Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

No one wants it to end: Pickathon 2023

An intimate, experiential report from the long-running Happy Valley campout music festival.

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Say She She performs on the Cherry Hill Stage during the Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Ore. on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Photo by Jason Redmond / @fotojay
Say She She performs on the Cherry Hill Stage during the Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Ore. on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Photo by Jason Redmond / @fotojay.

A highlight of Portland summer—perhaps its peak—occurs during the first weekend of August, when Pickathon Experiential Music Festival attracts throngs of music lovers to a little farm in Happy Valley. What began in the late 90s as a small gathering of bluegrass bands has transformed into a musical cornucopia, with 55 acts of vastly different genres that hail from all corners of the world. Held this year on August 3-6, the festival boasted an exciting lineup that included Watchhouse, Lee Fields, and Dehd, and promised a return to form after 2022’s slightly rocky post-pandemic restart.

Yet despite being a Portland ritual, the festival’s future is uncertain. Happy Valley’s city council is currently reconsidering the festival’s 10-year permit, which expires this year. Development in the area has taken off, and the festival’s parking lot resides on a plot of land the city plans to turn into a commercial center. Bearing all that in mind, I loaded my camping gear into my friend’s truck on August 4, and we headed down Foster Road for a long weekend of live music—hopefully not for the last time.

Arriving at the festival was a breeze compared to last year. Parking off site was easy, and a shuttle took us to the farm while our gear was hauled to the campsite. Pickathon is powered by volunteers, who trade a few shifts for a weekend pass. Like everything, tickets have become increasingly expensive. Before sales closed, a weekend pass cost over $400, while a single day pass ran around $200. If you consider a weekend pass as payment, the volunteers—who do everything from pick up trash to film and record the live performances—make a pretty solid hourly. Everyone I knew was volunteering in some capacity.

After decamping in the woods, I kicked the weekend off with the Po Ramblin’ Boys set, honoring the festival’s roots: it’s not Pickathon without a little bluegrass. The programmers always bring in a fresh set of acts, but the Po Ramblin’ Boys are a Pickathon mainstay. The band’s frontman CJ Lendowski sang the festival’s praises, along with a collection of country ballads. Fiddle player Laura Orshaw shone, singing a few numbers about lost loves, while playing smooth double-stops on her instrument.

The band jammed on the Cherry Hill stage, located in the heart of the festival grounds on the edge of the woods. For the past eight years, Pickathon has partnered with PSU’s School of Architecture to develop a new design for the stage, which faculty and students assemble together. This year’s stage featured a series of arching wooden beams made from Western Hemlock, a “forest-within-a-forest” that recalled the inside of a cathedral. The stage is a testament to Pickathon’s commitment to ecological stewardship. The materials are native to the Pacific Northwest, and in a few months they will be repurposed for an outdoor gathering structure in Portland’s Oak Savanna.  

Po Ramblin’ Boys wrapped, and we consulted the schedule. Anxiety of choice can be overwhelming here. Nine distinct stages are spread across the festival grounds, and each band plays two hour-long sets. Performances overlap, so hearing all the bands play isn’t possible. Instead, Pickathon offers a choose-your-own-adventure, where festivalgoers get to curate their own itinerary. Usually, this requires a bit of homework. Pickathon doesn’t bring in household names, and I hadn’t followed any of the groups in this year’s lineup. Luckily, the festival releases a playlist of choice songs, so it’s easy to discover favorites.

An equally valid method is to simply go in blind. Some like to pick a stage and see what happens. One festivalgoer described this practice to me as “Pickathon-roulette.” The outcome is more positive than the name suggests. In fact, there seems to be an unwritten rule that the best performances are from bands you haven’t heard of. The reliably excellent programming means one or two of those acts might blow up. (Big Thief, Courtney Barnett, and Kamasi Washington have all played in years past).

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

W.I.T.C.H on the Woods stage at Pickathon 2023. Photo by Bill Purcell.
Zambian group W.I.T.C.H. on the Woods stage at Pickathon 2023. Photo by Bill Purcell.

Friday was a bit of a blur. I caught soul icon Lee Field’s performance at the Wood Stage, Pickathon’s most iconic and my personal favorite. The 73-year-old musician brought the energy of a much younger man. More often than not, his songs waxed poetic on the virtues of women, and he encouraged all the gentlemen in the crowd present with their better half to raise a hand. It was silly, but Field’s powerful wail left little doubt that when he sang “I want to hold you forever” he not only meant it, but could do it too.

We bid an early farewell to Fields in order to make Meridian Brothers at Paddock Stage, Pickathon’s largest space, foregrounding a view of Mount Hood—and, increasingly with each year, condominiums. Meridian Brothers is the brainchild of Colombian singer-songwriter Eblis Álvarez, who records and produces all the vocal and instrumental tracks himself but tours with a band for live performances. Álvarez’s music resists classification: a blend of Latin rock, psych rock, and electronic music. The result is something that sounds almost extraterrestrial, or like the interior monologue of an especially cool computer—to get an idea, listen to “Guaracha U.F.O (No Estamos Solos…).” Though Meridian Brothers is at times esoteric, the underlying Latin rhythms ensure that dancing is inevitable.

Back to the Woods stage to hear Dehd, the indie trio from Chicago. Sometimes one feels a bit of genre whiplash at Pickathon, and I wasn’t sure how I would fare with Dehd’s angsty, post-punk ballads after the intergalactic dancing I had experienced at the previous show. But I quickly bought in, thanks in part to Emily Kempf’s incredible voice. The frontwoman seems to possess a half-dozen, each distinct from the rest, as well as a vibrato that produces near-visible soundwaves.

The evening came to an end with the discodelic soul band Say She She, a trio of female vocalists hailing from both sides of the Atlantic. By this time my knees were terribly sore (they would never recover that weekend) from all the dancing and hiking through dusty fields. After a mini-search party to locate some separated friends, we finally settled into the crowd for the celestial show. Say She She’s recent single “Astral Plane” became one of my favorite songs of the weekend.

Waking up with a slight hangover in the woods can feel like a small tragedy. Luckily, Pickathon boasts (almost) all the comforts of the regular world. Portland dining favs set up food carts (such as Ate-oh-Ate, P’s & Q’s, and Katchka) and there’s plenty of coffee, kombucha, and smoothie options–as well as an ample supply of craft beer, wine, and cocktails. Even if you crawled out of some hollowed tree trunk that morning, you can at least order a cappuccino. Pickathon prides itself on its zero-waste ethos, so all the food and drinks are served in easy-to-use reusable dishware. There are even showers, although I never bothered since the lines are long.

Music starts at 11am, but there’s plenty of alternative activities throughout the day. Programming begins as early as eight with morning yoga and lasts well into the evening with candle making workshops, poetry readings, and sound baths. I spent a fair amount of the afternoons in the sanctuary—a wooded hideout off one of the main trails. Replete with dusty pillows and rugs, this quiet zone looks like an opium den designed by forest elves. There’s also a community library on hand, in case you forgot reading material.

While I enjoyed the afternoon lineup–the Algerian group Imarhan and Butcher Brown, which hails from Virginia–fatigue set in around five. I opted for a quick siesta before the evening started. We kicked off the night out of the woods, back on the farm. Packed inside the Galaxy Barn—one of Pickathon’s few indoor stages—I briefly wondered what would happen if there was a fire (we would die!) then quickly pushed the thought out of mind. We were there to see MonoNeon, a moniker for Dwayne Thomas Jr., the incredible bassist from Memphis, Tennessee.

Sponsor

Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Thomas Jr., who used to play bass for Prince, has a persona unto his own. An autodidact, he’s developed his own idiosyncratic technique, opting to flip his bass upside down, so the lower strings are farther away. Then there’s his highlighter-yellow sock, with which he covers the head of his bass. (A friend told me that Thomas Jr. picked up this eccentricity after dropping his bass one-to-many times, but the musician has also said he was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade creations). MonoNeon’s funkadelic songs skew comic, as titles like “Fartin’ All Ova the World” and “Hot Cheetos” indicate. Local pianist Charlie Brown III excelled on the keys. This was one of my favorite shows: the Galaxy Barn is the size of a spacious garage, and the lack of elbow room creates a lightning-in-a-bottle effect. Musicians can be within arm’s length, and the performer-audience energy loop is at its most palpable.

If any act could best Thomas Jr.’s superb vibes, then it might have been Novalima, who played at Paddock directly after. The Peruvian outfit wants to make you dance, and they have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to do just that. An ensemble that is eight strong, Novalima places itself at the intersection of traditional Afro-Peruvian music and global DJ culture. The result is thrilling. A weekend highlight occurred about 40 minutes into their set, during an acoustic cajón duet. The audience was rapt, and when the band came back in, the crowd danced with renewed energy.

Because I slept little Saturday night, and it was day three of the festival, and the cartilage in my knees was becoming increasingly nonexistent, I spent most of Sunday at camp lying in my hammock. It’s easy to forget that Pickathon can be enjoyed away from the stages. There’s pressure to go out and see everything. But it’s an experiential music festival after all, and part of that experience includes lying on a shady hill in the middle of the forest. 

Sunday presented a surprise twist: for unforeseen reasons, the band Watchhouse had to step out of its evening slot. They were replaced with Portland’s own Haley Heynderickx, a switch I was more than happy with (no offense to Watchhouse, I’m just a Haley fan). She played a solo set at the Wood’s stage, and before starting, she invited everyone to sit down. This was the right call: the audience was treated to a selection of new songs and the whole experience felt quite intimate. Between numbers Heynderickx chatted with the crowd, saying that when she first moved to Portland a decade ago it had been her dream to play the festival. She already checked that item off her bucket list five years ago, but she was thrilled to be back. That’s one common denominator among the vastly different musical acts at Pickathon: everyone seems stoked to be here.

Later, I caught some of W.I.T.C.H.’s set, a group of Zambian rockers, before hitting repeat at the Galaxy Barn with Novalima. I ended up staying there all night. The festival ended in the barn around 2:30 in the morning, where the DJ Nikki Nair kept everyone captive with some rocklicking dubstep, peppered in with radical imperatives. The refrain “Quit your job, kill your boss” was stuck in my head for the rest of the night. But that’s kind of Pickathon’s vibe. No one wants it to end.

But it had to, of course. The set finished and the barn emptied out: people discussed their favorite shows from the weekend or complimented each other’s dance moves. We spent the rest of night wandering the festival grounds. Although the programming had come to an end, the music hadn’t quite stopped. With the professionals off to bed, or more likely boozing, the campfire guitarists were in full swing. We were drawn by whatever music was coming from some corner of the woods. We would stop and listen for a moment, or join in for a song, before walking down another forest path.

Pickathon 2023. Photo by Nikki Neumann.
Pickathon 2023. Photo by Nikki Neumann.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Max Tapogna writes about theater, music and culture for Oregon ArtsWatch. His writing has been published in Bloomberg Pursuits, Document Journal, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, Crosscurrents Literary Magazine and more. As an actor, Max has had the pleasure of performing with companies like Shaking the Tree and Broadway Rose. Originally from Portland, Max currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
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