New Los Angeles Folk Festival sets toes tapping at Zorthian Ranch
The locally fabled yet relatively unknown Zorthian Ranch in Altadena served as the idyllic pastoral venue for Saturday’s New Los Angeles Folk Festival, a one-day event that brought together 28 bands and solo artists and included the emerging and established as well as the traditional and experimental from L.A.’s folk music scene and beyond to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The 45-acre ranch, home to eclectic artist Jiryar Zorthian until his death in 2004, was for decades a bohemian haven frequented by local celebrities, artists and musicians, but has sat largely neglected for the last few years. That wasn't the case this weekend.
The lineup, which featured headliners Spindrift, Amanda Jo Williams, Frank Fairfield and Djinn Aquarian, offered traditional folk fare while challenging the notion of what defines the genre. “People talk about punk music as the DIY scene, the alternative scene, the underground scene, but I think this is just as important. And to me, folk and punk are almost the same thing, just remove some symbols,” festival founder Daiana Feuer said regarding the festival’s defiance of conventional parameters, one that extended to the location.
After a 10-minute hike up to the hillside retreat (for those who didn’t want to brave the precarious ride up the narrow road in the festival shuttle), attendees walked through the ranch’s vast sea of junkyard treasures, stopping to contemplate the numerous curiosities that filled the landscape from decrepit trucks and weathered midcentury farm equipment to purposeful installations that included Zorthian’s best known structure, an elephant constructed from burlap, rope, buckets and a fire hose, featuring a papier-mâché missionary's head inside the animal’s stomach.
The rusted relics stood in stark contrast against an awe-inspiring panoramic view of surrounding canyons as children slid down a giant water slide and splashed in the ranch pool. Small crowds of parents, aging hippies and young hipsters gathered around the festival’s four stages, which were spread throughout the ranch and naturally provided by the property itself.
Performers led by local experimental artist Nicole Disson, dressed in a medley of overalls, velvet jackets, large-brimmed hats and feathers, dubbed themselves the "Zorthians" and spent the afternoon playing practical jokes on visitors as a welcome to the ranch. A horse corral, a chicken coup, llamas and goats completed the nostalgic rural setting, taking attendees back to a slower-paced, easier time where the deer and the antelope played, so to speak.
And that was just the mood Feuer was hoping to evoke by holding the event at the Zorthian Ranch. Now in her second year organizing the festival, which she co-founded with James Cartwright, Feuer sought to take attendees out of their daily lives by holding the musical celebration in an unusual setting. “I want to create experiences that feel like a mini-vacation but within Los Angeles,” Feuer said.
Psychedelic country fare from Spindrift and Stevenson Ranch Davidians was juxtaposed with the urban-folk sound of Emily Lacy and the pop-folk grooves of Radical Face. Legend Ruthann Friedman was followed by electronic composers and singer-songwriters Julia Holter and Ramona Gonzalez, a.k.a. Night Jewel.
“New folk, or what I call new folk, is experimental music,” Feuer said, “The female songwriters I have here, they use electronics, they use acoustic, they use objects. It’s not about doing anything old-time. It’s about making good music that brings people together. That’s how I would define folk music, music that really gives people that space to be themselves and to feel good.”
Echoing Feuer’s sentiment, musicians playing the festival seemed to embrace the genre’s evolutionary progression. “Folk music comes from people, for people so it’ll always change,” reflected Amanda Jo Williams, a local staple of the local country-folk scene. “It’s not an old thing. It’ll just ride along. It can be new and it can be future.”
-- Dima Alzayat
Photos: Frank Fairfield, top, and Farraby Lionheart, bottom, perform at the New L.A. Folk Festival. Credit: Delmie Mongee