Much of the year, Pendarvis Farm quietly sits on a gorgeous piece of land in Happy Valley. Its fields and trees are far enough out of Portland to feel wild, but close enough (just 12 short miles) to still capture the city's vitality.
For three days each summer, however, Pendarvis Farm becomes home to Pickathon, the roots music festival that hosts all manners of American music. Now in its 12th and biggest year, Pickathon will see a crowd of at least 3,500 soaking in the sun, wandering between the festival's six stages, seeing bands in astonishingly intimate settings. For instance, this year Bonnie 'Prince' Billy will perform on a tiny stage in the forest during the evening; rock bands like Dr. Dog and Heartless Bastards blast out late-night sets in the cozy barn. Artists play multiple sets, so that there's a chance to catch nearly everything, and festivalgoers camp overnight in the wooded hills next to the farm. It's idyllic, it's peaceful, it's a fine place for families. And it's a damn good party. Pickathon avoids all the pitfalls of larger festivals, while being substantial enough to draw excellent acts from all across the country.
Although the festival usually has up to 750 volunteers helping out, two guys are chiefly responsible for putting the thing on each year: Zale Schoenborn and Terry Groves. The pair works year-round to make Pickathon a success, with an eye on every aspect—from music to design, from camping to sustainability. Talking to either of them for even a minute about the festival, it's clearly a labor of love for both. "We're all just regular folks with ideas on how to pull off the perfect party," Groves says.
A lot of that has to do with making Pickathon the kind of show that bands love to play. "Pickathon has the reputation of being an outdoor festival which is large enough to offer a great bill of artists, but not so large as to have lost its charm or personality," says Adam Shearer of Weinland, one of several local bands playing the festival. "Everything I've heard has been positive, particularly about the people who attend the festival. Those are our people: half hippie, half hip... hipippies!"
Eric Johnson of Fruit Bats—also playing Pickathon for the first time this year—is looking forward to it for similar reasons. "I've heard nothing but good things, really," he told the Mercury when it was announced Fruit Bats would be in the lineup. "Our pals Vetiver played it last year and raved and I was pretty jealous. The idea of Pickathon—or from what I've gleaned, at least—is that it's still drawing from the template of the old-style folk festival where the audience is as much a part of things as the performers. I think festivals are fun, but sometimes there's the vibe of the 'RED BULL ROCKIN' SUMMER JAM!' With skydivers and beer banners and bullshit. That's not so fun. I like the idea of a festival that includes rock bands but runs on the model of an Appalachian fiddle summit... which I imagine Pickathon to be like. Maybe I'm wrong? It's not sponsored by an energy drink, right?"
It isn't, to be certain; in fact, it's quite the opposite of the typical summer music festival. I visited Pendarvis Farm a few days before Pickathon weekend, and the small group prepping the site was in good spirits, talking and working happily in anticipation of the event. Mar Ricketts of GuildWorks was busy overseeing the hoisting of the countless sails that get suspended over the main lawn, providing shade to concertgoers as well as being elegant in their own right. Ricketts' design is the visual touchstone of the festival, a functional but ultimately beautiful counterpoint to both the performances and the natural setting.
Elsewhere, Sherry Pendarvis is showing folks around the farm she calls home. She shows us the "greatest lost-and-found in the world," a collection of things left behind from Pickathons past—blankets, water bottles, maybe the odd instrument or two. None of it's thrown away, and if an item remains unclaimed for the year following the festival, it becomes part of an ad hoc garage sale at next year's Pickathon. Pendarvis, who daylights as a parade float designer, shows us the barn where Pickathon's daytime workshops take place. It's the site where the Decemberists just finished recording tracks for their new record, trucking in a studio's worth of gear along with producer Tucker Martine and musical guests like Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. The musicians have left behind, on one of the wooden pillars, their shrine to Neil Young, who's no stranger to recording in barns. They've tacked up the back cover of Harvest, a photo of Young and his bandmates playing in a creaky old barn with sunlight coming through the cracks in the wood.
When the sun is good and set, we tromp through the woods on some newly developed trails that stretch far up the hill. They've been carved—and illuminated at night by long strings of colorful LED lights—by one Elwood Johncox, Pickathon's man on the farm. Johncox came across the country to Oregon on his motorcycle in 2007; his second day in Portland was spent at Pickathon, and once the weekend ended, he stuck around for the following weeks, cleaning up the farm and making himself useful. Now he's a mainstay on Pendarvis Farm, and one of the central figures that make Pickathon work. "Elwood is really the man, and so much of what he does helps make life better for all that come to Pickathon," says Groves.
Again, it bears repeating how much effort the organizers put into making Pickathon a fun experience for all, as opposed to just getting as many bodies through the gate as possible. The schedule is scrutinized for maximum effect, and public transportation is arranged to get non-drivers to and from the festival. Sustainability is a huge issue, and this year Pickathon hopes to go completely plastic-free. Klean Kanteen has manufactured reusable steel cups and bottles for festivalgoers to buy and reuse over the course of the weekend. It's the kind of innovation that makes perfect sense at a community-minded festival, but is rarely attempted.
Adam Shearer admits that "another big reason why Weinland wants to play is because we would very much like to attend. I've met the two fellas in charge of pulling things together and I can tell you they're focused on creating an environment in which the musicians and the audience have only a blurry line between them. They are specifically requesting as much person-to-person interaction as one can muster, and I for one like that environment, so I'm really looking forward to it."
Pickathon takes place at Pendarvis Farm, 16581 SE Hagen, Happy Valley, from Friday to Sunday, August 6-8. Day tickets are $70-75, and weekend tickets are $130-140, available online at portlandmercury.com and pickathon.com; full lineup and schedule at pickathon.com.More Pickathon Reviews Here >>>