It doesn’t take long to realize Pickathon is not like other music festivals. My indoctrination came in 2013, after years of unfairly lumping it in with every other festival where sardined hipsters pay too much for tickets, food and water, only to catch a distanced glimpse of [hot new band] while live-Tweeting the whole thing. #killingit
Now obviously, I’m a bit of a cynical shit. So the fact that Pickathon—which just concluded its 17th year—won me over in a matter of hours speaks volumes. Simply put: It’s one of, if not the cleanest, friendliest and best-run music festivals in the country. In fact, Kyle Thomas—aka King Tuff—who I first saw blow the doors off Pickathon’s Galaxy Barn stage in 2013, and who played again this year, attended in 2014—not to perform, but to just hang out. The organizers don’t have to do publicity, because the people who attend do it for them.
This year was no different. The picturesque Pendarvis Farm—located just southeast of Portland, Oregon—played host to dozens of artists with a little something for every one of the 3,500 or so attendees who camped out and withstood the heat and the dust for a few days.
The artists, as well as the stages on which they perform, are all over the map. Want to take the kids to the shaded brier Woods Stage for an hour of wholesome bluegrass from Mandolin Orange? You got it. How about the real festival feel of tUnE-yArDs on the main Mountain Stage, flanked by hippies twirling in the dirt and hipsters standing arms-crossed? No problem. Or do you prefer the sweaty confines of the Galaxy Barn for a late-night unholy trinity of Meatbodies, Kamasi Washington and Wolf People? Here ya go!
That’s where I camped out Friday night, and Meatbodies delivered one of the most unhinged glam-rock parties I’d witnessed in a long time. Young jazzbo Kamasi Washington—who I’d caught earlier on the Mountain Stage—squeezed his entire ensemble onto the barn stage for what ended up being a more intense performance. The night concluded with UK rock band Wolf People, whose proggy passages were so ferocious and tight, and whose instruments were so dialed in, I felt as if I’d been teleported back to a tiny British rock club in 1971. That three-hour block of music—combined with bottomless Klean Kanteens of beer (all local brews, of course)—made for a magical night… and quite a fantastical journey back to the tent.
The Galaxy Barn is the true gem of Pickathon; I’ve seen some smoking performances by Sturgill Simpson, Ty Segall and Parquet Courts there. But I think the space—which is always packed—brings out something in artists. The next day I bumped into Wolf People guitarist-vocalist Jack Sharp and bassist Dan Davies, who was nursing a wicked hangover, and asked them about the night’s performance.
“That space is great—just the intimacy of it,” Sharp said. “You can sort of imagine you’re in this sold-out club anywhere in the world, and then you walk outside to all of this.”
Plus there’s the ever-present soundman Gavin Pursinger who, along with his son Marshall, goes to great lengths to get that room sounding good. The elder Pursinger has been doing sound in the Galaxy Barn for years, and is as recognizable as the artists who come through those doors. He helped get Portland sister trio Joseph—guitar and their three voices—sounding like a Carter Family hootenanny. Closing their set with a slowed-down and haunting rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” left the audience wanting more, which they’d get exactly two days later (all artists perform twice).
Pickathon got its start highlighting the pickers and the grinners, but has expanded the lineups to more noisy and adventurous artists in recent years. It’s difficult to not discover something new. I found out that former Yellowbirds frontman Sam Cohen—despite his unassuming name—has veered from the Americana roots and has settled into some low-key psych rock that brings to mind Ty Segall and White Fence’s mellower moments. I saw Edna Vazquez, the stoic, Portland-based Mexican folkie who brought out a full mariachi band for her Sunday set. Thundercat—childhood pal of Kamasi Washington—rolled out some new age jazz that sounded ultra futuristic experienced from the rustic Woods Stage. Elsewhere, I got a taste of bluesman Little Freddie King over coffee, and I heard Canadian folk storytellers The Weather Station, who I predict will be all over NPR by year’s end.
I also got to cross a few things off my personal list. I finally saw Tinariwen, the African gypsy rock band who turned in a chilling and mesmerizing late-night set. I’m a sucker for female-fronted rock, and Mary Timony’s noisy power pop-ish Ex-Hex sounded as perfect as I’d expect them to be. Ty Segall, Wand and Viet Cong also brought the noise when the sun went down.
Pickathon is as wholesome or as debauched or as nonpartisan as you make it, both musically and socially. That may be the festival’s true beauty. I mean, any place you can high-five a twirling hippie at a bluegrass performance (I discovered that hippies can dance to any kind of music, and with the same two moves), then stumble 50 yards across a dusty field to grab an IPA and a Cubano on your way to seeing Meatbodies rock out in capes in an old barn sounds like a utopia to me.