Photography by Nina Corcoran.
I’ve never been one to believe in magic, but walking around Pendarvis Farm a few hours before Pickathon’s first act hit the stage, it was hard to believe I was still on Earth. Held a short drive outside of Portland in the aptly named Happy Valley, Pickathon is Oregon’s decision to prove Burning Man isn’t the only festival in America that can take you to an alternate reality – and that you can get there without a hefty price tag or footprint.
For starters, the festival caps ticket sales at a mere 3,500 and its overall capacity at 7,000. Corporate marketing is ditched in favor of partnering with local companies, a dozen food trucks cook up fresh food into the wee hours, and beer gardens are set up alongside horse stables and pine trees. It’s a little unreal. Throughout this, toddlers giggle in the onsite daycare tree fort, adults blend their own smoothie by biking at one juice booth, and campers stretch at morning yoga underneath the purple and white diamond lycra shading the field. All it took was one walk around the premise to leave me grinning from excitement about the next three days.
Perhaps what makes Pickathon so remarkable is what it’s not. There are no individual maps for patrons to slide in their pockets. There’s no photo pit divider. There’s no price to pay for showering and no double-digit dollar sign for beer and no limit on how many free earplugs you can take. Even when a modest crowd stops in the middle of a trail to watch the most amazing 12-year-old buskers I’ve heard in my life play “Rocky Raccoon”, no one takes out their iPhone to film it. The small, well-kept festival started in 1999 — the same year as Coachella — but refuses to trade its ethos for fame.
Part of this comes naturally from the festival taking its eco-friendly stamp so seriously. Patrons receive a small metal cup for drinks, which is yours to keep and use for any beverage you buy: beer, juice, wine, smoothies. If you chose not to bring your own dishware, 10 dollars gets you a token that, when traded in, gets you a blue reusable plate. Order at a food truck, dump unfinished food in a compost bins, return the plate, get the token back, repeat.
What started as a roots festival 16 years ago has now expanded considerably. This year’s roster boasted reunited folk icons like Nickel Creek to garage rock from Mikal Cronin and veteran hip-hop verses from People Under the Stairs. Even the worst part of festivals — the dreaded overlap — is solved at Pickathon; almost every act plays two sets over the course of the weekend at different stages, making it easy to see the band you love in the setting you dream of.
Though the festival is predominantly geared towards families, there is no boundary between guests. Even the most silent patron leaves with five new friends. Maybe it’s because dirt clouds mat your skin differently than Bonnaroo or Gathering of the Vibes. Maybe it’s because the sound guy is allowed to eat corn on the cob in the middle of working The War on Drugs’ set. Maybe it’s because there’s a campfire several feet in front of you when you exit the Galaxy Barn and the band you saw three hours ago is sharing marshmallows with whoever wants in on that 2 AM s’mores action. Pickathon doesn’t have to tear down any walls between musicians and fans because Pickathon knows they’re often one in the same. As one sign inside the Lucky Barn says: “Play and Listen. Listen and Play. It’s a conversation.”
Most Intimate Storytelling
Friday, Woods Stage
Vancouver’s straight-faced indie rock singer-songwriter Dan Bejar often sees his lyrics getting whisked away in Destroyer’s ‘80s synthpop structure and paroozing saxophone solos. But when Bejar stepped onto the Woods Stage for an acoustic solo set, his scroll of songs took on a bare-all reveal that made every word sound like a confession he couldn’t wait to get off his chest.
Considering Bejar played a short solo tour at the end of 2013 and announced Destroyer would not play live until 2015, his set at Pickathon was well-received. Fans curled up on hay bales with their hands clutched to their chests. With a dramatic bow and calming run of his hand through his hair, Bejar would close back up after each song, reminding us that this wasn’t his usual gig.
Now let’s talk about the devil. From the soft brushing of “Painter in Your Pocket” to the woe-is-me wails of “Chinatown” and “Helena”, Bejar’s words sounded wispier than WHY?’s tangled trails and more vivid than The Decemberists’ dramatic paintings. The darker things got, the more pure his sound became. Though nothing seemed as painfully nostalgic for both Bejar and the crowd as “Your Blood” where we were reminded that most of us “never had to choose between your blood and your blues.”
Most Eyebrow Raises During a Guitar Solo
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Saturday, Mountain View Stage
Before Unknown Mortal Orchestra took the stage Saturday afternoon, Pickathon’s host could not contain his excitement for what was about to go down – so much so that he wouldn’t stop beaming from stage left all throughout. Poppy psychedelic rock that flutters with frontman Ruban Nielson’s New Zealand accent is hard to dislike. The wiggly crowd would agree, many of whom had their eyes closed while the band’s sound mellowed out any anxieties the 90-degree weather may have created. Once Nielson went into a solo, however, peopled slowed their dancing, completely immersed in his freak-outs.
Nielson’s style of playing is uncommon, especially for lo-fi psychedelic acts. Almost all of his parts see him finger-picking, which is how “Thought Ballune” and “How Can You Luv Me” manage to stay crisp amongst wavy riffs and reverb. The best part of seeing Unknown Mortal Orchestra live is watching as they break out of their structured studio sound and into jam territory. The trio worked off one another to keep a heady groove going while Nielson would fly backwards from the force of his solos, looking like a man possessed by the power of rock and need to deliver with an unmasked intensity. It came as a refreshing break from the day’s folk acts, but several onlookers were taken aback by the ferocity seemingly appearing out of nowhere.
Props to their weird stances. Bassist Jake Portrait draped his bass around his neck, only occasionally looping his arm through the strap for a proper style. Meanwhile, Nielson held his guitar like a purse, the strap wrapped around only his right arm so that the instrument dangled when he wasn’t gripping the neck. Every flip forward gave him space to swing it sharply out in front before clamping it against his chest. Had his solos become even more wild, that guitar would have shot straight offstage.
Most Heartwarming Live Debut
Friday, Tree Line Stage
Last year saw the unfortunate end of Fruit Bats. The Chicago-based band helped create the folk rock boom in the 2000s with the release of five excellent full-lengths, their gem hit “When U Love Somebody”, and numerous live shows that lit their sound the way it was meant to be heard. While frontman Eric D. Johnson was busy teaching at The Old Town School of Folk Music and playing guitar in The Shins and Califone during the band’s beginnings, he soon became involved in film scores and family life, resulting in extended time between records. Lighthearted guitar lines and soft drums gave the band a sound reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s while its members kept their hands by their sides, refraining from waving them in the spotlight. Looking back, that may have been the wrong decision, but we’re still glad they did.
As with any sad ending, we turn to a new beginning with hopeful hearts. Thankfully Eric D. Johnson is doing the same. After wrapping Fruit Bats up in 2013, he began working on solo material under his initials and recorded his first solo album, which is due out next week. For those lucky hundred or so at the Tree Line Stage, they got to be charmed by the warm return of EDJ to the stage and his debut material.
Being a veteran has its perks. EDJ knows how to maintain the dusk glow of previous works while avoiding the pitfalls many folk artists hit. Songs like “For the Boy Who Moved Away” sprinkled smiles on the crowd’s faces, almost all of whom were thrilled to see EDJ pushing on with new music as spirited as his last and cheered with a giddy enthusiasm. “I’ve messed up super bad every time on this sampler … Have you noticed?” he asked the crowd, laughing, admitting his nerves playing on a stage alone. “As David Crosby said, ‘I was scared shitless.’ But I like David Crosby, so I guess things are ok.”
Best East Coast Reppin’ on the West Coast
Saturday, Mountain View Stage
Leave it to Jonathan Richman to make me feel at home. Most people I talked to about The Modern Lovers’ fellow weren’t too familiar with him, but I assured them they couldn’t miss his set on Saturday, all bias as a Boston resident aside. After driving himself to Pickathon and actually sleeping at the festival overnight, it’s clear Richman is as good-hearted of a man as it gets. That is, until he gives all of himself onstage. Then he just gets even better.
As he stepped onto Pickathon’s biggest stage with a wooden guitar and introduced his drummer, a graying man behind a petite kit, there was a clear divide between those who knew what the twee icon was about to unfurl and those who weren’t sure if this was a decaying classic Dylan act. It took a single song of chaotic lyrics and grandfatherly storytelling to get all eyes on him and his bright, blue button-down. Descriptions of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the gay bar scene, and the charm of Fenway Park had him nailing the east coast from thousands of miles away.
Let’s not forget the pelvic thrusts. With romantic guitar strumming in the air and a chorus of sleigh bells, Richman couldn’t leave out his other trademark crowd-pleaser. Half the cheers were from people wanting more, the others from those caught off guard. His happy crinkles creased on his face before he would give one last doe-eyed look at the crowd, say his farewells, and then indulge their shouts for another song, this time with even more charismatic dance moves and French passages.
Most Ridiculous Crowd Surfer
Saturday, Woods Stage
Is it still 2014? Mac DeMarco’s home-recorded, lo-fi indie rock would suggest we’re stuck in the ‘70s, as would the fact that his newest album, Salad Days, is one of the biggest vinyl sellers of this year, inching up on the sales for Abbey Road. The gap-toothed heartthrob is one of the friendliest dudes around, and as such, his loveable self drew hundreds to the middle of the woods for an unforgettable sunset performance.
Despite all of DeMarco’s absurd antics (peeing onstage is one thing, but shoving drumsticks up your rear is another), he still lives with unabashed sincerity. No fan will creep him out, no adult will feel disrespected, and no city will leave him throwing fits. As long as he’s got his friends and a pack of cigarettes, life is grand. So when goofing off at the Woods Stage to one of the biggest crowds of the whole weekend—including almost every performer watching from backstage—DeMarco counted down from three before launching into the crowd who, so graciously, let him crowd surf all the way to the far end of the woods and back without ever dipping down or ripping his Elton John ’97 tour shit.
Moments before that, he and his bandmates launched into a cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow”. If it weren’t for bassist Pierce McGarry’s utmost sincerity singing his part, it would be passed off as some good-humored irony. Sitting under the stars made it feel a bit too real, and as one of Mikal Cronin’s bandmates climbed onstage to join in singing, the whole set unhinged itself to become the reckless youth in revolt-style performance most had gathered there to see.
Best Use of a Barn
Saturday, Lucky Barn
Seeing Julianna Barwick live is like seeing a siren statue break apart and crumble in a tragic, magnetic collapse. Every sound that leaves her lips is the soul-searching note that would soundtrack the black depth of Charybdis whirpool should Lars Von Trier grab hold of an Odyssey remake. There’s a peaceful finality within the reaper image that appears listening to her songs, as if death’s timeliness is expected from old age, and when contained in a breezy barn draped with humming lightbulbs and dusty plaques, Barwick’s music elevates itself even farther.
As the only indoor stage with individual seats, the Lucky Barn is big enough to park three sedans with minimal room between them. Armed with her keyboard, electronic bag of loops, and a few faithful pedals, the once Missouri-based, now Brooklyn-based experimental ambient singer-songwriter took everyone away from the heat for an hour of meditative material. Nepenthe’s songs seemed to draw in Icelandic air from its production studio, whereas material from 2014’s Rosabi EP felt more personal and rooted.
Guarded by the walls of the barn, Barwick was able to turn the space into a sound room of echoes and exhales. Her time spent singing at a rural church is glaringly obvious live as she slowly climbs up the scale, hitting notes I’m pretty sure I won’t even be able to hear in 15 years’ time. Other folk artists were able to give the barn a hoot and holler for its compact size, but Barwick reorganized it so we forgot we were in Oregon for an hour.
Most Wildly Entertaining
Friday, Galaxy Barn
There’s nothing surprising about Diarrhea Planet. The name alone indicates things are going to get silly, they’re going to have a big sound, and they’re definitely not going to take themselves seriously. Diarrhea Planet chose their name knowing it would get elementary giggles from everyone, but their shows are set up so that laughter eventually is attached to their own jokes and over-the-top performance, ridding viewers of the chance to make bathroom puns about their set – although I’m sure they’d jump in on the fun right away.
When you have four guitars in a rock band, everyone better pick a persona or soldier up on their melodies, and the Nashville rock group went with the prior. Every guy takes on a different personality, all of which are funny, that allows them to launch into classic rock guitar riffs and Sum 41 intros between songs. Best of all, they team up onstage like best friends in a way that’s most comparable to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pizza-loving traits and all. Their lighthearted banter, crazy faces, and impressive leg splits all remain PC enough to make the show family-friendly, but their guitars’ heavy tones show they’re not messing around, either. It’s a rambunctious mix that should never be passed up. Ever.
Talk about magic. Nothing ups Pickathon’s surrealist nature like the bruises on my knees shaped like smiley faces from their set the next day. Really, what else says, “Boy, that was fun,” like your own body reminding you through the pain of every boisterous pit and jab to the ribs that you couldn’t stop smiling from sound check to the last track?
Most Likely to Make the Woods Seem Scary
Sunday, Woods Stage
In the months following their sophomore release, Warpaint have established themselves as a must-know and must-see act of 2014. With untraditional song structures and clean-cut bass lines that keep you moving, the dreamy art rock group have a freshness to their writing that gets pumped up with all four members’ sweet vocals. Each song comes across with an unpretentiousness to differentiate themselves, which works in their favor and, additionally, is indisputably cool.
Before their set began, a fat, navy beetle crawled across the stage. It was the only bug I ever saw at the stage and, considering Warpaint were closing out the Woods Stage for the weekend, an oddly timed reminder of how creepy a stage in the woods at night should be. Once they got into their material, Warpaint’s sultriness doubled as a foreboding warning. From the buildup in “Love Is to Die” to the shrill vocal shrieks partway through “Disco//Very”, their off-kilter sound slowly began to feel more and more like they were calling venomous creatures out of hiding to prey on the thousands in their territory.
God bless kids. A 10-year-old in the front row reached out partway through the set for a high five from bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, telling her she was awesome and breaking up the dark fog they had created. If it weren’t for him, who knows what kind of hypnotic stupor we all would have been in after that set.
Most Infectious Jamming
Friday, Woods Stage
It wouldn’t be a folk festival if someone didn’t get to lay down some seriously good guitar lines. Thankfully, San Diego’s indie rock group The Donkeys were up to the challenge. The four men have a classic California sound akin to the Grateful Dead should they clean things up a bit, and live it became a splitting image of those grinning rainbow bears. Their newest album, Ride the Black Wave, sees the band stepping out from slower songs like “I Like the Way You Walk” and “Bloodhounds” into rockier material like “Shines”, much of which suited their placement in the woods.
Their 2014 songs have bright guitar tunings that see them at their best. As such, they laid down rhythms smooth enough to get the youngest toddlers and aging elders rocking in place, no matter how long the solos went on for or if they were on a sitar. The Donkeys were able to expand their sound and work with one another as a collective to build a complex set that showed off their talent, leaving many wondering how this band’s managed to go under the radar for so long.
If anyone had little faith in today’s bands, The Donkeys restored it. Their set proved that music isn’t dependent on top-notch producers and fancy editing, but rather sounds best live from a stack of amps and calloused fingertips. Given an open end, their songs will reach as far as the sun sets.
Best Use of a Metal Beer Cup
Sunday, Woods Stage
Word on the street is Parquet Courts said they would only play Pickathon again if they got to play the Woods Stage. Before we start any fights, it should be said that frontman Andrew Savage is a huge supporter of the festival and has been quoted saying Pickathon is “what all music festivals should be like.” In the past, they’ve played inside the Galaxy Barn and on the main stage at night for, most likely, easy crowd control. Getting to play the Woods Stage was a gamble, but they got it – and somehow the moshing crowd didn’t push it over.
The Ridgewood rock band manage to walk the line between pent-up minimal rock riffs and all-out breakdowns that speak more about the current state of lo-fi post-punk than they would ever claim to. Because of their DIY methods, seeing them perform under a dome of branches felt oddly appropriate. So, naturally, guitarist Austin Brown’s decision to start strumming his guitar with his metal drinking cup for high-pitched feedback made total sense.
Were The Barr Brothers jealous? Who knows. They pull a whole range of quirky instruments onstage—from bike wheels to antique harps—but the drinking cup almost seemed too obvious of a choice to use. Then again, maybe the only reason Brown picked it up in the first place is because he accidentally kicked all his beer out rocking out to “Black and White” before that.
Sunday, Woods Stage
Shakey Graves is a returning favorite at Pickathon. In case he forgot, everywhere Alejandro Rose-Garcia walked, someone would give him a friendly punch to the shoulder and mention their obsession with him, to which he would nod his head and give a gracious response. Wearing the modest getup of a modern cowboy—a white tank top and plain cowboy hat—the Austin native walks like Toy Story’s Woody and talks like The Tallest Man on Earth. With all the inevitable similarities, though, he’s managed to craft his own sound that has him winning over whatever few hearts he’s left untouched.
Playing an afternoon set to plenty of families and squealing girls, Shakey Graves launched into a cover of the Disney classic “Kiss the Girl” that was as bold as it needed to be to get those last few hearts and put them in his pocket. Stomping with a simple kick drum and plucking away on his guitar, he would flash a grin between lines and make fun of his rambling sound, garnering laughs. Naturally he finished it all by blowing out dozens of kisses to the crowd – and smacking himself in the face after catching a kiss himself.
Shout-out to Pickathon’s other covers. From DeMarco’s swing at Coldplay to Marco Benevento’s quick play on LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” and Hiss Golden Messnger’s cover of Magnolia Electric Co.’s “What Comes After the Blues”, there were plenty of great ones to catch every day.
Best Summary of Pickathon
Sunday, Woods Stage
Angel Olsen has taken 2014 by the reins and left it panting on the floor, exhausted from her confrontational genre-hopping full-length, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. She’s kept her songstress croon comparisons to Roy Orbison in check, only this time turning up her amp, toying with folk numbers “Unfucktheworld” and “Drunk and with Dreams”, and adding a pounding stomp to “Forgiven/Forgotten”. Her outstretched arms pull it all together for a sound that remains consistent, despite dramatically different volumes. In a nutshell, so does Pickathon.
Olsen’s awkward, blunt delivery carries a decent amount of power, most likely because her monotone voice and deadpan stare could shake anyone from feeling the urge to challenge her otherwise. If someone’s wearing a handmade bedazzled Fender strap complete with a sparkly cupcake sticker, though, they’re likely a kid at heart. Her whole set kept a crisscrossed-seated crowd happy and wowed those catching her for the first time.
Partway through the set, Angel Olsen summarized the festival in six sentences without even realizing it. “I saw some kids hula hooping. That made my day,” she said while tuning her guitar. “I saw Jonathan Richman reading a magazine. That made my day. I saw the festival workers being really nice. That made my day. I guess I’m pretty happy to be here, is what I’m saying.” Some people laughed, most people clapped, and, without even having to turn around to check, I knew everyone was smiling in agreement. It really is as simple as that.
Photographer: Nina Corcoran