The first weekend in August saw the return of the Pickathon music festival, a staple of the Portland summer music scene. A (relatively) small and intimate affair, the grounds at Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley become a point of exodus for indie music fans. It’s a festival where even the biggest names are obscure to most people–but that’s part of the fun. There are those who know, and there are those who know–and Pickathon’s consistently stellar lineups seem laser-focused towards the tastes of the latter, along with those excited to discover their new favorite artists.
Which is to say that, unlike (for instance) the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival or the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, Pickathon is more in line with what the younger generations would call a music festival. These events in the Glastonbury or Woodstock model grew into bigger events through the decades, with there now being dozens of annual festivals across the country, giving many opportunities for small bands to gain wider exposure.
All music festivals are about more than just the music. Festivals such as this one also have plentiful art installations, food and drink vendors. I also appreciate how fresh water is plentiful and free. But the music remains the big draw. One of the joys of festivals is that you will be exposed to a wide array of music you wouldn’t have heard otherwise. And festivals are useful barometers for the music industry. Look through the original Lollapalooza line-ups through the early nineties for a who’s-who of the best 90s indie and alt music had to offer.
Pickathon is not quite like these festivals, however. We don’t get anyone as popular as Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Radiohead or LCD Soundsystem as a headliner. But maybe this is keeping closer to the spirit of what Pickathon is striving for: something smaller and more communal, less corporate, with a closer link between the artist and audience.
Into the woods
Parking was a nightmare, though this probably wasn’t Pendarvis’ doing. The big open fields that surround the farm are slowly turning into rows of exurban tract houses, little boxes on the hillside. (I imagine in future years the middle-class yuppies who will buy these homes probably won’t appreciate the noise). So instead of the pleasant hay fields one might expect, patrons had to park on hilly, dirt-covered roads, or in overflow parking that was significantly further away from the farm. There are alternate modes of transportation, of course, such as the shuttles or bicycle routes. If the goal was to discourage people from driving by making it as unpleasant as possible, they succeeded.
With an experience such as this, one needs to be fully invested and present. The negatives of such a festival may come into closer focus with a detached, cynical perspective, while a more carefree attitude will smooth over some of the bumps along the way. There were the less-than-ideal parts of the experience: lack of proper lighting near some of the restrooms at night, the omnipresent dust, the lack of shade by the large Paddock stage, the aforementioned parking issues, the impromptu campsites, the long lines for food and alcohol. However these annoyances are to be expected at music festivals–and if these things will get in the way of your good time, you may as well stay home.
Because for all of these logistical issues, there were more subtle things that went very smoothly. Performances were staggered so you wouldn’t have artists competing for your attention at nearby stages. Aside from the transitional, unpredictable sound spaces between areas (and the occasional DJ set), you could barely hear other artists bleeding through. Nearly every musician–except maybe some of the children’s artists–performed twice, giving more opportunities to see everyone you wanted to, while avoiding the dreaded conundrum of picking between two or more highly anticipated acts. (The only time that came up for me was Friday night, when Wet Leg and Armand Hammer both performed at ten pm–I ended up going to neither, because I was exhausted and a little sick).
This year was far less restrictive in terms of alcohol: rather than each stage effectively having its own designated drinking area, you could carry your beverage between most stages. The food meanwhile ranged from decent to overpriced–but the food is more about keeping us alive than providing a luxury dining experience. As far as issues went, it was in no way like FYRE festival, Altamont Free, Woodstock ‘99 or Astroworld.
Choose your own adventure
Many festivals have a choose-your-own-adventure energy to them, and Pickathon is no exception. The main draw of Pickathon is the music, just like any other music festival. This is where the “pick” in their names comes from: their discerning and particular choices for artists. This year’s lineup was as diverse and obscure as one would expect.
Valerie June returned, as well as Hurray for the Riff Raff (though no Shakey Graves). In past years they’ve especially been good at catching Indie up-and-comers. Going into this festival, I had a few artists I was excited to see (Guerrilla Toss, Sons of Kemet, GZA), plus those I discovered over the course of the weekend like L’Rain, Frankie and the Witch Fingers, Soul Glo and Nubya Garcia–and plenty more I’ll look at after-the-fact, having only caught tiny portions of their sets. I also got to meet members of Sweeping Promises, Guerrilla Toss and Deeper among others, who were all friendly and grounded.
I was told that the film crew was at least 300 strong. Out of the five thousand or so attendees, nearly fifteen hundred of them–almost a third–were artists, volunteers, press, film crew, sound engineers, and various handlers and managers. As far as festivals go this is a pretty small crowd, giving many opportunities to see people over the course of the weekend.
If there was one main headliner stage, it was Paddock. It is by far the largest stage, with only three acts playing each evening, and many people putting down their blankets hours in advance. For some, Paddock probably was the festival. It seems they decided to forgo the canopy altogether after the incident a few years ago where two workers were killed taking the canopy down, which meant there was little shade. At least it had cooled off significantly by the time the shows began.
Saturday Night Fever
The experience on Saturday night was mystical and enchanting. The moon transitioning from Scorpio to Saggitarius hung above us, with Jupiter, Neptune and Saturn in alignment to its left. To the east Mt. Hood watched us through the hills. Pollen and grass filled the air, with occasional wafts of dank smoke (from the food trucks, to be clear). A thin layer of dust covered everything from tents to blackberry brambles–some even found its way into my feet through my shoes and socks. Most people wore typical Portland summer outfits, with a higher-than-usual amount of Grateful Dead paraphernalia and Coachella- or Glastonbury-inspired looks. At night the festival had an almost magical energy, with multi-colored lights guiding your way through the grounds as one show fades into another.
One of my most anticipated shows for the weekend was Wu-Tang Clan member GZA with the Phunky Nomads. He played songs from his 1995 album Liquid Swords, which is one of the best albums from the Wu-Tang extended universe for The Genius’ lyricism and the RZA’s groovy, sour beats. The Phunky Nomads were tight as hell, interpreting the beats faithfully while giving them their own character with keys and violin.
After that we made our way to catch Built to Spill, one of the legendary PNW indie rock bands (Boise Idaho can be PNW as far as music is concerned). Their set was fantastic, sporting the recent trio lineup with frontman Doug Martsch. It was among the louder sets of the weekend, with that delicious omnipresent speaker distortion squeal you get at most rock concerts hanging over the crowd, sending the listener into a state of higher consciousness like an extremely-spicy curry.
I had been told that Saturday night shows at the Galaxy Barn were crazy, so I had to see Guerrilla Toss again after seeing them at the distant Woods stage on Friday afternoon. This performance was even better than the one on Friday, in part because they had some time to settle in. The tempos were a touch faster; the noise and heat from the small barn was rapturous. I had to step out after only fifteen minutes to calm down, but caught the rest of their set outside.
Sunday was far more relaxed. The crowds already thinned out, and those who remained seemed calmer and more reflective after the previous wild night. This was the time to look back on the past few days, integrating one’s experiences before returning to one’s usual routine. Even security seemed more lax, as VIP areas were open to those confident enough to discover their hidden entrances.
That is what I thought until I saw Sons of Kemet that evening at nine. Their show was intense, like an EDM dance party with waves of building intensity and increasing tempo. You might not expect that from a band with two drummers, a saxophonist and a tubist, but it had a feeling like the more raucous New Orleans jazz groups like Rebirth Brass Band. I was near the front dancing my heart out so I couldn’t see to the back, but it felt like the entire crowd was grooving. The energy was palpable and Sons of Kemet fed off that energy to incredible effect. And this was before special guest Esperanza Spalding appeared to join them for a few songs! This was a real highlight of the night.
At eight Nate Smith and Kinfolk took the stage at Paddock. Smith is an incredible drummer: I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone groove and solo so smoothly in 17/8. The first half of their set was some great jazz fusion, with the second half more groovy and danceable (I for one loved the first half, but the crowd seemed more into the second).
Valerie June took the stage later that night with some joyous country tunes, which I caught on my way out, exhausted from the busy weekend. I headed home satisfied with my weekend, ready to take a breather from live music for a while and contemplating what I had just witnessed.