Saturday, AJ Lee & Blue Summit started things off on the Main Stage, bringing their California vibes on the sunny Maryland afternoon. Gaining momentum over the years for their fine musicianship and writing skills, you could tell from the opening numbers that this is just the beginning of a long bright future for these fine musicians. Paying homage to one of the great singer/songwriters in the past century, the quintet’s rendition of “Harvest Moon” (by Neil Young), was flawless.

In bluegrass music, sometimes it’s hard to fit a drummer into the mix, but look no further than Buffalo Wabs & The Price Hill Hustle. You immediately were entrenched by Casey Campbell on the ones and twos (drums), along with the pitch perfect vocals of Matt Wabnitz. You could see that this foursome from Cincinnati had some dedicated fans in the crowd as they sang along to every word to their heartfelt numbers.

Buffalo Wabs © Liz Pappas
Buffalo Wabs © Liz Pappas

I couldn’t resist the urge to check out Sierra Ferrell’s second set of the weekend. From the first notes of “Jeremiah” (a fan favorite), you were holding onto every second of this performance. Chalking up with one of the finest moments of DelFest is when they set into “Don’t Let Me Down,” the classic Beatles track, young and old were belting out the lyrics that people on the Wear Virginia side of the mountain could hear.

After a jaw dropping performance the night (morning) before The Infamous Stringdusters made their first appearance on The Main Stage. Paying homage to two of the greatest of all-time, Lester Flatts & Earl Scruggs, bassist Travis Book stepped up to the microphone for “I’d Rather Be Alone.” This was just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re familiar with the outfit you know the love to mix it up with old and new. Their new friend, Sierra Ferrell, lent a hand in creating a spot on the cover of “As It Was,” originally written by Harry Styles.

The Travelin’ McCourys are led by brothers, Ronnie and Rob, along with one of the most prolific, fiddler players in bluegrass, Jason Carter. With hundreds of bluegrass standards, along with a number of unique covers, the experience you will get with these “A List” musicians on any given night is amazing. On Saturday evening they showcased these skills throughout the headlining slot coming strong out of the gate with “Cumberland Blues” along with a touching tribute to the late great, Gordon Lightfoot, on “You Are What I Am.”

The Travelin' McCourys © Taylor Lewis Photography
The Travelin’ McCourys © Taylor Lewis Photography

The final day has arrived. It has set in that the end is near but there is one more afternoon of dancing and celebration to soak in.

Sicard Hollow, is a name on the rise, with their consistent touring around the country and festival slots. They got the dance party started early on Sunday, with their heavy jamgrass. Before meeting about five years ago they never imagined being bluegrass players but today you could feel all the vibrations from the four-piece Nashville outfit.

One of the Sunday artists that everyone was anticipating was Grammy award winners, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway. Hot on the heels of their win for Bluegrass Album of the Year, the band has been making loud waves in the music industry. You could see Tuttle’s smile radiate as she took the stage, basking in all the scenery and fans. Very grateful for Del and his family for inviting the band back for their second year in a row. Trying out a few new tunes for their upcoming release City Of Gold, along with Crooked Tree favorites, the 70-minute set was one for the ages.

Molly Tuttle © Taylor Lewis Photography
Molly Tuttle © Taylor Lewis Photography

Sam Bush © Taylor Lewis Photography
Sam Bush © Taylor Lewis Photography

Sam Bush. What else can you say about the guy? Decades of bluegrass music under his belt and an absolute legend. He’s a long time friend of Del McCoury, and it was a pure joy to see the two share the stage during “Roll On, Buddy, Roll On.”

DelFest is one of those festivals that right when you get to the gate you are washed over with a sense of happiness. It is four days of music filled with community.

As Dr. Seuss eloquently stated, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

I will leave you with a few quotes from the weekend from musician and host, Joe Craven:

“We all do need each other.”

“Creativity matters. Your creativity matters.”

“Happiness is the key to success.”

“I hope you take the fellowship and community that we have every year.”

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DelFest 2023 Features Some of the Brightest Stars in Bluegrass Today



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