It goes without saying that festivals are the closest thing to heaven on Earth if you’re a lover of music, camping, and general merriment. But these days, even festi-heaven has its drawbacks: the buzzkill of face-planted partiers, hustlers trying to make a buck every ten minutes, missing entire sets for a half hour walk between campsites and stages, and sticky-fingered sketchballs who forgot to pack their morality. But fear not, festie-friends! Delfest is tiny slice of heaven free of all that mess, a place where twang will soothe the soul, a veritable Eden of all that is right with the world.
The Allegheny Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland, is an old horse-racing track of manageable size, designed to accommodate large crowds, and the festival itself (put on by High Sierra) is very efficiently run, which means no long lines, packed-in crowds, or hassles. The staff is helpful and friendly to the point that I wondered if it was some kind of Southern Hospitality thing because everyone was offering advice, golf cart rides, even free snacks! Nestled against the backdrop of the emerald foothills of the Allegheny mountains, the picturesque setting added to the serenity of the weekend, and improved acoustics by forming a natural amphitheater.
A refreshing dip in the sparkling Potomac river is a great way to cool off, and if you’re too lazy to walk the ten minutes back to your tent, simply bring a raft to the stage and float back to the campsite when the music is over. The Fairgrounds has showers, indoor toilets, even covered bandstands that face the mainstage, providing shelter from sun and rain.
During the day, the vibe is sunshine daydreams, blue bird skies. Parents are twirling their little ones to traditional harmonies alongside costumed hippies who are stomping along barefooted in the grass. Older heads stare thoughtfully at fingers moving across strings in a blur of unsurpassed technique. Young or old, big or small, Yankee or Dixie, family or Phamily, everyone is beaming from ear to ear.
The music is expertly curated and the sets weave in and out of straight ahead classic bluegrass like the Gibson Brothers and the Del Mccoury Band (3 amazing sets throughout the weekend) and more progressive bands like Railroad Earth, Cabinet and String Cheese Incident. There’s also a handful of funky feel good music thrown in by bands like The California Honeydrops and Reverend Peytons Big Damn Band. Many bands play two days of the festival, one show during the day and one in the late night barn.
Be sure to save some energy for the late night shows. The music goes until 3:30AM or later each night and unlike many other festivals which only offer DJ’s and electronic music after the main stage closes, at Delfest they save the best for late night. If you can stay on your feet well into the night you will be treated by your favorite bands of the weekend, sitting in with their idols and other up and coming musicians in the biggest and most special hoe down you’ve ever seen. For me, that is what makes Delfest really special.
Once the amber sun disappears in a haze of purple clouds behind the mountains and the glow hoops come out, you can still party down til the sun comes up (even if you didn’t get a late night ticket). Every few campsites, a ring of people are sitting around a campfire picking so that there is music 24 hours a day on every square foot of the festival, not just the two large stages. Then, why not play a little sunrise kickball at your choice of baseball diamonds or stroll down to the vendors for some fresh and delicious whatever-you-fancy?
In an era when the same six bands cycle through all the major festivals until the lineups just blur together, the unique combination of up-and-coming bluegrass and folk bands and true legends making rare appearances is a refreshing breath of fresh air.