I’M SKEPTICAL of big music festivals. They are expensive. They are crowded. They are depressing displays of modern consumerism. The portable toilet situation often rivals nuclear fallout zones. That’s why, for quite a while, I’ve listened to the raving endorsements of Pickathon enthusiasts with an abundance of doubt. What could possibly make this suspiciously pastoral festival any different?
Pickathon, now in its 18th year, is a three-day midsummer music festival that takes place on Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, about a half hour southeast of downtown Portland. From what I’ve gathered, attendees camp in verdant woods and gather in barns or under shady canopies to watch live music. I’ve never met a past Pickathoner who didn’t completely love it, leading me to believe that founder Zale Schoenborn and his partners Terry Groves and Ned Failing are probably benevolent cult leaders.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Pickathon’s magnetic allure is its popularity with the musicians. The festival’s Facebook page boasts a long list of positive quotes under the heading “Artists Love Pickathon”: Ty Segall says, “Best American festival period.” Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts says, “No advertisers, no waste, just music. This is what all music festivals should be like.”
To probe a little further into what seems to be a shining ideal, I spoke with Dan Boeckner of the recently reunited Wolf Parade and Amber Webber of Black Mountain. Both Boeckner and Webber have played or attended Pickathon multiple times, so I thought it’d be interesting to hear why the heck they keep going back.
Wolf Parade announced the end to their five-year hiatus this past January, dropped a self-titled EP, and since then have been selling out shows all over the place. The band’s inclusion on the Pickathon lineup is a pretty big deal, given their status as early-’00s indie-rock stalwarts.
“It’s going to be my third time playing Pickathon,” says Boeckner, who’s played previous years with his bands Operators and Divine Fits. “It’s my favorite festival in North America—I think it’s the best North American festival. It’s actually a model of sustainability. Pickathon itself seems like a really viable exit strategy from the sort of capitalist bloat of most major festivals. I think the size of festivals and the way they integrate marketing and the end experience for the consumer basically directly [reflects] everything that’s gone wrong with Western capitalism... For everyone who doesn’t want to go to Coachella, it’s good that there’s something like Pickathon that’s sustainable and medium-sized.
“Pickathon feels very communal,” Boeckner continues. “As somebody watching the shows there, it feels as though they made it for you... There’s a range of experiences you can have there, and they’re all positive.”
This year Boeckner’s particularly excited to debut a new project: “[The Pickathon organizers] reached out to me and were like, ‘What do you want to do this year? We have these two shows set up for Wolf Parade, what do you want to do?’ So Arlen [Thompson] from Wolf Parade and I are doing an all-hardware, early-acid-house, synthesizers-and-drum-machines set in the middle of the night in the middle of the forest. It’s gonna be the debut of the one-millionth Wolf Parade offshoot band, called Frankfurt Boys... I’m stoked, I can’t imagine that happening at another festival.”
For Webber, location is key, particularly “the beautiful forests, the rolling hills.” She’s a seasoned Pickathoner, and even helps curate the lineup—every year the festival founders email her asking for suggestions. She also notes that Pickathon does a good job of balancing the gender gap that characterizes many big festivals.
“They really pick lovely [female] musicians to play, and there are [female] musicians,” she says. “A lot of festivals, it’s seriously pathetic the ratio of men to women performing... I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision or it’s just the way they think, but it always seems more or less 50/50.” (It looks like acts fronted by female-identifying musicians comprise a little less than half of the lineup—still pretty good, considering only four of MusicFestNW/Project Pabst’s 18 acts include any at all).
Webber also emphasizes the importance of Pickathon’s low capacity: “I’m not big on huge crowds, so it still feels a little intense sometimes, but I love that it doesn’t feel like a shitshow of garbage and way too many people. Sometimes I go to festivals and it’s like, you guys look like you’re suffering.”
She says I can rest easy, that one of my fears is unfounded: “There’s never really gross toilets—you go to festivals and they’re like, overflowing. But Pickathon’s got that sorted out, which I really appreciate.”
Here are our don’t-miss picks for Pickathon:
Toronto’s Alvvays dropped their splendid self-titled debut in 2014, and their wistful, triumphant “Archie, Marry Me” is already a classic (and probably a wedding-band staple of the future). Combining the momentum of great pop songwriting with the incisive, maritime-folk melodies of singer/guitarist Molly Rankin—who’s descended from members of the foundational Nova Scotia folk ensemble the Rankin Family—Alvvays’ message is unpretentious and joyous, with fizzy tunes ornamented with fuzz and buzz. A new album is likely not too far in the distant future, as the band has been unveiling new material over the past year or so, some of which we’ll be lucky to hear them play at Pickathon. NED LANNAMANN Fri 8:20 pm (Galaxy Barn), Sat 7:40 pm (Woods Stage)
Blossom has a problem saying no to shows. Whether she’s opening for established acts like Ginuwine, bringing her light to the We Take Holocene 3 bill, or performing at a local Prince tribute night, she just can’t seem to get enough of the stage. The Trinidad-born, Portland-based soul singer has an affinity for rhythm—especially steel drums—and is one of the most visible and hardworking artists out here. Blossom’s playful sound also has range: from ethereal neo-soul (“Sass”), to hypnotic reggae (“Black Magic Woman”), all the way to pop-R&B (“Love’s Comin’ Atcha”). Undoubtedly paving the way for women in the Portland scene, Blossom recently signed to local record label EYRST. Her Pickathon set is not one to miss. JENNI MOORE Fri 12:30 pm (Mountain Stage), Sun 3:20 pm (Galaxy Barn)
Earlier this summer ERYST artist Myke Bogan teamed up with labelmates the Last Artful, Dodgr and producer Neill Von Tally to release the Rare Treat EP. And it’s a rare treat indeed—Dodgr sings and raps over Von Tally’s mellow, futuristic production, while Bogan brings high energy to tracks like “Mornin Dew” and “Pop!” Somehow Bogan’s sound always feels simultaneously laidback and amped up, so you’d better buckle up: He’s known for putting on mind-blowing, intensely lit sets that impress a variety of music lovers (and weed smokers). JM Thurs 9:15 pm (Starlight Stage), Sat 2:40 pm (Lucky Barn)
Raleigh, North Carolina’s Boulevards will induce so many bums to uncontrollably wiggle this weekend. Jamil Rashad is the man behind the music, which seems to take cues from ’80s funk and R&B, specifically icons like Prince and Rick James. His April release Groove! is 12 exceptionally, ahem, groovy tracks that pay homage to Rashad’s influences while also diverging into new territory with complex beats and instrumentation. The best example of this is “Talk to Me”—an off-kilter slow-burner that simmers intensely before peaking in the chorus. CIARA DOLAN Fri 11:40 pm (Starlight Stage), Sat 10 pm (Galaxy Barn)
Although they’ve only got one recorded song available online (“Stars”), for the past year Portland’s own disco-R&B ensemble Chanti Darling has invigorated the city with their incredible live shows, which feature choreographed dancing and contagious energy. Last month they signed to local label Tender Loving Empire, hopefully signifying that they’ve got a longer effort on the way. Unlike most Pickathon acts, Chanti Darling will only be playing one late-night set on Thursday—if you’re lucky enough to get out to Pendarvis Farm early, be sure to stay up late. CD Thurs 12:20 am (Galaxy Barn)
The magic of twins seems especially present in French Cuban duo Ibeyi. Deeply tied to the vibrations of the universe, these highly gifted sisters have an innate sense of ebb and flow in their vocals and drumming. Daughters of percussionist Anga Díaz (Buena Vista Social Club, Irakere), these two claim great influence from their own roots. After bouncing between France and Cuba growing up, they now live in Paris. Unsurprisingly, family lies at the center of their music. Immediately after their father’s passing when they were 11, the sisters began making music that fused jazz, hip-hop, and Afro-Cuban styles, making a big splash last year with the release of their self-titled debut. Singing in Yoruba and English, they take instruments like cajón and batá drums and combine them with spellbinding harmonies made from two eerily similar voices. Their lyrics mimic the structure of prayers in their repetitiveness and motifs of nature, matriarchy, and death. EMILY VANKOUGHNETT Thurs 12:05 am (Starlight Stage), Fri 4:20 pm (Woods Stage)
KING SUNNY ADÉ
For the last handful of years, Pickathon’s lineup has featured an African band; past performers include Bombino, Tinariwen, and Vieux Farka Touré. This year it’s King Sunny Adé, without question the most celebrated and canonical of the bunch. Adé came up alongside fellow Nigerian Fela Kuti, and with all regards to indie-monsignor Jeff Tweedy, Adé is probably the most influential musician of the entire bill. He’s worldwide and bona fide. A pointillist, polyrhythmic, feel-good shredder. But Adé’s big band is integral, too; indeed, it’s their collective energy—the counter-rhythm players and the group vocals—that makes their sun come up. So while we bask in Adé’s royalty, as well as celebrate the performances of compatriots past, we thank Pickathon as we beseech them: No need to be formulaic—go ahead and book as many African bands as the fest will allow! ANDREW R TONRY Fri 2:10 pm (Mountain Stage), Fri 9:20 pm (Woods Stage)
A little psych and a little kraut, Portland-by-way-of-San Francisco group Moon Duo features Sanae Yamada and Ripley Johnson (of Wooden Shjips). 2015’s Shadow of the Sun recalls some greats who sucked the marrow from rock ’n’ roll’s rickety bones, only to spit out arty masterpieces. The sweaty, urban degeneracy of Suicide shows up on tracks like “Night Beat” and “Free the Skull,” while the looping, hypnotic delicacy of Galaxie 500 surfaces on “In a Cloud.” The warmly experimental tone of Revolver-era Beatles courses throughout Moon Duo, conveying the kind of third-eye-opening experience of late-night driving through the desert, or an evening goosed on cheap beer and weed around a campfire, or the kind of loopy euphoria induced by a fun day in the sun with not quite enough water to drink. WILLIAM KENNEDY Fri 5 pm (Galaxy Barn), Sun 8:10 pm (Treeline Stage)
Former Woods/Babies member Kevin Morby turned plenty of ears when his third solo album, the succulent, slow-burning Singing Saw, came out earlier this year on Dead Oceans. And it’s not hard to see why, as it features graceful meditations like the title track, “Black Flowers,” and album opener “Cut Me Down.” However, Morby—who’s making his second back-to-back solo Pickathon appearance this year—has already accumulated a peerless catalog of downtrodden folk rock that’s noticeably influenced by heavyweights like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen, but also absolutely deserves a spot on the record shelf next to them. So yeah, get yourself a copy of Singing Saw at the Pickathon merch table, but if you see 2013’s Harlem River and 2014’s Still Life alongside it, snatch them up too. NL Thurs 10:40 pm (Starlight Stage), Fri 3:10 pm (Treeline Stage)
Lest their name gives you visions of pick-up trucks and moonshine twang, My Bubba is actually the duo of My Larsdotter (Sweden) and Bubba Tomasdottír (Iceland). They make an eerie variety of transcontinental folk that consists of drum bumps, spare acoustic plucks, their interwoven voices, and little else. Fans of past Pickathon performers Tune-Yards and Joseph (the latter of which will be at the festival again this year) will find much to appreciate in My Bubba’s tree-in-winter simplicity, which has interesting echoes of Native American musical traditions as well as Larsdotter and Tomasdottír’s particularly Nordic slant on their precisely sketched melodies. NL Sat 11:20 am (Lucky Barn), Sun 4:50 pm (Treeline Stage)
OPEN MIKE EAGLE
For years Chicago’s Open Mike Eagle (born Michael W. Eagle II) has been making his self-described art-rap, his perceptive style that approaches pertinent societal issues with sharply dark humor. Eagle’s March release with producer Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival, layers classic soul beats with synchronized but casually announced witticisms. On “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)” Eagle sings, “It’s all fine and dandy when the show starts/Before then avoided like a ghost fart/I gets what ups and nods but for the most part/Nobody smiles at me ’cause I’m a Black man.” His lyrical imagery is vivid and biting, with stories that unfurl in seemingly stream-of-consciousness narratives, though they’re anything but undeveloped. CD Fri 10 pm (Galaxy Barn), Sat 6:30 pm (Treeline Stage)
On her 2015 record Faded Gloryville, Lindi Ortega captures understated tragedy of classic country while digging her heels into a decidedly modern alt-country sound that even two-steps into blues on tracks like “Tell It Like It Is.” The Toronto-raised, Nashville-based country singer doesn’t attempt to mask the influence of the genre’s iconic forbearers—she lets their ghosts loom throughout her music like old family photos gazing down from the walls. The title track of her 2012 album Cigarettes & Truckstops even references Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’s 1983 hit “Islands in the Stream.” But Ortega’s country isn’t simply a newer model of the same pickup truck—her voice is a bright light, one that brings renewed energy to an old genre without giving up its nostalgic twang. CD Thurs 4:50 pm (Treeline Stage), Fri 6 pm (Lucky Barn)
Boston trio Palehound’s 2015 debut LP Dry Food rides wild, serpentine guitar riffs that buck and rear like untamed seahorses over frontwoman Ellen Kempner’s subdued but powerful vocals. Dry Food expounds the flurry of emotions that follow a big breakup, with energetic riffs expressing frenzied anxiety and Kempner’s sighed lyrics wilting in exhausted, numbed sadness. It’s a gloomy but beautiful record, like squinting in aversion to a particularly bright day. That’s what’s so comfortable about the dark corners of Dry Food—even at their lowest points these sad songs are forced into the light. Perhaps accidentally, Palehound illustrates the omnipresent hope in life that shines even when you don’t want it to. CD Sat noon (Galaxy Barn), Sun 11:20 am (Woods Stage)
TY SEGALL & THE MUGGERS
Ty Segall, the Zeus of West Coast garage-rock, returns to Pickathon this year with his new supergroup, Ty Segall & the Muggers: Mikal Cronin (bass/sax), the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly (guitar), Kyle Thomas AKA King Tuff (guitar), and Wand’s Cory Hanson (synth) and Evan Burrows (drums). This incarnation of Segall’s prolific genius is perhaps his most befuddling—the band’s January album, Emotional Mugger, features Segall as “Sloppo,” a character that’s equal parts greedy baby and sexual deviant. The album itself is asymmetrical, glitchy, apocalyptic punk that’s fueled by carnal desires and entertainment as distraction while humanity sinks to the lowest depths of the inferno. At the group’s sold-out show at the Aladdin Theater this past January, Segall wore a terrifying baby mask and slobbered all over the audience while crying for his mommy. This performance perfectly captured society’s love of rubbernecking—our fucked-up captivation with the things that most revolt us. It’s Ty Segall like you’ve never seen him before, and it’s pretty dang weird. CD Fri 1:20 am (Galaxy Barn), Sun 7:10 pm (Mountain Stage)
SIR RICHARD BISHOP
The well-traveled and hugely talented guitarist Sir Richard Bishop first came to the attention of the underground music world through the smoldering Arizona/Seattle band Sun City Girls. That trio managed to make new connections fusing the music of Africa and the Middle East to the fiery strain of noise rock that’s run through the alternative scene since the late ’80s. Following the passing of drummer Charles Gocher in 2007, Bishop has struck out mostly on his own, bringing a skin-searing approach to solo guitar that lends a psychedelic edge to his African and Turkish influences, while also allowing his bawdy sense of humor and love of the Beatles to shine out of the heady mix. Look for his two sets at this year’s Pickathon that’ll surely bring a hush to the crowd and a spark to their collective spine as they marvel at his nimble fretwork and tonal mastery. ROBERT HAM Fri 11:20 am (Woods Stage), Sun 4:20 pm (Lucky Barn)
When C.W. Stoneking ambled onto the stage at Pickathon 2009, it was as an anomaly—an unfamiliar, tattooed man clad in an all-white suit with a bowtie and a little banjo. The sound that sprang from the stage that night was immediately, and easily, one of the most memorable sets in Pickathon’s history. Stoneking was no unknown, of course, but stood apart from the rest of the brood with the mysterious depth of his songs. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Stoneking embodies the deep soul of a Mississippi blues specter, reveling in juke-joint swing, hokum blues (as heard on his King Hokum album, and later on his most recent LP Gon’ Boogaloo), and bossa nova grittiness that’s hard to fathom without seeing and hearing the man in person. He’s no ghost—just an artist with his finger on the pulse of the past. RYAN J. PRADO Sat 4:20 pm (Woods Stage), Sun 11:40 pm (Starlight Stage)
THEE OH SEES
If you’ve seen Thee Oh Sees perform since frontman John Dwyer moved to LA and rejiggered the lineup, you’ve witnessed the propulsiveness of double drummers Ryan Moutinho and Dan Rincon as they power the longtime garage-rock scorchers’ live show into the stratosphere. The upcoming A Weird Exits, due out August 12, is the first Oh Sees studio album to showcase this insane eight-limbed percussion section, so expect plenty of new joints in their two Pickathon sets. Some highlights include the bone-crushing “Plastic Plant,” a sneering, sizzling motorik jam, and the epically lysergic “Crawl Out From the Fall Out,” which starts with a full minute of gonglike cymbals and transitions in a warped waltz, complete with groaning cello, mumbled vocals, and a steadily mounting sense of dread. Their late-night set on Sunday will close down Pickathon in an appropriately cataclysmic manner. NL Sat 9:20 pm (Woods Stage), Sun 1:20 am (Galaxy Barn)
In between tour dates with his day job—a Chicago roots-rock combo that calls itself Wilco—musician Jeff Tweedy stops by Pickathon for two sets of mystery and intrigue. What will he play? Will he be solo? Acoustic? Will he dig out some choice covers? Tweedy played a leading role on three of the very best albums of the 1990s: Uncle Tupelo’s masterful Anodyne, the collaborative plunder (with Billy Bragg) of Woody Guthrie’s notebooks on the first Mermaid Avenue album, and Wilco’s continually rewarding Summerteeth. So it’s understandable if you’re crossing your fingers that the Tweedster will rely on his older back catalog for these anything-goes sets, as opposed to Wilco’s blander, more recent material. Still, sparks of life popped up intermittently on last year’s Star Wars, so there aren’t many wrong turns to be made here. NL Sat 8:50 pm (Mountain Stage), Sun 9:20 pm (Woods Stage)
In a genre built on larger-than-life personas, it’s refreshing to meet a tender, introverted counterpart. Ultimate Painting is James Hoare (of Veronica Falls) and Jack Cooper (of Mazes), a London songwriting duo whose love of classic rock ’n’ roll is fused with some of the subtlest, sleepiest, and lushest-sounding bedroom pop around. The Rolling Stones-inspired British-Americana tracks “Ultimate Painting” and “Ten Street” feel like lazy Sunday afternoons spent lounging in an aboveground swimming pool, while “Central Park Blues” channels the frantic, rambling sing-style perfected by Bob Dylan and, more recently, Courtney Barnett. CAMERON CROWELL Fri 8:10 pm (Treeline Stage), Sat 2:10 pm (Mountain Stage)
Last year VHÖL released what was easily one of the best metal records of 2015, if not of the last five years. Deeper Than Sky left the band’s 2013 debut in the dust, and took thrash and prog into new and strange dimensions. That album also proved that VHÖL—a supergroup of sorts featuring members of Agalloch, Yob, and Hammers of Misfortune—was more than a one-off project, and a true force to be reckoned with. As with his Bay Area band Hammers of Misfortune, guitarist John Cobbett delivers some of the greatest thrash riffs imaginable, cemented by the burly rhythm section of bassist Sigrid Sheie and drummer Aesop Dekker, and sent into orbit by Mike Scheidt’s soaring growl. This is heavy metal incarnate. The thought of jaws dropping when VHÖL—the first metal band to play Pickathon—turns the Galaxy Barn into splinters brings a smile to my face. MARK LORE Sat 4:50 pm (Treeline Stage), Sun 5 pm (Galaxy Barn)
There is an ever-strengthening generation of modern artists applying revolutionary ideas to early folk, country, and blues (see: Alabama Shakes; Sturgill Simpson). South Carolinian poet/singer/guitarist Adia Victoria’s place within this group is written in the signature of her sultry guitar lines, wizened voice, and neo-gothic verse. Like Chan Marshall caught in the laser crossbeams of R.L. Burnside, Victoria’s music resides deep within the literal and metaphysical swamp, slowly churning black energy but lined with emotionally aware musings that reflect a highly sensitive scope. Achingly spare rhythms serve to compound the moss-heavy moods that seem to sway every time she breathes, creating an atmosphere of solemn paranoia that calmly penetrates the soul. On Victoria’s debut full-length, Beyond the Bloodhounds, Americana appreciators will find it refreshing to hear traditional sounds subtly taken to new places with artistically Southern intelligence—Emily Brontë loves the blues. CHRIS SUTTON Fri 3:20 pm (Galaxy Barn), Sat 3:10 pm (Treeline Stage)
Canadian pseudo-supergroup Wolf Parade called it quitsies in 2011, but guitarist Dan Boeckner has appeared at Pickathon several times over the years in various guises—including Divine Fits and Operators—so it’s fitting that the reunited band makes their first Portland-area appearance since the hiatus at the bucolic festival. Earlier this year Sub Pop released a deluxe edition of their breakthrough album, 2005’s Apologies to the Queen Mary, (which was partly recorded in Portland with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock producing), along with an EP of four new Wolf Parade songs. So expect Boeckner, keyboardist Spencer Krug (also of Moonface and Sunset Rubdown), guitarist/bassist Dante DeCaro (Hot Hot Heat), and drummer Arlen Thompson to deliver a mixture of new jams and old favorites. NL Fri 8:50 pm (Mountain Stage), Sat 11 pm (Woods Stage)
THE WOOLEN MEN
The de facto ambassadors of Portland punk rock at this year’s Pickathon, the Woolen Men have grown over the years to become one of the best bands around town. Their appearances on the verdant lawns and in the humid barns of Pendarvis Farm will more than stand their own against the rich touring talent the festival’s amassed from around the globe. Keeping on top of the prolific trio’s recorded output can be a full-time job (there’s current a special on their Bandcamp page that gets you seven releases for a mere $27), but their most recent EP, Options, is equal parts jagged and warm, with catchy melodies and twitchy beats reminding us why the Woolen Men are so reliably fantastic. NL Thurs 3:10 pm (Treeline Stage), Sun 1:40 pm (Galaxy Barn)
The diaspora world beat of Yemen Blues was, strangely, not born in the Arabian Peninsula nation of Temen, but in the streets of Israel. It’s there that a huge number of Yemenites now reside, bringing their music and culture with them. Israeli musician Ravid Kahalani has tapped into that stream with this project, a seven-piece band that gathers up sounds from Asia and Africa and places emphasis on joyful expressions and danceable rhythms. The horn- and percussion-heavy group has been finding a huge global audience for their efforts, including a surprising number of fans in Poland and famous supporters like producer and bassist Bill Laswell, who recorded the band’s full-length Insaniya at his studio in West Orange, New Jersey. If you manage to remain still during Yemen Blues’ Pickathon performances, we can only hope you’re suffering from exhaustion and not something more serious. RH Sun 1 pm (Lucky Barn), Sun 1:05 am (Starlight Stage)
YO LA TENGO
2016 marks 30 years since Yo La Tengo’s first album, and 20 since I found a copy of 1993’s Painful gathering dust in a small town record store’s discount CD bin and bought it on a whim. I’ve noticed many longtime fans pretend there was a mythic era of Yo La Tengo when the band sounded one specific way and that way was awesome, and everything that followed was less awesome. But despite creating perpetually recognizable, instantly nostalgic, sepia-toned songs, the group have never stuck—even loosely—to one sound or genre. Their 1986 debut is just as categorically manic as their latest, 2015’s Stuff Like That There, an album that, like their 1990 album Fakebook, mixes new songs and rearranged old songs with a wildly diverse array of covers. It’s a casual, near-perfect, lazy summer hangout album that—like all their albums—traverses the musical map and gets better with each listen. JOSHUA JAMES AMBERSON Fri 11 pm (Woods Stage), Sat 7:10 pm (Mountain Stage)