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How the Milk Carton Kids created ‘the first annual’ Los Angeles Folk Festival

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan, left, and Kenneth Pattengale, right. The indie folk duo from Eagle Rock in partnership with the LA Phil will hold the inaugural Los Angeles Folk Festival on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, and Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. (Photo by David McClister)

In the dozen years that the Milk Carton Kids have played their modern folk music in towns and cities around the world, the folk festivals always felt best to singer-guitarists Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale.

“The most fun part of the year is when summertime rolls around and you get to go to a lot of different places you might not otherwise go for normal shows, for theater shows,” Ryan says on a recent call from the road between gigs in Detroit, Michigan and Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

“We kind of feel like each one is a little bit of a homecoming for the bands on the bill,” he says. “It’s where we see our friends who live in North Carolina or Wisconsin or Seattle. Bands based out of different places, you’re all on the bill together, and you’re hanging out for the whole day.”

Over time, the duo from Eagle Rock, also noticed that each festival meant something special to its fans, too, Ryan says.

“People travel to festivals, they have their traditions around going to a certain festival every year, and they know the other people that go there,” he says.

“We’ve just really been in touch lately with this idea that there’s actually a pretty tight-knit community that’s fuilt up around folk music in North America,, but also globally. And that it’s a really cool thing to foster and be a part of.”

And so the Milk Carton Kids decided to start a festival tradition of their own, hosting first-ever Los Angeles Folk Festival at The Ford amphitheater in the Cahuenga Pass on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 7-8.

On Saturday, the lineup includes headliner Sierra Ferrell, Valerie June, Davíd Garza & Freaklórico, Tré Burt, Tish Melton, Raye Zaragoza, actor John C. Reilly, and comedian Mae Martin.

On Sunday, Waxahatchee headlines, preceded by the Milk Carton Kids, Haley Heynderickx, Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show, Charlie Hickey, a second appearance by John C. Reilly, and comedian Nick Thune.

“We’re calling this the ‘first annual’ festival, which I’ve been told is either an incorrect term or at least presumptuous,” Ryan says. “Because to be annual it has to be already the second year, I guess.

“I’m fine with the presumptuousness of it because I’m just gonna say that we are gonna do it again,” he says. “That’s definitely the plan.”

‘A hidden gem’

In February of this year, the Milk Carton Kids played Block Heater, a winter iteration of the Calgary Folk Music Festival. In July, they flew to Australia to play the Adelaide Guitar Festival. August found them in Manchester Center, Vermont for the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival.

Those festivals have long histories and proven support, Ryan said. For the new Los Angeles Folk Festival, he and Pattengale intentionally started small, giving themselves a chance to prove that their idea will work and hopefully grow from there.

“When we were looking for a site, we talked to a lot of different outdoor venues, a lot of different sort of park-type spaces,” Ryan says. “And the best partner we found was the LA Phil at The Ford because it provides the perfect environment.

“The amphitheater is also a little bit of a hidden gem in L.A.,” he says. “Like, I think a lot of people have heard of it, but I, for example, lived my whole life in L.A. and I’d never been there.

“We went to tour the venue to see if it would be a good spot, and you walk in and it’s just this totally magical place that I’m not sure that many people are so familiar with, even in the L.A. music scene.”

That it was a secret jewel felt right to the indie folk duo, Ryan says.

“Kind of analogous to folk music in L.A., where it’s this huge thing with a big, deep and rich historic tradition that people don’t really know about, or at least they don’t think about it,” he says. “They don’t associate it with L.A. that much, so The Ford felt like a good analog for that.”

‘A particular edge’

Curating the festival ended up easier than Ryan or Pattengale imagined, even as they worked on the fest at the same time as they made their sixth studio album, “I Only See the Moon,” which arrived in May.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to have, over the last slightly more than a decade, built up a really great community and a lot of friendships with artists we admire a lot,” he says. “And so the first place that we started was like literally, ‘Who do we have in our phones that we can text that would make a good bill?’

“And the people we ended up with were all right at the top of our list, so we’re kind of lucky that they were available and interested,” Ryan says. “Something that everybody has in common is like a particular edge or vitality to them. We wanted it to feel exciting.”

Those are qualities that Ryan appreciates in the folk music scene in which the Milk Carton Kids move. Where the American folk music revival that began in the ’40s and ’50s often looked back in time for its inspiration and source material, the modern folk of the artists on the bill for the Los Angeles Folk Festival takes the sounds and styles of the past to write songs of the present.

The Los Angeles venue Largo at the Coronet has been a frequent home to the Milk Carton Kids over the years. It’s a place where musicians and comedians of all stripes often intermingle on artist-hosted nights such as the Kids’ own “Sad Songs Comedy Hour.” It’s those Largo shows and the friends made there that inspired the addition of comedians and a movie star to the festival bill, Ryan says.

“Talking about that vitality and the edge to it, that’s the thing that we’ve always been attracted to from the beginning of our career,” he says. “It can feel a little subversive. Like punk rock without the amplifiers.

“You know, when we started we gave our albums away for free, and we would wear suits in dirty rock clubs with sticky beer on the floor,” Ryan says. “There’s something a little incongruous about doing this kind of stripped-down acoustic, vulnerable music in this modern culture.”

“It can feel a little against the grain, subversive in some way, and I tend to like artists that lean into that side of it.”

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