When Mike Angel and Patrick Burtch started planning a grassroots music festival together, they had no idea how heartily their plans would be embraced. Now, a few days away from their inaugural event, the Virginia Avenue Folk Fest is set to make its grand introduction, with 70 live performances taking place over nine different stages.
"I think we kind of had three stages in mind initially," says Angel, who also plays in a three-piece folk band called Bigfoot Yancey. "Thirty bands came, and then 30 more were like, 'Hey. Can we play?' And then 30 more and 30 more. We had to start turning people away eventually, but a lot of good Indiana musicians came out of the woodwork."
The May 9 indoor/outdoor festival spans a large stretch of Virginia Avenue, with the northernmost stage inside Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company and the southernmost outdoors at the Fountain Square Plaza. Featuring a lineup of predominantly Indiana acts, the festival will include more than just folk music, explains Burtch. Instead, a wide variety of genres will be represented, including rock 'n' roll, blues, punk, and more.
"I've always been in this mindset that just because you name it a 'folk fest' doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to strictly folk music," says Burtch, who is also the owner of Rocket 88 Doughnuts. "Like, the New Orleans Jazz Festival is called a jazz festival. But there's so much more than jazz that I don't even know if they could call themselves a jazz festival anymore."
From the start, the Virginia Avenue Folk Fest is a true grassroots endeavor. In the beginning, Angel remembers personally riding his bike to several businesses on Virginia Avenue in hopes of finding support. And, more often than not, he was met with open arms. With this approach, the festival quickly turned into a community-wide endeavor that has been made possible by local backing.
"Whether it's been businesses, residents, neighborhood associations or whatever it happens to be, everybody's been really helpful," Burtch says. "We really want people to bounce around and walk up and down the Cultural Trail and hit up the different venues. And as they're doing that, they're walking by other places and seeing what's going on there. So hopefully, it'll be a nice marketing tool for the neighborhoods."
The festival teamed up with a Virginia Avenue nonprofit called Trusted Mentors. Serving the Indianapolis area, the 501(c)(3) provides volunteer mentors to adults at risk of homelessness, ex-offenders re-entering society, and young adults aging out of the foster care system. So with the cost of this festival being officially "pay what you can," audiences are directly contributing to Trusted Mentors with any donation they make.
This community-serving cause is just one of many reasons why Cyrus Youngman (who fronts Cyrus Youngman and the Kingfishers) is excited to be playing the Virginia Avenue Folk Fest.
"These people are suffering in a way that we shouldn't tolerate as a privileged community who gets to live somewhat comfortably," he says. "It's an issue that we need to pay attention to."
He sees the festival as an exciting new opportunity for folk artists like himself.
"If you're a folk musician and there's a folk festival in your city, you want to play at it," he says. "And the fact that this one is in Fountain Square and it's the first time that they've done anything like that makes it extra exciting too."
Youngman also sees the festival as a great opportunity for local artists to link up. He asserts, "I think there's going to be a lot of good networking going on, and it will help undiscovered bands expose themselves to a brand new audience that they couldn't gather up on their own." In the same light, budding singer-songwriter Myah Evans (who was included in NUVO's "Five bands and artists to watch in 2015") also sees the festival as an excellent opportunity for artists to share their music with new ears.
"I'm sure all of the artists involved have created their own fan bases and followings," Evans says. "So having a festival with all of those artists that have created that is just going to bring all of our people together, and that's a great thing."
With so many Indiana artists in one place, Angel and Burtch also hope the festival can foster a greater love for local music amongst the Indianapolis community. Burtch says, "In order for some of these bands to break through, we've gotta have the local folks support them first to get a really solid foundation. So that's one of my big hopes of this whole thing is that we help to get that sort of community started."
"The surrounding areas are going to feel the energy," Evans says. "And then if they continue to do the Virginia Avenue Folk Fest, it's just going to help the community know who their local artists are."