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"It's Like a Post-Apocalyptic Hippie Fest" – DelFest 2009

May 28, 2009
"It's Like a Post-Apocalyptic Hippie Fest" – DelFest 2009

DelFest 2 was this past weekend in Cumberland, MD, and let me tell you, it’s something anyone who was there on Saturday afternoon will likely remember for a long time.  Thanks to my friend Mari for the quote I’m using as the title of this post.

But let me preface the story with events leading up to that moment.

We got to DelFest on Thursday, in time to pitch our tents in the light and have some supper. Drink was flowing freely — this was the hobo camp, after all — and a good time was already brewing. We made it over to catch part of the Steep Canyon Rangers early-arrivals show, and had fun running into tons of people.

Afterwards, we chilled back at the camp, drinking and just basking in the glow. We made a brief stop over at the Stillwater enclave and man, Dave and Kacey know how to camp! It was like walking into faerie, the way it was lit. Must work on that for next year in Safe Camp.

Friday dawned and some of us made the trek to the main stage to plant our chairs for the day – first row, as we were the first ones in at 8 AM. Our meal team — Team Breakfast, which consisted of Kim, Koreen, Matt, Dan (later in the weekend) and me, cooked eggs for everyone. The day was getting warm already by noon, so we chilled for a while in camp, drinking, eating Team Lunch’s outstanding chicken adobo, and generally having a perfect time.  Grubb popped in once Railroad was on site, more drinking ensued, and it was good. We also found Mari, Chez, PJ, Dori and Darlene over on the other side of the camp, and hung with them for a bit.

Have you noticed a theme? Yeah, we drank a lot.

We headed over to catch the Infamous Stringdusters around 4 PM and man, did they blow me away. We caught them at Grey Fox a few years back, but they’ve gotten even better. Their dobro player, in particular, is truly a wizard on his instrument. By the time they broke out Deep Elem Blues, the whole place was on its feet and dancing. Once the ‘dusters were done, most of the hobos headed back to camp for dinner, but Kim and I and a couple others stayed behind to catch Del McCoury. This is his festival, after all, and he’s a true legend in the industry.

He was great, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I nearly got into a fist-fight during his set, I would have ranked it one of the best sets of the festival. But, that wasn’t meant to be.  We hobos grabbed pretty much the entire front row that morning with chairs, so we’d have dancing space for Railroad. Long story short, a drunken asshole got in front of us (we were sitting) and started stomping on my feet. I asked several times for him to stop, that I didn’t mind his dancing in front of me, but to watch it. It had no effect. So I kicked between his legs to knock him out of the way. I did this a few times before he stumbled aside.

His friend, however, took offense, and after much verbal animosity, including telling me to dance (he had obviously never been at a true bluegrass festival before and didn’t know the etiquette — plus, I’d been dancing all through the ‘dusters), he leans over and says, “Get up, you fat fuck.”

That did it. I was up, fists clenched and in his face. He said, “Go back to Virginia!” to which I replied, “I’m from the Bronx, you fuck!” and I must have had one helluva look on my face. He backed down.

I was fuming and my body was incredibly tense from the episode, which resulted in my not enjoying much of the rest of Del’s set. We moved out of the chairs rather than deal with more assholes, and mosied on back to midway between the soundboard and the fence.

Del ran over a good twenty minutes, leaving Railroad little time to load-in and soundcheck — and then Carey’s snare was having a microphone problem for another ten or so minutes. The band should have gone on at 10:15 to close the night, but didn’t start playing until probably somewhere around 10:45, which meant a short show as there is a strict open-air music curfew of midnight.

Railroad’s set was okay — The Forecast, in particular, was deep and spacey — but was disjointed due to sound problems at the beginning before Mikey P. got it squared away, as well as a setlist that kept getting shortened as songs were tossed out. Still, it was well-played, but lacking, as Kim said, in the spiritual side. Even so, an average Railroad show is better than most bands’ best shows.

Afterwards, more partying ensued at Safe Camp (we called it lots of things over the course of the weekend…). Kim and I crashed a bit after 2 AM. I used ear plugs to keep sound at bay, and it did wonders.

Saturday morning came early…and even though I was up by 8:30, Allan had sent a text saying something like, “Good morning, Team Shhh!” to me and Kim. Werewolf Jim says Allan has made a pact with Satan, which explains how he can rage like he does. I think there’s some truth to that…

Matt and I headed over to catch a bit of The Lee Boys after breakfast, who were outstanding. I need to find some of their music and download it, as they were taking no prisoners with some pretty heady blues. By then, it was already hot. I ate some lunch – taco bar this day – then showered, and then headed over to the Main Stage with Kim and Skehan to catch some Sam Bush. We caught up with John for a bit, but the sun was brutal and he wanted to find some shade. I walked out of the main field with him and headed back to the camp to get our fan and some sun block. Turns out we really didn’t need either in short order.

All afternoon, the clouds had taunted us with the possibility of rain. Every time it looked like something might happen, the sun beat its way through and kept things at bay. Things finally began to take a turn for the worse when Sam Bush started singing a rain song. Darkness began to quickly mount to the southwest, and then the rain drops began to fall.

And then they got bigger.

Looking up, you could see this was going to be one nasty storm. Hearing either Allan or Alex (not sure which said it), we booked for the HomegrownRadioNJ tent at the rear of the field. Allan, Alex, Kim, Chicago Dan, Ryan, and I barely made it to the tent as the skies opened up. Koreen and Rebecca had opted to stay on the field with a blanket over them (they quickly fled, though, as things got worse). Massive sheets of water swept the field as the wind began to blow around 40-50 mph.

And then things got worse.

Hail began to fall. Probably a quarter inch in diameter, this didn’t seem too bad initially, although if you were standing near enough to the edge of the tent, it did hurt a smidge. The rain began to fall harder as well, and the wind picked up a notch and we all began to help HGRNJ hold onto their tent, periodically dumping water that was accumulating on the top of the canopy.

And then things got worse.

The wind kicked up even higher. The frame on the vendor tent next to HGRNJ began to buckle. I made a snap decision and jumped over to them to help out. I was already pretty wet, so didn’t care. The hail was still falling, so that was an issue, but I had my hat on to help protect the ol’ noggin. The vendor tent held on while I helped them ride out this insane burst of weather. We could see sun approaching, so we figured it was about over. The rain began to lessen, along with the winds, and the hail ended, leaving the field to look as though someone had emptied twenty thousand bags of ice on it.

With barely a drizzle at this point and the sun close to breaking out, Allan, Chicago Dan and I decided we’d go check on the hobo camp. Kim, Alex and Ryan stayed behind, as it was still raining, after all. We made our way out of the main field and had to cross a raging river of mud just to get to the final exit. The water was flowing fast and was about six inches deep. Tents didn’t look so bad at this point, and there was just water around, but it seemed to be draining.

We made it back to camp to find Mike and others there making sure things were secure. Our tent was partially down because I’d left my shower towel on top of it to dry in the sun, and well, wet towels weigh a freakin’ ton. I grabbed it off the tent, but didn’t have time to do much because just as we made it to camp, things took a decidedly bad turn. The winds returned as the sky suddenly looked ominous – a tinge of green was up there along with the darkness. Rain began to fall again, as though someone had dumped a lake on us. Our camp was set up with five canopies clumped together to cover the cooking area and the bar, and everyone was under these, splitting up to keep them down. There were probably a dozen of us at this point, including Mike P, Carl, Allan, Billy, Chicago Dan, Rebecca, Mikey S, I think J-Ro was there… I know more folks were there, but it’s a blur.

And then…things got worse.

More hail, only this time, probably the size of golf balls. The wind was raging, sounding like Reuben’s train was roaring down the tracks, sparks flying. It was insanity as everyone who could, tried to hold onto the canopies. Rain was coming down so hard, you couldn’t see more than thirty feet. Carl and Barbara’s tent collapsed, only to have the wind pick up the frame and set it standing again. The rain and hail was coming in horizontally, and I was shivering from the cold, as the temperature also dropped probably twenty degrees in minutes. Drenched to the bone, holding onto the canopies, we all were starting to become more grim as it honestly felt like there was no end in sight.

After a long stretch of time, everything lessened again, although the rain still fell. Silly us, thinking it was over. After maybe five minutes of this, the wind suddenly shifted and hit us from what was probably the north, just as hard as before. Another biblical deluge occurred, and we were starting to become shell-shocked. The roar of the winds was deafening, the rain and hail was beating us down, when suddenly a flash of light and an immediate boom hit nearby. A tree near us — probably fifty feet away — was struck by lightning. I felt the shockwave and smelled the ozone, and began to wonder if maybe we were going to die. We all looked at one another, wondering if this was it. It was ferocious out, and I began to sing Raindance to help calm myself down.

Gonna open up the sky again, gonna open up the sky again — and let it rain! Can you feel it, can you feel it comin?

A few folks joined in, and as that petered out, we all hunkered down, hoping for the best.

We made it, though. I don’t know how much time actually passed — I believe the storm started around 5:15 and it was probably 7ish when things finally ended. Five inches of rain fell in that time, converting the campgrounds to mud. Chicago Dan’s tent was now in the middle of Lake Dan. Cleanup began.

My phone had a half dozen calls and texts from people, including Kim, but I’d never heard it or felt it. When Kim finally got back to camp, I was never more relieved than that moment. Throughout the whole ordeal, I wasn’t just worried about me, but I had no idea what was going on wherever she had ended up (I’ll leave that for her to tell if she wants). Some folks immediately started coffee brewing, and Carl, Dan and Matty P were doing their damnedest to get our fire going. Carl, in particular, was a man possessed, and as he said, “Don’t even try to tell me I can’t get a fire going!”

He was right. It took more than an hour, I think, but as night fell, they got it going.

We checked our tent and there was very little in the way of dryness there. That didn’t bode well for the coming night’s sleep. Fortunately, our friends Bob and Ailene had an RV and offered to put us up for the night, which made things easier.

Meanwhile, Team Dinner had steak tips going and the coffee was being passed out with Jack in it…some skipped the coffee part. After a few drinks of whiskey and some of the coffee, I headed over to see how Chez, Mari and the others were doing. They were up in family camping and had survived as well. Chez and I were both extremely hyper, so he tossed me a Maui Brewing Co. Coconut Porter, which I knocked back quickly. Looking about, you could see the devastation through the camp grounds. Tents down and mangled, some trees down, people packing up and fleeing with their kids…it was a lot to digest. I still am, as a matter of fact. I said goodbye, hugged folks — ran into Mari and Dori on the way back to our camp — and then got on the one set of dry clothes I had.

I felt alive. My  body was on what ended up being a ten hour adrenal surge, which lasted until 4 AM when we finally got to bed.

Dinner was great, the fire was good, and some folks heard Leftover Salmon was going on at the main stage, which was back up and running. Word came in that some of us were comped backstage for the Railroad Earth/Del & Friends late night sets, so we made sure the fire was safe — a bunch of kids came over to huddle by it at one point, and we gladly shared it with them — and headed over to the late night building with Koreen while Salmon was finishing up. A bummer we missed them, but our energy was low at this point.

Once we got backstage, everything changed, of course. One, it was warm and dry. Two, there were several kegs flowing, and a lot of people we knew were floating in. I headed onto the floor to hear the end of the sound check, and got to hear John wail on the zouk on an Irish traditional song called The Windmill. Grubb joked a bit with me from the stage and I chatted with John for a moment — suggested to him that he try The Clap or Mood For A Day as part of his 1759 intro on the zouk, which brought a gleam to his eye (he’s an old prog-rocker, you see). If you hear that at some point, you can thank me. 🙂

The doors opened, people flooded in, and Kim, Barbara and Greg were up front with me under John’s mike (big surprise there, eh?). The place was pumped. Earlier in the day, we’d gotten John, Grubb, Todd, Phil and Stacy all with the request for Fisherman’s Blues. We really wanted to hear that. Looking down at John’s setlist, I saw Fisherman followed by 1759 written on it. I was stoked. Over dinner, we’d also, as a group, let Mike, Double A and J-Ro know that Storms and Raindance were not acceptable…and Allan blanketed the band with a text message saying as much. We wanted a Warhead Boogie > I Am A Mess opener. We needed a cathartic release after surviving hell.

Which, as it turned out, we almost got. The opening bass line of Warhead thumped and the crowd went nuts. It was a down-and-nasty Warhead, too, with a long intro. The crowd was roaring as it kicked in, and then, as it ended in the swirling chaos, the opening drums of Skehan’s New Jam kicked in. This, to me, was more than acceptable.

I was in heaven. If the Railroad set the night before had been technically proficient, this was beyond that. It was intense, and the emotion and spirit was there. This is why I go see Railroad Earth so much.

After a great Saddle of the Sun and Little Bit o’ Me, Jason Carter, fiddler for the Del McCoury band came out, and as Todd began strumming some chords, I saw Andy reach for the tin whistle and I was bouncing in place. Fisherman’s Blues. How sweet it was! And then! Skehan began his trippy picking on the zouk and we got a killer 1759. Jason’s fiddle added a layer of darkness to the tune and it was just awesome.

At song’s end, I made my way backstage and went to grab a beer — only to run into Del McCoury, himself, his hair looking as perfect as always. I waited for him to be free, went over and thanked him for his music, and for the festival. He was a very gracious man as he shook my hand, asking if everyone in my group was okay after the storm. Truly a kind man.

I went and found Kim, told her Del was out back, so we went back out so she could meet him, too. She’s now met Del, Bill Monroe and Vassar Clemens. I heard later that Peter Rowan was kicking around back there, too, somewhere.

We made it back out for the end of Long Way to Go (Ronnie McCoury sat in on that one) and it was excellent, despite my desire to not hear it for a year or three. The band encored with Railroad Earth, and I have to say, when they sang, “Oh mama, ain’t it good to be alive?“, I never felt that line more. Between Kim’s recent surgery and having survived the day, it resonated. And you could hear the crowd roaring as the band sang it.

And then Railroad was over. Del & Friends went on (eventually including Timmy, Andy and John), and we hung out the entire time, some times backstage, some times out front, and some times outside with folks, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and generally affirming our bonds with one another.

Somewhere around 4 AM, the Del set ended and we made our way back to Bob and Ailene’s RV, whereupon we crashed.

A train coming by a couple hours later awakened me, and I was up and down the next few hours as more trains came through. We made our way back to camp around 10:30 AM, just in time to eat and clean up for Team Breakfast. Kim went and showered, and there were storm clouds on the horizon. I began to dismantle our gear, as Koreen was ready to head home (we drove down with her in her car) after the Cornmeal set. Once Kim was back and it was my turn to shower, I was halfway there when the darkness appeared again. The fairgrounds’ PA warned of incoming hail, so I turned around and headed back. We got our gear packed and then the storm blew past us. The PA said it had moved around us, and things were now safe. We ended up on the main field in a sea of mud, dancing to Cornmeal — who, I must say, were my second favorite set of the weekend after Railroad’s late night. Stringdusters were a close third. I was a dirty wookie at this point, my feet and legs just covered in mud.

We made our way back to camp after saying goodbye to a lot of folks, ate a wonderful baked potato lunch, then said our farewells and hit the road around 5 PM. We gave away our Cornmeal late night tickets, since we weren’t going to be there, and while I regret missing them, I was home by that point, sleeping in my own comfortable bed.

We rolled into the Bronx around 10:30, having hit no traffic all the way to Koreen’s from Maryland, and then none from her house in Jersey to home. I showered a real long time, and felt I’d never get my feet clean. Days later, they’re finally looking more or less normal again, but it was a near-thing in them never getting this way.

So there you have it — likely the longest blog post I’ve ever written. I’ve tried to convey my feelings about things, and I know I’ve missed a lot, but that’s as much as I’m going to write on this.

All I can say is this: DelFest 2010? Del Yeah!

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