20 Years of Pickathon: A Legacy of Diversity

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Photo by Miri Stebivka

Photo by Rob Kerr

It’s good to be home.

Portland may no longer be the country’s best kept secret, but it is without doubt still in possession of the next best thing: Pickathon; a paragon of a small-scale festival accurately coined “the best American music festival period” by unofficial mascot and veteran, Ty Segall. Nestled in the scenic rural-suburban hills of Happy Valley, OR, Pickathon has planted its roots in the 80-acre Pendarvis Family Farm since 2006, growing in size and popularity with each passing year. Breaching its way into the limelight and sparking a storm of buzz in music communities, Pickathon has managed to rope in some big-name talent in recent years featuring the likes of Beach House in 2016, last year’s appearance from Dinosaur Jr., and the miraculous arrival of Leslie Feist back in 2013. Although Pickathon has proved itself worthy of big fish, the festival team has managed to stay true to their mission, consistently curating a musically and culturally diverse offering of discovery-based lineups.

Celebrating its landmark 20th anniversary, Pickathon avoided any temptation to consummate a crossover into mainstream-festival ranks, bringing core Picky people the same-same-but-different in the best imaginable way. Checking in at the top of the bill this year were long-time indie icons Broken Social Scene and Built to Spill, token folk-rock sing-along ballad bands Shakey Graves and Phosphorescent, as well as overseas marvels Daniel Norgren (Sweden), DakhaBrakha (Ukraine), and Kikagaku Moyo (Japan).

Day One

Upon arrival at the festival, it was more than apparent that word had gotten out about the clandestine gem of the Northwest. Longer-than-usual lines snaked through the grassy parking lot where eager faces awaited admittance to the farm. First and foremost, we responsibly headed to the bar for the last line of defense against our fleeting hangovers, courtesy of a night of campfire revelry the evening prior. Summery cocktails amalgamated with fresh hibiscus, strawberry and booze—as well as local offerings of craft beers—were just what the doctor ordered.

One aspect of Pickathon that is not to be overlooked is the relentless dedication to a completely waste-free festival. Drinks are strictly served in stainless steel cups that are available for purchase at all alcohol stations for a reasonable price. This entirely eliminates the sea of cans and cups that often plague most larger festivals, crunching and cracking with the footsteps of fans dancing to the beat of the music.

Photo by Miri Stebivka

Valley Queen. Photo by Miri Stebivka

We christened Day One with a fully energized performance from Los Angeles locals, Valley Queen, who excel at finding the balance between distorted guitar and melodic vocals from frontwoman Natalie Carol. Tailored in all white, from sunglasses all the way down to leather cowboy boots, Carol’s ensemble was the perfect representation of the evolution of Pickathon’s strictly-folk roots into a progressive inclusion of multi-genre acts, diversifying the image and crowd of the festival alike. The band had the entirety of the mainstage on their feet, treating them to a handful of goodies from last year’s EP Destroyer, and eagerly diving into tracks off of their debut full-length, Supergiant, which arrived just last month. In an press release regarding the title track of the new album, Carol states that, “it takes all the drama you hear on the record—the aggressive, chaotic moments, and the more beautiful or quieter moments—and puts it all into a more galactic perspective.” This notion was brightly reflected by the fans swaying their way through the sonic cosmos of Valley Queen’s performance.

We exited the grounds of the mainstage through one of the many checkpoints, where volunteers investigate the contents of your cup, supposedly to prevent underage drinking as well as the smuggling-in of outside beverages. We took to viewing these encounters a challenge to “level-up,” faced with the dire dilemma of either dumping or chugging our beverages.

Walking the heavily forested pathway toward the Woods Stage, we were constantly swarmed with children hustling us for donations with an array of elementary art forms, varying from magical “marvels” to spoken freestyle rap read from notebook paper. Kids gotta eat too, I suppose.

Narrowly escaping the money-hungry munchkins, we managed to catch best-bud collective Glorietta. Members of the band include but are not limited to Matthew Vasquez (Delta Spirit, Middle Brother,) Noah Gunderson, Jason Robert Blum, Kelsey Wilson (Wild Child), David Ramirez, and Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas, Brown Out). A band compiled of broken-hearted optimists, Glorietta’s ever-rotating songwriters share similar themes in their words and stories, which latch together as patches of a quilt do, establishing a blanket of warmth and expression under which the band can feel at home with one another. That, and nights shared with a bottle of tequila; which numerous members inform a number of the songs were derived from. The setlist picked and pulled from the band’s collection of singles, as well as covers of tracks from staple projects of the varying band members.

A gap window in the schedule gave us a moment to fuel up and rest our legs in the courtyard of vendors. Pickathon brings in the best of Portland’s renowned food scene, offering a diverse and daunting array of dinner options. Contrary to the food options of some larger festivals, all of the vendors are based just miles away in the city, allowing them to provide the freshest product possible to their patrons, never sacrificing quality. This is important, given the fact that these are all restaurants that most attendees frequent in their normal lives. If you weren’t a fan of Ate-Oh-Ate, Podnah’s Pit, or Pok Pok prior to Pickathon, you certainly were post.

What about all of the plates and silverware, you ask? That’s right: another extension of Pickathon’s zero-waste mission comes in the form of reusable wooden plates and utensils. Ten dollars gets you a wooden token that you exchange with vendors upon ordering your meal. After consumption, you drop your dirty dishes at a wash station in exchange for your token back. The dishes are then cleaned by volunteers so they can be used again, and again, and again. This system keeps the clean-up process more manageable, the Pendarvis Farm looking pristine, and the existence of single-use materials to a minimum. Thank you for using your platform to prove how manageable this is, Pickathon. We salute you.

Built to Spill

Built to Spill

Following adequate gorging of faces, we exchanged wooden goods with the token slingers and headed back into the woods where indie rock legends Built to Spill were slated to perform; a band eponymous with the genre. It’s confounding to believe that in the entirety of Pickathon’s 20-year legacy, Built to Spill are just now making their inaugural appearance, having paved the way or influenced several bands fortunate enough to have shared the festival stage in years prior. The band stepped onto the Woods Stage as a trio, a lineup that surely surprised older fans of the band recalling tours with three guitarists in conjunction with bass and drums, a roster that hasn’t been utilized since the release of 2015’s Untethered Moon. The absence of additional guitarists was soon forgotten with the aggressive arrival of “Get A Life,” a track from their first studio album Ultimate Alternative Wavers (1993) which rarely surfaces for much stage time, sending die-hard fans into a frantic loop of nostalgia. Endearingly humbled saint Doug Martsch uttered soft “thank you’s” between staple songs “Time Trap” and “Kicked It in the Sun,” a sentiment completely stifled from the roar of a crowd enamored by the craft of the soft-spoken man. Martsch further treated long-time fans to a cover of “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain” by The Halo Benders, a defunct side project of his in conjunction with Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson. A slight feeling of empathy could be felt for Martsch, who was visibly working his ass off alternating between playing rhythm, lead guitar, and soloing in songs that demanded the presence of more strings. The band wrapped up their set with an arsenal of deep cuts from 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love and 1997’s Perfect from Now On, sending the crowd into full cardiac arrest as middle-aged dad-rockers tore straggling hairs from their receding crowns in a frantic fit of passion.

Night one of Pickathon wrapped up at the foot of the dazzlingly intimate Starlight Stage where Japanese psych-rockers Kikagaku Moyo transcended into another dimension, serenading us to sleep with melodic bends of clean guitar and dreamlike solos from an electric sitar. Embellished in a myriad of mix-match patterns and a collection of clashing colors, the band displayed themselves as a banner for the very best and the very worst of ‘60s fashion; owning it nonetheless. The Tokyo bandmates treated a fortunate few who had the stamina to stick around into the twilight hours to offerings from their most recent album House in the Tall Grass, as well as tracks from former mini-albums. Those lucky enough to have experienced an intimate set from Kikagaku Moyo should count their blessings, as the band is embarking on a nearly sold-out tour.

Day Two

Having answered the calls of unturned beds in back in Portland, we opted for leisure in my air-conditioned home for our first night, finding justification in self-care for the long weekend ahead. We found ourselves back on the Pendarvis property midday, arriving at the Lucky Barn where hometown heroine Haley Heynderickx performed dazzling numbers from this year’s debut album I Need to Start a Garden between a Q&A with the audience. Another attribute unique to Pickathon is this rare opportunity for fans to engage musicians one-on-one and ask more personalized inquiries that might be overlooked in your run-of-the-mill interview. Naturally, these events hit capacity quite immediately, and we were unable to squeeze inside. Fear not! Pickathon is kind enough to provide a live-stream to monitors directly outside of the barn in a covered haystack, where fans are encouraged to lounge and listen, protected from the aggression of the summer sun.

Following the Q&A session, we trekked up the hill for a quick look at the Treeline Stage, whose design changes every year. This year’s finished product appeared much more open than stages in prior years, acting as a window to highlight and illuminate the rolling green scenery that surrounds the entirety of the farm. As if Pickathon weren’t already charitable enough or tapped into enough communities, the Treeline Stage is the physical representation of a partnership with Portland State’s Architecture Program. This relationship poses students each year with the task of collaborating a design erected from simplistic wooden resources to craft a unique and interesting stage for the festival, as well as plan of execution to later repurpose the materials into something beneficial to the community. For instance: last year’s design was transformed into a sleeping pod transitional village for houseless veterans.

We ventured toward the Woods Stage at long last, awaiting serenading from backroad Swedish folk extraordinaire, Daniel Norgren. My first exposure to Norgren was at the same stage two years prior, where he performed on US soil for the first time ever. The artist has been on heavy rotation in my everyday listening ever since, and my heart burst when I saw his name on the lineup release announcement back in January. Looking upward to the cascading green of the forest, beams of light burst through openings in the branches as children swung back and forth in a fleet of hammocks stacked in columns and rows. Colonies of people could be spotted from the top of the mountain, growing denser and denser all the way to the base of the dust bowl pit of the stage.

Norgren’s appearance embodies the simplicity of a country man, yet his songs harbor a well of emotion, unveiling the truths of a man who has endured real pain. Simple percussion, an upright bass and immaculate guitar playing established an astonishing sound that was a force to be reckoned with, fighting for a focal point over Norgren’s powerful vocal chords which had been treated to the perfect amount of gravel gargling. Highlights of the set include “Moonshine Got Me,” “Whatever Turns You On,” and a splendidly stripped version of “Black Vultures,” all from 2013’s Buck.

An abrupt departure from Norgren’s wooing on the Woods Stage swept my friends and I to the Mt. Hood Stage where a second offering from Built to Spill was in high demand. Still think Pickathon can’t get any better? Guess again, dummy! Most every band on the bill plays at least two sets throughout the weekend, allowing bands to perform diverse setlists and expose festival-goers to a vast exploration of their often-sprawling catalogues. Case in point: Built to Spill, clocking in at a whopping nine studio albums. That’s a lot of material to jam into your standard one-hour festival slot. For this set, BTS opted for “Goin’ Against Your Mind” off of 2006’s You in Reverse, arguably the best set opener known to mankind. The band stuck with the trend of reaching into the back catalogue, performing cult classic tracks like “Distopian Dream Girl” and “Stab” off of There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. The set was wrapped up with “Carry the Zero” off of the 1999 inimitable masterpiece Keep It Like a Secret, an album synonymous with teen against and adolescence everywhere.

Not even the plumes of dust nor the cover of darkness could mask the grin on my face as we swiftly blew through “level-up” checkpoints to the Woods Stage for an opportunity to witness Canadian supergroup and rock icons Broken Social Scene crowd the wooded enclave with their boundless number of bandmates. Picking and pulling from the best of the Canadian indie scene, BSS have appeared in ensembles as few as six and as expansive as 19 musicians at once. Key players consist of usual suspect frontmen Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, as well as big time powerhouses Leslie Feist and Emily Haines, who were sorely missed at Pickathon this year. Following an extended hiatus from late 2010 to 2016, with the exception of a handful of festival jaunts, BSS contributed to the resurgence of classic indie bands crawling out of hiding and promoting new material with 2017’s Hug of Thunder which was met with favorable reviews from fans and critics alike. Playing their highest concentration of shows in years, the band is sounding better than ever, coming out swinging with passion behind their new songs while proving that they’re not beyond pouring their hearts into playing the shit out of the hits.  A key highlight of this particular show was the addition of The Weather Station‘s Tamara Lindeman, who hopped on stage for a haunting duet of hit track “Anthems For a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” along with current BSS member Ariel Engle (La Force).

Having decided early on that we should really dive all the way in and try out this “camping” thing, we happened to have lost sight of a few minor details; not only is setting up a tent in the dark a menace of a mission, but locating an empty campsite at the midway mark of the festival is near impossible. Captains Log: need ample planning in future camping endeavors.

Day Three

We awoke, haunted by decisions of the night prior, faces level with our feet and our torsos resting in an arched curve a conservative foot deeper. Somehow, it wasn’t the body contortions that summoned us from the dead, but the scorching temperature of our mesh sweat lodge. Unable to bear another moment, we descended the hill pursuing dreams of acai bowls and cold brew coffee; both of which Pickathon accommodates. Note to future attendees: hungover mutants line up at the Stumptown pop-up like pigs at a trough. Godspeed.

The final day of Pickathon was arranged in a merciful structure, allowing sore legs a grace period of leisure at the mainstage. The first talent of the day was that of Los Angeles-based psychedelic jam band, Wand, who are no strangers to Pickathon. Members Cory Hanson and Evan Burrows have frequented the festival with numerous side projects of resident musician, Ty Segall. The band seemingly picked up on a shared feeling of exhaustion from the midday crowd, gently and kindly rocking them back to life with songs off of 2017’s Plume as well as cuts from EP Perfume, which arrived May of this year.

Having missed out on the first opportunity to fully see Haley Heynderickx, we utilized a small overlap in scheduling to catch a few songs on the Woods Stage. I’ve been following the rise of the songwriter’s career for quite some time now, being fortunate enough to have attended early house shows around PDX the last few years. The powerful vocalist treated the crowd to older tunes this time around, performing “Drinking Song” and title track “Fish Eyes” off of her debut EP. If there’s one thing that is not to be dismissed, it is the way in which Heynderickx dictates influence through tenderness. The young talent presents a window of vulnerability demonstrating that pain can be power, and if tapped into correctly, resilience will triumph.

We returned to our mainstay at the mainstage for a viewing of Ukrainian ensemble DakhaBrakha. The band’s named is derived from verbs of their native language translating into something similar to “give” and “take.” This echoes in their eclectic sound, which picks and pulls from a vast array of diverse genres, weaving together in a sound so unique it is incomparable to anything I’ve ever heard before. I cannot stress how much of a must-see this group is if the opportunity presents itself.

Broken Social Scene

Broken Social Scene

Closing out the Mt. Hood Stage for the 20-year celebration was a final performance from Broken Social Scene, who immediately dove into a bold performance of “KC Accidental” off of their 2003 debut, You Forgot It in People. The performance was accompanied by a trio of brass horns, honoring the bold sound of the recording. Constant tip-toeing of stage grips made it evident that the band was experiencing some minor technical setbacks. Amiable frontman Kevin Drew charmingly dismissed any hint of concern exclaiming, “we’ve been doing this for 18 years, and everything is always broken;” a cute nod to the band’s namesake, be it conscious or not. The band continued to treat loyal fans to beloved classics “Fire Eyed Boy” and “Texico Bitches” before performing lovesick anthem “Lover’s Spit,” fully romancing the audience into nostalgic graves.

We found ourselves wrapping up the weekend festivities with our first visit to the Galaxy Barn, where we stumbled with the motion of the pit, the crowd bouncing around to the sounds of Sheer Mag with an energy I couldn’t even pretend to exude. The Philly-based power-pop band charged up the crowd, who showed no signs of slowing down, navigated by boisterous femme powerhouse Tina Halladay, whose raspy howl provoked just the right amount of grit. The band tore through tracks off of their 2017 album, Need to Feel Your Love.

Hardly able to stand on two feet after a weekend of standing, dancing, trekking, and cramped camping, we decided to call it quits and take the pilgrimage back to our pitiful excuse for a campsite, nestling into the comfort of a weekend lived to its utmost potential.

We awoke in a scramble of melting body parts once more, acknowledging the clots of dirt collected in the backs of our throats; endearing souvenirs of the Pendarvis Farm and all of its organic purity. Somewhere between the unique sense of community and the relentless dedication to sustainability and discovery, visitors of Pickathon are instilled with an unforgettable sense of worth and belonging that no other festival has the capacity to deliver. These irreplaceable moments are what bring us back to the farm time after time.  Being no stranger to Pickathon, I had known that its unique intimacy and irreplaceable sense of community was enough to pull me back for yet another year—and I’m not just talking amongst festival attendees; it’s more than likely that you’ll stand at sets of your favorite bands right beside members of your other favorite bands. It’s the sentiment in these warm and fuzzy interactions that carries myself and many other Portlanders through the grueling and relentless winters, awaiting the relief beneath the cloudlike canopies each first weekend of August, and this year was no exception. There most certainly is something in the water on the Pendarvis Farm.

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