Written by Carly Shields
Photos by Nick Price of NJP Productions
By now you have surely heard or read how absolutely fantastic DelFest is. How magical the community, how impressive the music, how pristine the landscape. You’ve probably heard about the fiery Billy Strings Cheese Incident, the Pettygrass set that brought some people to joyful tears, the packed Railroad Earth late night set that shook the building, and the Del McCoury Band set where we all danced blissfully in the rain. These sets, and all the others of course, are the reason we all go to DelFest year after year (and if you’ve ever met anyone that goes to DelFest, they go back). But maybe you don’t yet understand WHY all of these things are the way we say they are. WHY is it magical? WHY is it impressive and pristine and joyful and blissful even in the rain? Let’s go for walk, shall we?
To set the scene: You’re camped in “gen pop” with your crew who you easily assembled with once you arrived to the College to get your wristband, or met up with once parked. You walked the short distance from your car to your site and set up on a flat, grassy pad amongst other energetic folks, maybe some families, probably mostly 20-40+ year old groups. On a particularly hot morning, you and your crew want to go for a float down the cool Potomac River, but alas, you don’t have floats. Neighbors quickly offer theirs and you set out, blown up unicorns and hot dogs and rafts in tow. You march around the baseball fields through more camping, hearing acoustic music drifting from over there, a radio broadcasting the main stage from over here, a giggling group of early drinkers possibly doing dunkaroos (not advised) right there!
You get to the main road and walk toward the festival grounds, passing family camp and the drumming, screaming, painting, chasing Kid Zone on the way. A band is practicing in the gazebo to your right and there’s a freshwater station where you stop to fill up on your left. Someone in your crew takes a quick run to the bathroom building (that’s right, and there’s two of them) ahead and as you wait, you see beaming children and their parents, who surprisingly don’t look stressed or tired at all, you see hula hoopers and other floaters, people heading back to camp with a breakfast burrito and a coffee. As you head onward to the put-in, someone mentions a Bloody Mary Bar at the late night stage, so naturally you and your crew make a detour. Once again on the way, Bloodies finished and cups recycled, you place your float in the river, struggle as gracefully as you can to get inside without the shock of the cold water, even though you know you need it, and, toes dangled in, old friends and new alongside you, calming yet exciting sounds and energies wafting from land, you float.
For 20 or so minutes, past the great rock wall where Del McCoury’s face is projected at night, past the secret rock beach by the stage, past the campers posted up on the shore to keep cool, down to the take out spot. You climb out, head back to your site to dry off and refresh, and it’s on to the festival.
The music at the 12th annual DelFest this year was, truly, astonishing. Thursday night saw the fresh and impressive skills of southern soul rockers Marcus King Band and the triumphant return of Trampled by Turtles. Billy Strings sold out his double sets for Late Night and the room was ready for a throwdown, to which he willingly obliged. He didn’t stop there with a heater of a Friday afternoon set on the mainstage, leading festi-goers into a night of no breaks. Kitchen Dwellers did not disappoint with tunes between Strings and Del McCoury’s famed set. Watching Del is always a joy because he interacts with the crowd in a way most artists wouldn’t even dare. And why not? This is his celebration after all, and he genuinely wants to hear from his people who he considers his family.
The String Cheese Incident’s sets were an incredible selection of their music over the years, all high energy and captivating. The first, of their more roots music with Del as a guest on a few songs, and their second, more electronic and dancey with the Strings sit in that really blew some minds. Late night Larry Keel stole the show with clo-pen, as some would say; closed the night, opened the morning at 11:45am on the Main Stage. Did he stay awake all night? Probably. Did it matter? Not in the least. I’m With Her took people’s breath away during the day time and Railroad Earth stole it back later Saturday night. And Sunday was a beautiful day, save some overly preach-y stuff from Ricky Skaggs during the gospel set, but MC Joe Craven’s always impressive full band set and The SteelDrivers turned the volume up to Funday. Railroad Earth again made the absolute most of their time on stage, bring the festival to an ecstatic close.
Some folks venture to the very last set, Late Night on Sunday, always with The Travelin’ McCoury’s and all their friends. Some wander around the campgrounds, making friends and saying goodbyes. You may think this would be a sad time of the festival, the anxiety of packing and driving tomorrow after such an intensely beautiful experience. But let’s walk home to camp for the last time together.
Once you decided it was time to rest your weary eyes, you and your friends head out from the sweaty late night den into a crisp, foggy mountain dreamland. As the moon shines bright and the grass glistens back, you walk through prime camping and see everyone’s elaborate set ups and camp names and flags; you pass by the rows of impressive RVs that you hardly even noticed all weekend. You head back past the gondola, picker’s still pickin’ as they do, past the soothingly quiet family camp, and past the lovely tree on the corner where the fire burns all night and the people cackle right along with it. As you finally lay your head to rest on your comfy camping pillow, the Allegheny mountains around you and the perfect weekend behind you, you can think of nothing more than how you can’t wait to come back next year.