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Virginia Avenue Folk Festival keeps Indy beautiful

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Founders Mike Angel at left and Patrick Burtch at right - GAGE HEIN
  • Gage Hein
  • Founders Mike Angel at left and Patrick Burtch at right

When I ask Patrick Burtch and Mike Angel how much of a logistical nightmare coordinating 100 bands on a bakers dozen stages in one day is, I'm honestly expecting a different answer than I get.

Both Virginia Avenue Folk Festival co-founders shrugged a bit, looked at each other, and said – I'm paraphrasing here – "It's really no problem at all."

No problem at all to stage what they say is the largest number of performers in a single day festival in the country? Nah.

Burtch, owner of Rocket88 Doughnuts (on Virginia Avenue, natch, and with a new location in SoBro) and Angel (singer/guitarist in Bigfoot Yancey, the band closing the Wildwood Market stage) went big in year one, booking 70 acts on nine stages. The result? A beautiful, volunteer-driven event that had Virginia Ave.-adjacent businesses reporting record sales to the founders. This year, the promoters and Square Cat Records co-founders upped the ante, booking 100 or so bands on 13 stages for their second fest. And they expanded the interpretation of "folk fest," too. The headliners are of the pluck-and-pick persuasion, but the vast lineup includes hip-hop, improvisational percussion, straight-ahead rock and much more.

RELATED: See all our Virginia Avenue Folk Fest coverage here 

"I don't think it's quite as difficult and daunting as people might imagine. I just think not a lot of people want to take the risk to do it," Burtch says. "A lot of people said we couldn't do it, which made us want to even more so," Angel jumps in.

Coming out of last year's fest, "We knew we wanted to expand further down the Avenue, and we did that this year. We really like the shock value of the amount of bands we have, but we didn't want to double or triple it. We added on 30," Angel says.

But some things they knew they wanted to maintain. Burtch: "The free aspect of it, we were really cognizant about trying to keep that." They're able to do that, mostly through sponsors, and, Burtch adds, "being smart with money" and not overspending. The fest is free, but VIP wristbands go for $35, and offer access to private VIP room acoustic sets, giveaways, food and drink and discounted merch. Virginia Avenue Folk Fest is all-ages, with the exception of The Hi-Fi. In addition to more venues, the fest will close a portion of the Avenue this year, between Grove Avenue and Woodlawn. Performers are divvied up across the stages with a conscious nod towards diverse bills.

"I like the idea of having stages where there's different kinds of genres back to back. There's one stage where we've got a folksy old school female[-fronted] act followed by punk rock. [It] introduces people who are going there for one act, and stick around for another act that they would never normally listen to," Burtch says.

Picking acts for the fest from submissions for the Folk Fest relied on the achievement of a single point.

"Our criteria was 'good music,' " Angel says. "Making set genre stages is counterproductive to what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring everyone together. I think of it as brackish water. The old school folk people are meeting with the young indie rockers. There's too much division in the music scene, and this is a chance for everybody to get together, meet new people. ... We're really good at making people step out of their comfort zones."

Burtch and Angel really do love to shake it up: Consider their late 2015 event, Random Band Challenge, where musicians' names were drawn out of a hat to form new groups, then tasked to play in a competition at Radio Radio. One band that formed out of that challenge, Wolf and The Wereboys, will play the fest on Saturday.

"This year, we're trying to diversify the types of music more, which will, in turn, diversify the types of people in the bands in general," Burtch says. They use the New Orleans Jazz Fest as a reference point: folk music is the seed from which the fest grows, not a binding requirement.

Speaking of seeds:

"This year, we chose Keep Indianapolis Beautiful," Angel says, as the fest's beneficiary. Why? Easy answer: "They live at the end of the street from both of us, a stone's throw from us. They do great stuff."

"Every year we're going to pick another local organization," Angel says. "We like to rotate," Burtch adds. Last year, Burtch says, homelessness prevention org Trusted Mentors received $14,000 in proceeds from the fest. Fundraising for the community improvement and beautification nonprofit KIB will be done in a variety of ways: donated sales from businesses, collection on site, and more.

"That was what was such a draw for us, when [Virginia Avenue Folk Fest] wanted to partner: That it was in our neighborhood," says Ashlee Wilson Fujawa, PR Director for Keep Indianapolis Beautiful. "Our building is here, and it's such a great representation of green and sustainability. It's such a great example of what you can do for the environment, and what you can do for the city. [This] is an opportunity for people to connect with nature right in the middle of Downtown. That is what was such a draw for us to move to the area, too. We came here before the Cultural Trail was over here. We really wanted to add back into our neighborhood, be one of those anchor institutions.

"The Folk Fest is such a great event and we are so grateful that proceeds will help us keep all of Indy clean and green," Fujawa says.

So, sure, festival planning is definitely time-consuming and occasionally tough – Burtch and Angel run down the list of bummers when asked: asking people for money, cracking the inscrutable permitting process with the city – but these guys make planning an all-ages, free megafestival look easy. And that's beautiful.


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