After nearly a decade of bringing blisteringly loud garage rock acts like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, and Meatbodies to Pickathon, organizers of the renowned music festival truly dipped their dusty toes into the world of heavy metal with the booking of West Coast thrash band Vhöl in 2016.
This year’s Pickathon feels like a full submersion thanks to the inclusion of Oregon-based doom-metal giants YOB, who are not only the best heavy band in the state, they’re one of the best in the world. They’re a perfect fit for an event that often feels like a distinctly Northwest spiritual experience set deep in the starlit woods.
“Anyone who I’ve talked to who knows Pickathon and loves it is happy to hear that YOB’s there,” says the band’s singer/guitarist, Mike Scheidt, who also plays in Vhöl. “They see a connection in what we do and how we approach it, and they see it as something that makes sense.”
To fully appreciate the convergence of Pickathon and YOB, you have to trace the former’s journey from a rootsy folk and bluegrass festival to the diverse, well-curated event it is today. The tipping point came in 2006, says Terry Groves, Pickathon’s talent buyer and marketing director, when North Carolina band the Avett Brothers blitzed the fest’s new venue (Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley) with their whirlwind blend of punk and country.
“Just bringing in that pace of music was edgy to people, it seemed,” Groves says. “And more bands like that kind of led to more bands that were beyond that, from my perspective.”
Festival organizers have taken baby steps since then, Groves says, to book bands that plug in and play heavy. He cited “test cases” like Black Mountain, Diarrhea Planet, and Dinosaur Jr., each of which showed that Pickathon’s production crew and its audience could handle bigger, louder shows.
“In the last 10 years, there’s been a very intentional broadening of how well we can produce shows in spaces that wouldn’t necessarily be typical, which is why I think any band can belong at Pickathon, no matter who it is,” Groves says. “We have amazing crews, so we have the opportunity to imagine any type of band there and they figure it out.”
In 2016, Groves imagined Vhöl at Pickathon, even though the band was an intermittently active act with a cult following. What put the quartet on the festival’s radar was a glowing review of their 2015 album w, which in turn landed their music on one of the Pickathon braintrust’s “Fest Potential” playlists. At the same time, Groves had heard from Vhöl’s booking agent—Portland-based Nathan Carson, who runs Nanotear Booking—about having Scheidt at the festival as an acoustic act. (Carson also reps YOB.)
“Instead, they responded that they wanted his extreme metal/prog supergroup to perform as the first true metal band at Pickathon,” Carson says. “Talk about jumping into the deep end!”
That year, Vhöl played a set at the Treeline stage and another set inside the Galaxy Barn, setting off mosh pits full of sweaty bodies at both. Scheidt remembers it well.
“The kids just lost their minds. They were jumping up and down and having a killer time,” he says. “Whenever you get the kids’ vote, that’s always a good thing.”
In addition to the number of great bands on the bill, Scheidt’s takeaway from his 2016 Pickathon experience also included how well-organized and drama-free it was. “There was nothing stressful or weird,” he says. “We just had a really great time.” After Vhöl’s appearance, Pickathon’s conversation with Carson continued until YOB got an offer to play this year’s festival.
“I was shocked that [Pickathon] was interested in Vhöl,” Carson says. “I’m never, ever surprised that anyone wants to host YOB. The former are obscure and difficult by design. YOB is a proven worldwide entity.”
YOB’s second set of the weekend will come Sunday night on the Woods Stage, right after the comparatively mellow indie-twang band Lambchop. But Groves is not concerned about causing genre whiplash among attendees.
“YOB on the Woods Stage is going to be out of hand,” says Groves. “That’s a cool band-and-space combo that’s worth the experience even if you’re not a metal person.”
It’s that kind of attitude that has set Pickathon apart from other music festivals that try to please everyone and, in doing so, end up with a patchwork lineup. And it’s that kind of vision that Carson says “opened up a world of possibilities” for bands that may not have fit into Pickathon’s first lineup back in 1998, but certainly do now. Scheidt knows that for a fact, given Vhöl’s experience two years ago.
“It didn’t really matter at all that we were playing so much faster and louder and screamier than some other bands that were at the fest,” Scheidt says. “It seemed to all just kind of work.”