BY GREGG LOPEZ / Less than an hour away from the glitzy facade of Hollywood to the north lies a sleepy suburb called Altadena, CA. It is there, on top of a mountain (or giant hill) that you’ll find the magical, burn-out oasis of Zorthian Ranch.
Ten years before Disneyland opened, Jirayr Zorthian created this wild, untamed 45-acre art retreat that has welcomed outsiders and gentry alike to groove amongst rusted out husks of classic cars, art from kitchen sinks, railroad ties and old movie sets, hang out with llamas, swim in a hillside pool and just do whatever. And for the past three years the ranch has hosted a first-class festival of young folk, country-rock and psych-influenced groups,.
Sure, we all hate rock festivals, with their corporate sponsors, beer tents, loudmouth yahoos, weekend warriors and complete absence of Llamas. This is … not that. This is the L.A. Folk Festival. It has plenty of llamas, a swimming pool and it is splendorous.
Sure, Altadena can be a hassle to get to for L.A. denizens more used to driving their motor vehicles to the corner 7-11, however once you arrive – well, you have to park a couple of miles away, but, after you walk uphill through a suburban neighborhood that apparently saves taxes by not having streetlights, you arrive finally … at the foot of the mountain that must be climbed.
At night, the mountain path is pitch black except for a some LED torches and the stars in the sky (Big Dipper and whatnot). There’s something quiet and not-at-all foreboding about this particular mountain path, because you know that on the other side is a veritable Valhalla of good vibes and art damaged rock and folk. Without the gift of sight, you find yourself staying close in concert other bodies moving up, trusting that they are not wolf people or maniacs and that you will NOT trip on a crack and sprain your ankle in three places. Yes, I should have brought a flashlight. If only I’d known. And yes, if I had read the website for the L.A. Folk Festival, specifically the bit under the heading “Prepare for Zorithian Park”, I would have.
When you reach the top of the mountain, at last, you’re greeted by two friendly young women at a table with Macbooks and there’s a food truck to the right – civilization. But when you walk past that what happens is you’re dropped into the set of Goonies, transported to a timeless land, or if you wanted to put a time on it, the 1960s. Just over yonder, some warm, trippy country psych from the Outpost Stage (one of four) sets the mood.
If I may fall back on Hollywood reductionist spin for a minute – because who doesn’t love the old “something meets something” trope? – it’s the Grand Ole Opry meets the Manson Family, Mad Max meets Hee Haw, Nashville meets Alice in Wonderland.
It takes awhile to get a feel for the layout, which on this steep hillside unfolds like an Escher drawing. You walk over bridges built from telephone poles, navigate steep hills next to art that will literally impale you. There’s genius and creativity to spare and not a hacky-sack in sight. And with 26+ acts on four stages, there’s never a shortage of tunes.
For a guaranteed good time, leave it to great female country folks like Jenny Long, Leslie Stevens or Emily Lacey who stick to the essentials of classic country rock and folk – good songs, solid arrangements and a woman’s voice to melt your heart.
Easy going L.A. stalwarts Beachwood Sparks reward mountain climbing musos with their pretty folk-rock melodies, and the haunting harmonies of Yellow Red Sparks take you to Laurel Canyon in the 1960s. It’s not mentioned in the website guide, but you really want to keep a one-hitter handy for transference and transportation purposes. That’s just me saying this though.
Some electrical issues up on the Dustbowl Stage delayed but did not deter the dusty spaghetti western soundtrack stomp of Spindrift. The Dustbowl offers the best view of the stars and is flanked by some old mobile homes in which people seemed to be living.
He’s My Brother She’s My Sister opened their stellar set on Jerry’s Stage with The Mommas and Poppa’s ‘Straight Shooter’ and continued to dazzle with their joyous brand of garage rock stomp, brother/sister harmonies, slide guitar and tap dancing (!) drummer.
Even more than the high-quality headliners, I liked the weirder stuff at the Lemon Tree Stage, like the morbidly whimsical Dirt Bird or the strange and intense folk of Guy Blakeslee.
As the night comes to a close (around 1ish) with the exquisite Tall Tales and Silver Lining and the exotic Oliwa and The Pleasure Circus you begin to contemplate the walk back down the mountain. It’s a wonder old Zorthian hadn’t devised a zip-line for this purpose.
All in all, it’s a tremendous privilege to see so many great acts in such a magical setting and well worth the uphill trek. – Gregg Lopez