IN THE BEST possible way, Pickathon is a work in progress. The annual music festival—which takes place at Pendarvis Farm, a bucolic, 80-acre spread less than half an hour from the heart of Portland—is constantly shifting and growing, incorporating new genres of music into its lineup, reworking its stages and layout, and adding new elements of production and technology. But an important constant remains: It's a carefully curated and crafted weekend that emphasizes audience experience above all else. Not only are the performers given the best domain in which to do their work, everyone else is offered the best domain from which to enjoy it. This includes families and grownup revelers alike.
I went to my first Pickathon in 2008, with some reservations; I had off-putting visions of plucky string bands and muddy Birkenstocks noodle-dancing in my head. But as soon as I set foot on the farm, it was obvious that Pickathon was something special, something representative of an ideal bigger than its gimmicky name could encompass. The setting and the music came together to create an idyllic haven in the form of a three-day party out in the woods. It was a temporary utopia, with great music to boot. (If that sounds like noodle-dancing-Birkenstock talk to you, I'm sorry.)
In the four years since—and in the 14 years since the first Pickathon—the festival has grown, and not just in terms of size. This year, around 3,000 ticket buyers are expected through the gate, in addition to all the bands, guests, and workers. Under the hands of organizers Zale Schoenborn and Terry Groves and an ever-growing army of volunteers and supporters, Pickathon has embraced musical styles that probably create some consternation among the dyed-in-the-wool fans that have been coming each year since its inception as a folky KBOO fundraiser. (Those days are long gone; Pickathon is now its own corporate entity, albeit one whose aim is beaded on staging a perfect weekend rather than amassing profit.) It's become an admirable exercise in sustainability, completely eliminating single-use dishes and utensils, and plastic bottles and cups—Klean Kanteen offers reusable metal cups for drinkers, or you can bring your own—and running electricity to the campsites off solar power. (And if that sounds like noodle-dancing-Birkenstock talk to you, you're probably living in the wrong city.)
Pickathon is, quite literally, the only music festival I've been to that rejuvenates and replenishes energy rather than sapping it—you sincerely don't ever want it to end. Every other multi-day music festival inevitably results in burnout, overkill, and exhaustion, bludgeoning your eardrums and sanity with obnoxious crowds, unfortunate and overpriced food, and a wildly varying quality of music. Not the case with Pickathon. It's summer camp for music fans. It's a feast for the senses. And it's a great fucking party.
Here's a short list of the many things you can look forward to at this year's Pickathon.
• Neko Case. The de facto headliner of this year's festival, Neko Case is a perfect fit—the only thing astonishing about her playing Pickathon is that she hasn't done it before. She'll be closing the main stage on Sunday, but you'll probably want to see her the night before at...
• The Woods Stage. Tucked away in the hilly forest, surrounded by campsites, this is the crown jewel of Pickathon—a small, natural amphitheater with a stage built in the middle of a summer-dry creek bed. This is where you want to see your favorite bands of the weekend perform. Under the canopy of green, religious experiences tend to happen with alarming regularity.
• The Barr Brothers. Anyone who saw them at Bunk Bar this past April can attest: This Montreal band, whose ranks include a harpist, is one of the best live bands currently performing. With subtlety, grace, and ignitable power, the Barrs plunder roots, blues, and African sounds, galvanizing them into a weird cocktail of music without any obvious comparison. See them Friday night at 1 am on...
• The Starlight Stage. After the twin main stages close up shop for the day, the tiny Starlight stage is host to music through the wee hours. It'll be dark; it'll be late. You'll be tired, but happy and relaxed—and surely not sober, by this point—and you'll be in the perfect mood to be mesmerized, or, perhaps, be sent to sleep.
• Twelfth Night. I've never grown weary of the music at Pickathon. I doubt you will either, but for the first time they're including a theater piece, offering a handy distraction from the three-day parade of bands. Portland Playhouse's abbreviated production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night will include musical performances from Pickathon acts, including Laura Gibson, Bruce Molsky, and Casey MacGill, depending on which show you catch.
• THEESatisfaction. An arty hiphop duo from Seattle doesn't exactly fit the Pickathon bill, which is precisely why they're playing. That Pickathon's adventurous programming is moving away from the tried-and-tested realm of banjos and mandolins to embrace modern electronic music is what makes the fest so interesting, and will keep it vital for years to come.
• Friendly Goodtimes. Serious about this. Sure, you can set up your campsite without acknowledging your neighbors. You can skip the Friday night square dance. You can sit stony-faced and cross-armed, scowling through each band's set, too cool for school. But if you'd like to get through Pickathon weekend without making some new acquaintances—or, very possibly, laying the foundation for a lifelong friendship—then perhaps you'd prefer to stay at home and watch the webcast.
For tickets, a complete schedule, camping information, and lots more info, go to pickathon.com.