We have a winner.
Pickathon, now in its 18th year, is unlike any festival you’ve ever been to. Meaning, less like a musical gauntlet of your token so-hot-right-now artists and more like an idyllic walk through the woods where you happen to stumble upon some of your favorite bands giving a rare, exclusive performance to a commune you didn’t know they led. Please pass the Kool-Aid; I’m in.
The three-day fest is an intimate affair, with a capacity of 3,500 and taking place on the 80-acre Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, OR, about a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland. The seclusion and vast acreage gives the setting a completely easy-going, we’re-all-friends-here feel (probably helped that most of the attendees appeared to be locals), with audience and artists alike strolling the grounds between sets (yes, strolling—not hauling ass from stage to stage like a flock Gallimimus), enjoying the strictly-local fare and camping on site.
I first heard about Pickathon a few years ago when I received a press release praising it as “every artist’s favorite festival to play.” The claim quickly put the festival on my radar, and as I discovered more about it, it soon shifted from radar to bucket list. Just look at the roster of artists praising the festival, as listed on their Facebook page, ranging from Neko Case to Shakey Graves to Lake Street Dive. The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel says, “Pickathon is the only festival by the fans and for the fans, and it really makes you feel a part of something special.” Ty Segall deems it the “best American festival period.” But Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts might sum it up best, stating: “No advertisers, no waste, just music. This is what all music festivals should be like.” Whatever the hook, Pickathon is a truly original standout that is keeping it about the music, no gimmicks necessary.
One thing we definitely have to talk about is the sustainability of this festival, which has been plastics-free since 2010. Six dollars gets you a tin cup that you can use throughout the festival, while 10 dollars get you a token which you can trade back and forth for a clean reusable plate and utensils. There are washing stations to clean your dishes, as well as free water refill stations. All weekend I was endlessly impressed at the commitment to as little waste as possible, as well as the impressively efficient system to avoid it. Could we all please do this everywhere? It’s just not that hard.
Day One began in line outside the festival where a crowd was queued up to check in and receive their wristbands. We took our place in line, followed immediately by a crotchety dude who irritably took to harassing a nearby parking attendant about the indecency of having to endure a line after just having completed a grueling bike ride in from the city. Undeterred by the aggressive grumblings, the volunteer took to empathetically chatting the cyclist up with unwaveringly chipper conversation. He eventually broke him with the infectiousness of his positivity, and the two embarked on a friendly conversation about cycling and who they were excited to see for the weekend. Right off the bat, the message was clear: this is not the festival to be a jerk.
Once we made it in, we decided to get the lay of the land so that we could properly formulate a plan of attack. Though at first we felt like we needed a compass and a sherpa to navigate the layout, and the mandated dump-your-cups check points between stages baffled us, we quickly got the hang of it: two small barn stages at the entrance, large main stage, a stage at the treeline and a stage a little deeper in the woods (favorite, for obvious reasons—I said in the woods). Note to future attendees: if there is a show you want to see in one of the barns, get there absurdly early, because they fill up quickly, and there is no such thing as a view from the back.
Though we arrived just in time to miss The Wild Reeds’ set, one of the bands on my self-assigned priority list, I wasn’t discouraged. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Pickathon is the fact that almost every artist will play twice throughout the weekend. Twice. What an exciting, mind-blowing gift that is. Completely eliminates the headache of time conflicts and the stress of running from set to set. Not only that, but it also allows for mega-fans like my festival companion Bryan (with a “y” please note) to see their all-time favorites Wolf Parade twice in one weekend, and mega-fans like me to get back-to-back showings of Fruit Bats. Genius. This should be a thing always. Spare no expense (that’s my last Jurassic Park reference, I swear).
My first show of the day was Kevin Morby. After hearing all the hype for months and pre-fest rocking out to the singer-songwriter’s new LP Singing Saw, I was ready to be impressed. No let-down here. The former Woods bassist and The Babies frontman launched into Singing Saw’s first track, “Cut Me Down,” and it was clear that he shines brightest in his own project, punctuated beautifully by the stripped-down, natural setting of the Treeline Stage.
Mac DeMarco played the Mountain Stage (main stage) at 7:10 p.m., kicking off with “The Way You’d Love Her,” track one off of 2015’s Another One and then treating us to a mix of songs from his full library. The Canadian slacker rocker of course played all the “hits” such as “Salad Days,” “Ode to Viceroy” and “Chamber of Reflection,” accompanied by his signature crowd banter (this guy’s got jokes) and topped it all off by stage diving into the hungry crowd. Keep doing you, Mac, and we’ll all keep showing up.
We stuck around the Mountain Stage for the long-awaited return of Wolf Parade, who stepped out on stage to raucous and—for some—hysterical applause (you know who you are). The band began their set with “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son,” the first track off of their debut LP, Apologies to the Queen Mary, later busting out the album’s fan favorites “Dear Sons And Daughters Of Holy Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe In Anything.” They took us on an expansive tour of their catalog, covering mostly offerings prior to 2010’s EXPO 86 before closing out with an epic performance of At Mount Zoomer’s “Kissing The Beehive.” Safe to say, Wolf Parade is back with a vengeance.
Day Two started off back in Portland with some exploring and some heavy brunching before we headed back to the farm for the tasty lineup of closing acts, starting with a solo set from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Tweedy walked out onstage, a lone frontman with an acoustic guitar and a folksy fedora on his brow. He played the perfect medley of Wilco tracks, starting with “Misunderstood” from 1996’s Being There, going into the 2016 single “If I Ever Was A Child” from their forthcoming 10th studio album Schmilco and back again to Being There with “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” We got a throwback to the Uncle Tupelo days with “New Madrid” and were treated to a mid-set cover of Diane Izzo’s “Love Like A Wire.” The set closed with an encore of Schmilco’s “Nope” and Summerteeth’s “A Shot In The Arm,” and Tweedy walked off stage leaving us all feeling a little bit warmer and a whole lot happier.
We trekked over to the Woods Stage for the second Wolf Parade show of the evening, which turned out to be a much more obscure setlist curated just especially for their more die-hard fanbase. After opening with Apologies to the Queen Mary’s “It’s A Curse,” the band threw the crowd a curveball with Expo 86’s “Cloud Shadow On The Mountain” before ripping into a set full of classics like “Shine A Light” and “I’ll Believe In Anything,” new tracks “Floating World” and “Mr. Startup” from this year’s EP 4 and eventually jamming out with closer “Dinner Bells.” Suffice it to say that seeing this band in the eerie dark of the woods, with strobe lights backlighting the band to cast weird shadows, is my new favorite stage set-up.
I’ve been jamming to Absolute Loser on repeat since its release in May, so seeing Fruit Bats close out the night with an intimate set on the pop-up Starlight Stage in front of the Mountain Stage capped the day perfectly. They were solidly one of my most-anticipated bands; I can’t see them enough, so watching them lullaby me to sleep in the cool night below the stars and then walking right into a tent was utopia.
Yeah. A tent. I ended up camping for days two and three, though I did admittedly cheat and go back to the house (shout-out to Matthew Lee for the free crash pad, tasty biscuits and Astoria Goonies tour) each morning to shower and change. The outside sleeping part was amazing: perfect weather and cool nights. Note to self: buy a tent.
Took my cheater shower and headed back, and at this point I’ll lay down the only non-complimentary takeaway: It’s day three, folks. These portalets need some more efficient maintenance, because they were at DEFCON 5 capacity. At any rate, re-think your toilet paper order. This had become a black market commodity.
All morning rituals aside, The Wild Reeds at Lucky Barn that afternoon was a set that took place in seated barn, with an audience rapt and quiet. What a refreshing change-up, and totally different than any other shows. This show felt almost like a play with the decorative barn props and seats in the room. Love, love, love this concept. Perfect arena to showcase what amounts to a trio of beautiful sirens when they open their mouths to sing, but three sharply witty badasses when bantering with the audience and each other. At one point, they said, “We’re going to play one last song, and then we’ll take questions from the audience.” Funny, right? No joke. They did, indeed, take questions. Every band should do this. Why doesn’t every band do this?
Ty Segall hit the Mountain Stage at 7:10 p.m. and ripped it up, as a bonus joined by King Tuff, which made the set doubly rowdy. One lucky lady was treated to a square dance with Segall, but we were all on our feet. I promise you, no one was standing still.
After all that get-up-and-dance-ness, was it planned that Beach House (Mountain Stage at 8:50 p.m.) cool us down so perfectly? It was like a giant summer sleep-over party, when you’re all worn out and finally ready to settle down. The band asked for no photographs to be taken during their set, and turned the lights down way low to obscure their faces, barely illuminated by a saturated dim red light. This was my first time seeing the dream pop band, and the whole vibe was deliciously trippy. Their show started with “Saltwater” off of their 2006 self-titled debut and ended with “Myth” and, though slightly short, it was a set to be listened to while swaying in place with your eyes closed.
Then we camped. Then we left. And all I want to do is go back.
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King Sunny Adé
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The Oh Hellos
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The Wild Reeds