NEW LOS ANGELES FOLK FEST @ ZORTHIAN RANCH
The New Los Angeles Folk Festival at the Zorthian Ranch seems like such an obvious idea in hindsight, not so long after it’s cut its teeth as a musical institution; though this is only the third year, it’s hard to believe there was a time when someone had NOT yet tried to get all of Los Angeles’ folk and folk-minded talents into one big ramshackle sprawling folk-architecture venue and have them play in rounds, leap-frog style, from different stages back and forth across the hills above Altadena.
The success of Daiana’s festival (and really, the L.A. Folk Fest certainly feels to me like an extension of founder Daiana Feuer’s joyous, booster personality) proves many remarkable things, all of them rather delightful and marvelous. It speaks to the legacy value of Jirayr Zorthian, the moneyed pre-hippie freak who formed this ranch in 19 something-something with something-something-something-something (check Wikipedia–it’s too much to talk about here, but it’s a treat). And it certainly proves how far past the point we are of a mere folk “revival.” We’re now looking at a good decade-long immersion in folk music in this town, one that is as permanent here as dirty soul rock is in Detroit and which shows how much folk defines what Angeleno music is, far more than L.A. defines its brand of folk.
Yet maybe that last part’s not true. Aside from the literal 60s countercultural movement itself, in some ways the wallpaper over which so much of our current culture’s musical portraits are hung (unlike San Francisco, L.A.’s 60s were far more harsh, political, dark, and calculated all at the same time—think the Byrds, the Doors, Love, the Watts Riots, Sonny and Cher…), L.A. has always been the place where cultural movements turned snarky and fun. In the punk era, we replaced the self-righteous squatter snarl of the Sex Pistols with the spun-up drunkenness of the Germs’ “gimme a beeah” and sent the fucking Dickies to England as our answer to the Clash. In the era of electronic dance music, we may not have invented the warehouse party, but we gleefully added more disco balls and velvet ropes, turning it into something Drew Barrymore would want to champion. And even now, when IDM has long since been pushed aside in the wake of the ubiquitous moniker “EDM,” who else but an Angeleno would have the balls of Gaslamp killer to mix Eazy-E into a Coachella show when Dre is the headliner? There’s a reason they don’t let the real L.A. crew play the Sahara Tent—they know our wild beasts would tear the glowstick safari-goers APART!
…And did I just go off on a tangent? I think that’s my point: with so much variety and oddball zaniness to the L.A. Folk Fest, both within the acts themselves and within the topography of Zorthian Ranch, you couldn’t help but have a helluva time: a “perfect tempo if you’re on mushrooms” said Robert Kolar of He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister from the stage. And many fans were! If the initial folk revival of the early 60s was all about chronicling the past, and later folk was about using the form’s simplicity to make waves (or just tread water) for social change, our modern L.A. folksters seem to be in it for the sheer joy: the beauty of a soprano warble, the tenderness of an open E chord, the intimacy of a strummed confession, and the audacity to do all these things while wearing Mozart wigs or jutting from out a giant volcano. Some bands still looked to the past, and some still hoped for a better future, but by and large, this was an experience to treasure right NOW, in the satiated bliss of the present.
With that in mind, here are my immediate observations about the festival, scribbled hastily before they disappear in a puff of global warming vaporization:
- I was a fool not to arrive early. If only I’d realized that Daiana had given some amazing bands like Fort King, Dustbowl Revival, and Kris Hutson free reign to strum fully acoustic set all over the place before the PAs and mics were set up!
- The Lemon Tree Stage was the most gorgeous of all stages. Set up on a tiny porch jutting out from a dainty little cabin in a recessed valley below the two main stages, it felt theatrical somehow, like a scene from Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas or the Chicken Lady’s shack at Dollywood. The other stages invigorated you, but this one mesmerized you.
- Tommy Santee Klaws pretty much sounds the same every time you see him. And why not? Many bands struggle to get even ONE song sounding as poignant as his marches-toward-reckoning, and he has an even dozen that he makes so easy! Truth is, they’re not, and I’m in no hurry to tell him to change.
- Daiana’s dad (or uncle, or grandpa, or whoever that was) is a honey-dripper of love! David Feuer jumped into an already lively set by Domingo Siete and brought down the fucking HOUSE with his smiling rendition of “Bésame Mucho”—he basically looked all of us in the eye and dared us not to know love.
- At first, I didn’t get why the Morricone-surf-psych of Spindrift would be considered “folk,” though it sure was cool to hear. Only later did I kind of realize the truly Pete Seeger, archival nature of a band that would re-enliven songs that only existed for a moment in the minds of young buckaroos in the 50s. If the Western genre isn’t a folk genre, I don’t know what is!
- Geronimo Getty, with Morgan Gee on fiddle, were good—so good that I overheard a younger middle-aged husky dude tell his friend, “This is the third-most band I wanted to see today!”
- Aside from not singing about the ridiculousness of women’s depictions in media AND not being a woman himself, lithe blondie Tom Brosseau is exactly like 80s folk icon Phranc. Okay, actually he’s way weirder, all angelic with his blond hair and not a sign of beard or sideburn or out-of-place speck of dust, tanned like a man who works in the corn fields of a cinematic past yet completely immaculate, his jeans and billowy white tee hanging off him like he’s in a Levi’s 501 commercial from the 90s. Even his high-register voice is… otherworldly, that’s the only way to put it. His songs about oil field disasters in North Dakota and loved ones leaving (“I’m drinking malted milk with my eyes shut tight … I’m not expecting you to be there when I open them”)seems even more true, because they’re not songs, they’re the declarations of seraphim.
- Yet Leslie Stevens is even MORE fucking angelic that Tom Brosseau, at least in the voice, and when we heard it echoing over the canyons from the, well, from the “Echo Country Outpost” stage, we had to leave ol’ Tom and walk back past the chickens to see Stevens. Her song about how everybody drinks and drives in heaven almost made me want to drink and drive home from the fest that very night! But nope, I instead went home stone cold sober, singing this song in my head as I unevenly tapped it out on the steering wheel: “Boopety doop doop, I am the wombat WOMBAT, boopety doop doop, wombat fuckin’ BAY-BAAAY…”
- I was super nervous about introducing poet Stephen Kalinich on Jerry’s Stage, partially because my voice was going, and partially because I wasn’t sure if it was pronounced “Kuh-leeeen-itch” or “Cal-inn-itch.” But I’m glad I waited it out, because he went on right before Beachwood Sparks, meaning I got to hang out and talk to Farmer Dave Schmeer before their set. These dudes sounded great, and really, their new album is as good as anything they were doing in 1999. Country ages well. Hearing them from the back of the stage, watching the sun go down behind them, will be one of my favorite memories of this summer.
- Actually, the Outpost Stage was probably my favorite, even though it was crowded and hard to see, just because it’s location right UNDER the Jerry Stage cemented its feel as the underdog stage. And that’s funny, since it was all the same festival and same crowd, and there was never any competition between the two stages, since they weren’t used simultaneously due to noise bleeding concerns. Still, there was a weird “yeah, we’ll show ‘em!” vibe to the fans watching from this stage. And I liked how there was a sign saying “OUTPOST” that was made of the same wooden shingles they use at the actual Echo Country Outpost in Echo Park.
- This stage may have informed how I viewed Cowboy & Indian, who were the cutest couple I’ve seen in a while—a freckly hippie chick and a manly guitar player with Hitler’s haircut and Freddie Mercury’s moustache—not sure which one I wanted to be, but either of those lives sounded better than what I’ve got going on. They even kept waving to their damned blonde baby in the goddam audience, and their voices, plus their ginger man partner on stage left with the newsies hat, were full-on 1968, a bit Jefferson Airplane mixed with “Ride a White Swan” era T-Rex, what with all the Chuck Berry riffs. I want to be friends with these guys and carry their amps while they let me snack on homemade flax seeds.
- Did I mention Dirt Bird? You can’t really describe these two ladies other than to say their wigs only partially alleviate the sheer somber serious “whooooooooaaaaa” of their medieval harmonies. It’s like nothing else, and it’s a hard formula to tinker with—glad the ladies have tweaked their show delicately, adding a slightly larger amount of instrumentation and letting Athena Le Grand tap at a few drums now and again, her previous modus operandi in bands such as Lily and the Ladies.
- There was so much more—blowing bubbles, Emily Lacy in a volcano, the disappointment in the fact that Restavrant’s drum-set looks real now, Triple Chicken Foot being awesome, the deceptively conservative attire of Bloody Death Skull, lightning-bolt guitar straps, the realization that me and all whitish dudes my age who look like me, including me, have decided serendipitously to wear kaftan muumuu dashiki things to music festivals—but perhaps the best part was the pool, just right on the other side of a wall from the Jerry stage. By the end of the night, as Oliwa and the Pleasure Circus jammed out, some very talented peer-pressurers were coaxing us to take off our clothes, and finally succeeding by telling us “Richard Feynman used to skinny dip here!” I was weird, but it was worked, and it’s true—and I can’t think of a better assessment for the current state of L.A. folk music.
-D. M. Collins