IT'S BEEN SAID, over and again, that Pickathon is much more than a hippie-granola music festival. But it bears repeating: Pickathon is an absolute highlight of our glorious, blue-sky Portland summer.
Evolving far beyond its twangy origins as a bluegrass-tinged roots music festival, Pickathon, now in its 11th year, embraces all manner of musical styles, from the straightforward bluegrass of North Carolina's the Freight Hoppers to the traditional Cajun of Louisiana's Lost Bayou Ramblers to the backwoods hymn-rock of Saskatchewan's the Deep Dark Woods. For three days and nights, the green fields and forests of Pendarvis Farm become the idyllic backdrop for a gathering of all types of music lovers. All the performers rotate through six stages throughout the farm—including the twin main stages, a barn, and a stage out in the middle of the woods—playing multiple sets over the weekend so that you don't miss anything. And just a short drive from Portland, Pickathon is an effortless escape for daytrippers and weekend campers alike, to the sort of pastoral setting that'll turn even the most hardened city scenester into a laidback, barefoot bumpkin.
To put it mildly, Pickathon is a good time. Check your preconceptions at the gate, because it might be even more fun than you deserve.
And it gets bigger and better every year. This year's estimated attendance will be in the region of 2,000 ticket buyers, a near-50 percent increase from 1,400 last year. The 80 acres of Pendarvis Farm can easily accommodate the growth, and this year's lineup has its highest profile yet. Gracing the stages are indie rock heavy hitters like the woolly classic rock of Portland's Blitzen Trapper, the Beatlesesque harmonies of Philadelphia's Dr. Dog, and the acid-caressed naturalismo of California's Vetiver.
"The indie rock bands have always kind of been related to the roots scene because they, in a lot of cases, take that roots music that they hear and broadly reinterpret it," says Pickathon Director Zale Schoenborn. "I think of Portland as a city that reinvents music without having factions to beat them down, saying, 'That's not how you do it!' If I'm at a three-day festival, I want to see all kinds of music, and, for us, it is definitely a natural evolution to bring in indie rock. It's taken years for us to build that bridge across these different music scenes that maybe aren't used to playing at a festival like ours, and I think nationally, we're getting noticed for that. Plus the bands are kind of ahead of the curve in hearing about music festivals and wanting to play different places. So we're having a lot easier time bringing in people that you normally wouldn't think would be a natural fit for a festival like Pickathon."
And it's as much fun for the performers as it is for the audience. Among the festival's selling points for musicians is the camaraderie backstage and the opportunity to mingle and see each other play. It may seem surprising, but plenty of music festivals typically sequester the musicians away in separate dressing rooms. This is not the case at Pickathon, where many of the artists camp for the duration of the entire weekend, often taking time off their tour schedules to do so.
"There's just an amazing synergy between the environment, the people, and the musicians," says Schoenborn. "It's pretty common sense, but with most festival grounds, you have limitations with security, or you can't camp; you can't put together all the elements to reduce all the hassles that come with festivals. You need electricity, you need water, you need shade. Some festivals skip something like shade and people just about pass out. They liked the music, but all they remember is they got so sunburned and dehydrated that they didn't have fun. So any one of 100 things that could go wrong could kill your weekend."
The organizers of Pickathon have all these bases well covered, understanding that the emphasis on setting and the overall experience is essential for the music to be best enjoyed. Portland design house GuildWorks is, once again, providing ample shade if needed—and shelter from any potential rain—with a beautifully elaborate network of lightweight fabric sails and canopies, while designers from the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art are working on the lighting and stage set. Meanwhile, the festival effectively strives toward greenness with a free shuttle from the Gateway MAX station, local and sustainable food vendors, and a solar-powered stage and lighting.
But of course, the music is paramount, and there's plenty of it at Pickathon. The setup allows—even encourages—wandering from stage to stage. It's an easy way to discover new bands, and the site is both manageable enough to explore and expansive enough to prevent feeling trapped in a specific place.
"One of the best things about Pickathon is not knowing all the artists and being surprised," says Schoenborn. "Having a little bit of trust. If someone ends up coming because they like some of the bands, and then sees a lot of these cool bands that they've never heard of, those people are going to be excited next year to check out a bunch of new music. But it almost takes them coming once. It's hard to sell that concept—come check out a bunch of music you've never heard of! But then you're like, 'Wow, that is good! I don't even listen to that [kind of] music, ever—I didn't even think I liked it, but I like that.' That's the cool thing we love to do."
Larry Gillis Band
Mountain View Stage, Sat 11 am; Galaxy Barn, Sun 1 pm; Workshop Barn, Sun 3:30 pm
Clawhammer banjo picker Larry Gillis is legendary within bluegrass circles, but even the most seasoned bluegrass fan may have never seen him live. Larry and his brother John stunned audiences as the Gillis Brothers with their hard-driving bluegrass, but quit the road in the '90s. Larry emerged from retirement last year, and his speedy plucking and traditional bluegrass is as authentic as it gets.
C.W. Stoneking and His Primitive Horn Orchestra
Workshop Barn, Fri 6:30 pm; Fir Meadow Stage, Sat 8:45 pm; Galaxy Barn, Sun 11:30 am; Woods Stage, Sun 7:30 pm
When you think of the blues, Australia isn't exactly the first place that leaps to mind. Yet that's where C.W. Stoneking hails from, raised by American parents in an Aboriginal village. Stoneking's hollow-log guitar and lonesome yodel sounds plucked from a desolate crossroads in decades past, but his hokum blues style is warmly human and humorous.
Galaxy Barn, Fri 1 am; Mountain View Stage, Sat 9:30 pm
Dr. Dog can effortlessly pump a rock club full of energy with their insanely melodic songs and the dueling vocals of Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman. Seeing them pack a late-night hootenanny into Pickathon's Galaxy Barn should be a rare treat, and their set on the big field will bring to mind open-air festivals of days passed. Their harmony-laden retro-rock—a perfect marriage of the three Bs: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Band—just might induce a flashback or two.
Woods Stage, Sat 3 pm; Mountain View Stage, Sat 7:45 pm
The sometime-Portland resident is spending most of her time winding through Europe these days—and who could blame her?—but the coldwater voice of Alela Diane is still as utterly captivating as ever. Her sound expanded on her recent To Be Still album, and her vocals on Headless Heroes' version of "Nobody's Baby Now" made that song one of this year's best tracks. Saturday afternoon's performance on the Woods Stage will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see her perform in a natural setting, surrounded by green and trees.
Mountain View Stage, Fri 10:15 pm; Galaxy Barn, Sat 8:30 pm
Portland's own Foghorn Stringband are indisputably one of the nation's best old-time bands, a fact that's easy to forget when you're living in their hometown. They'll fit right in with the rustic setting and laidback ambience of Pendarvis Farm. On Friday night, they're playing Pickathon's yearly square dance with caller Caroline Oakley. Think you're too cool for a square dance? We dare you to resist; once Foghorn Stringband starts pickin' their timeless bluegrass and ol' holler tunes, you'll be on your feet with everyone else. Sure, the songs may sound older 'n dirt—but don't forget they're made for dancing.
Galaxy Barn, Sat 1 am; Mountain View Stage, Sun 8:30 pm
It may initially seem incongruous for Portland rockers Blitzen Trapper to be headlining Pickathon, but their music has always contained hidden depths and a genuine tie to roots music. Frontman Eric Earley has seamlessly incorporated traditional folk and Appalachian elements into his rock songs—in the past, he's even opened Blitzen Trapper gigs with a few solo tunes on the banjo—and last year's Furr album ran a huge stylistic gamut, from '70s-esque fuzz-rock to mellow campfire ditties. Their new EP, Black River Killer, which has been sold as a CDR at concerts, hits stores in legitimate form on August 25. Expect Blitzen Trapper to cover all their bases over their two sets this weekend—or, to put it more simply, expect great music from a great band, genre be damned.