While, perhaps, the time for large-scale festivals has come and gone, an alternative does exist, and you can find it just outside of Portland: Pickathon, a four-day festival in early August on the Pendarvis Farm, fifteen KM east of the city, is yet another reason that “PDX” retains its white-knuckled grip on what is cool in the world of festivals and music and well . . . just about everything else, for that matter.
With six very distinctive stages and a lineup which would easily please the most discerning of audiophiles, Pickathon continues to provide alternatives, not only in music, but how to run a festival and actually be environmentally responsible, inclusive, family-friendly and still provide its ticketholders with a darn good party.
It also prides itself on having a cutting-edge line up of breaking artists, and the musicians who choose to play there know that a performance at Pickathon can create a buzz around them which is duly noted by the press and new audiences alike.
Now in its 19th year, the festival has its roots firmly in folk, country, independent and world music, and got its start as a fundraiser for KBOO Community Radio in 1999. Over the years, the festival has managed to grow without the need for large-scale advertising, so your festival experience isn’t marred by beer ads and folks trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. You won’t feel like you’re being a sellout in order to enjoy a weekend of music.
What’s really cool about Pickathon is that you won’t find any special VIP areas there. Everyone has the same access and vantage point and often you will see artists out in the crowd taking in all the great music right by your side. For musicians, Pickathon is a dream. Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts noted of the festival, “No advertisers, no waste, just music. This is what all music festivals should be like.” Others, like Ty Segall, are making their return to the festival over and over again.
The festival and its organizers keep a few key ideas close to their hearts. Concepts like sustainability, keeping things small, and curating a unique selection of musical acts are the foundation that keeps festivalgoers returning. Their commitment to the environment puts other festivals to shame. There are no single use cups at Pickathon. At all. Everyone walks around with metal tumblers hanging off their hips. They have a coin/return system for plates and cutlery, so you can buy a plate for ten bucks, trade it in for a wooden coin after you eat, and a prune fingered staff get to work keeping things clean. The trick is to make sure at the end of the festival to trade in your coin so that you have a plate to take to next year’s festival.
There is ample camping, places to lock up your bike, a shuttle back and forth all day to several nearby hotels, kids under 12 years are free, and there are a variety of activities to keep all the children — which make for almost a quarter of the attendees — occupied all day long.
To keep things small, Pickathon sells no more than 3,500 tickets, which retains that intimate festival setting. The stages aren’t 10 feet tall and there are no barriers at the front, so you can be up close and personal with your favourite bands. Most acts play at least two shows throughout the weekend, so if you miss a band one night, there’s a chance you will see them the next night. This also aids in creating a buzz around the newer artists. Last year’s undiscovered gem, Daniel Norgren, played all three days, each day to an increasing crowd because word spread that his show was incredible.
This year’s line-up included the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires, who is making his rounds at this year’s festivals. Bradley, who played both Thursday and Friday night, was introduced by his hype man and backed up by his band who all swayed in unison and only broke their stoic expressions with giggles when Bradley moved very provocatively towards the front row.
Deer Tick played two excellent shows, one full-on and the other one more grassroots to reflect that they will be releasing two albums — one rock, one acoustic — very soon.
Dinosaur Jr. also played two shows, the first at the wood stage, blowing an amp two songs into their set, which prompted bassist Lou Barlow to dole out ear plugs. The second show, on the main Mt. Hood stage, and also insanely loud, played to a larger crowd who danced like it was ’90s.
Keepin’ things loud and rambunctious, Washington, D.C.’s Priests bounced all over the stage starting the day off right on Saturday. Meatbodies also kept the energy high with their Sabbath-like riffs, much to the crowd’s delight.
On the more mellow side of things were a couple of performances from New Zealand artists sparkled in the Galaxy Barn. Marlon Williams, with Gus Agar on guitar, played a dreamy country set with the young kiwi crooning his sweet songs.
Aldous Harding performed a spellbinding set, accompanied by Invisible Familiars on piano and H. Hawkline on bass. Harding’s songs are full of unexpected twists and turns and left everyone in the barn mesmerized by her trancelike intensity.
Fellow Canadians, Andy Shaaf and Montreal-born Kaia Kater, also played impressive sets. Kater told stories and displayed an in-depth knowledge of her folk/bluegrass background, and Shaaf, a crowd favourite, quietly rallied the crowd amongst the trees.
Israeli sister trio A-WA brought their brand of traditional Yemenite tunes blended with hip hop on Sunday, creating a veritable dance party in the woods. There was a lot of buzz about the girl trio, who coincidently share their last name with the gals in HAIM and who have been touring extensively this summer. Their joyful songs were infectious.
More dance music magic happened with Alex Cameron, one of the performers chosen to close out the Galaxy Barn.
And, to cap off the festival, Ty Segall wailed on the Starlight Stage as kids stage dived and older folks attempted to avoid their flailing limbs.
There is such diversity at Pickathon from year to year, and everyone’s festival experience ends up being so varied and multi layered. If you are planning to go down to Pickathon next year, you can take the first ferry to Port Angeles, which departs at the crack of dawn, and be at the festival grounds by 1:00 pm on the Friday (while still obeying the speed limits). Then, enjoy three spectacular days of music, sun, food, and perhaps still nip into Portland for brekkie on the way home. That’s my plan yet again for next year.