In a way, Pickathon is the antithesis of the Bonnaroos and Coachellas of the world. The intimate festival takes place on a farm just outside of Portland, Oregon and plays host to a lineup that looks more like it was chosen by someone at NPR than by a team of corporate marketers. There are no sponsor banners adorning the stages and the beer and food are all local. Not only that, but to a casual or even slightly savvy music fan, the lineup rarely grabs you with big name headliners.
The high price of admission – steep by anyone’s standards – is due in part to the intimacy and the deep attention to all of the details. Within those details you find a devotion to curating a lineup that often consists of the best acts making music at the moment. The beauty of the festival is that many attendees don’t know even a fraction of the acts on the bill (although many do know them), but they trust the promoters to be tastemakers and present quality music throughout the weekend. That kind of trust is only earned when you are able to win people over with the experience as a whole, and Pickathon is as much about experience as it is the music.
Despite abnormally high tempatures, smoke from nearby wildfires making the sky hazy, and plenty of dust to kick up, the 19th edition of the festival went off without a hitch August 3-4. It was rare to walk by someone who wasn’t smiling all weekend, and each of these acts definitely contributed to that…
Friday, August 4th:
Dezarie – The Woods Stage
Given the triple digit tempartures on Friday, it was no surprise that plenty of festival-goers sought out shade at the Woods Stage. Walking down the path, it was hard not to be pulled in by the angelic voice of Dezarie and the laid back grooves being thrown down by her band. Hailing from St. Croix, the singer transcended traditional reggae with a voice that washed over the audience like a cool ocean wave. Dezarie’s set was a perfect way to ease into the rest of the day and was a reminder of the eclectic acts that pop up all over the Pickathon lineup.
Billy Strings – Mt. Hood Stage
The name Pickathon suggests that it is a bluegrass festival, but for the most part that is untrue with few exceptions. Billy Strings is one of those exceptions and with his set on the Mt. Hood Stage Friday afternoon he and his talented band put the pick in Pickathon. Strings brings a rock star bravado to playing the acoustic, and his ability to jam as well as sing and write good songs brings to mind peers like Greensky Bluegrass. Cover tunes like “Me and My Uncle” – which appeased the Deadheads in the crowd – alongside originals like “Wanted and Unwanted Love”, “Dust In a Baggie”, and “Turmoil and Tinfoil” exploded with energy and precision. By the end of his set it was clear that Billy Strings and his band may be the next big thing in bluegrass.
Sweet Sprit – Galaxy Barn
One of the most impressive sets on Friday came from Austin band Sweet Spirit. Fronted by the human firecracker that is Sabrina Ellis, the group laid waste to the Galaxy Barn by turning it into a frenzy that was equal parts dance party and equal parts onlookers shocked at just how much energy the singer and band were unleashing. Their songs were loaded with 70’s pop-rock goodness while still managing to feel manic and reckless in a garage rock kind of way.
Deer Tick – Mt. Hood Stage
It’s been a hot minute since Rhode Island rockers Deer Tick released an album, but with a double LP on the way the band hit the stage ready to show off some new material. These days the band and especially its frontman John McCauley have toned things down, mostly by donning bowties and switching to Coors Light, but their electric set was still a proper dose of folky Replacements-esque rock and roll. New songs like “Jumpstarting” were light and bouncy while the band tapped into their rowdier side with a blistering cover of Jimmy Lloyd’s “I Got a Rocket In My Pocket”. Other songs like “These Old Shoes” and “Funny Word” kept longtime fans happy.
Charles Bradley – Woods Stage
Nearly 70 and having recently beat stomach cancer, the Screaming Eagle of Soul came to the Woods Stage ready to blow minds on Friday night. Along with his band the Extraordinaires, Bradley laid down a smoking set of funky soul tunes. The forest became a full on dance party as the band threw down thick grooves and Bradley put every ounce of love he had into each song. At one point he even left the stage only to return in a glittering green jumpsuit, much to the approval of everyone who could see.
Alex Cameron – Starlight Stage
Like a cross between David Bowie and Flight of the Conchords, Aussie singer Alex Cameron took the Starlight Stage by storm during his late night set on Friday. Accompanied by his stoic saxophone player Roy Molloy and a guitarist, the lanky singer showed off his delightfully oddball dance moves while crooning about stranger subjects like failure and animals. Between guitar, sax and synthy groove, Cameron and his bandmates kept it minimal in every way. Even though their songs aren’t exactly fast, their set proved to be one of the best late night dance parties of the weekend.
Saturday, August 5th:
Kelsey Waldon – Mt. Hood Stage
The rising Nashville singer-songwriter captured the attention of the late afternoon crowd on the Mt. Hood Stage with her set of tunes that felt like a hybrid of outlaw meets softer folk. Her set included plenty of material off her latest album I’ve Got a Way, but one of the best moments came when she nailed a cover of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready For The Country” with enough attitude to make Waylon Jennings smile.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Mt. Hood Stage
There’s nothing like a bit of soul to ease you into the day and help you reflect on the day you had. If you consider that the members of MC Taylor’s band aka Hiss Golden Messenger include Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun and the occasional pop-in of Andrew Marlin from Mandolin Orange, this is basically an all-star group done North Carolina style. Their set delved into songs off Heart Like a Levee, Lateness of Dancers and the upcoming album Hallelujah Anyhow. Each song felt earthy and soulful, with Taylor’s vocals and lyrics falling into a sort of Southern gothic meets folky Americana style.
Drive-By Truckers – Mt. Hood Stage
These guys were never supposed to be a political band, but they have become the best political band around in the last year with the release of their album American Band and their headlining set on Saturday was a welcome dose of Fuck You to the current turmoil we find ourselves in. Plus, if you were in the front row you saw the kids digging it! As always, the members of the Truckers played their literate Southern rock with love; love for one another and a love for rock and roll. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley swapped songs, balancing out newer tunes like “Ramon Casiano” and “Ever South” with old favorites like “Gravity’s Gone” and “Puttin’ People on the Moon”. At the end of their set it felt like they were just getting started, but luckily they would return to the Woods Stage for another set the next night.
Dungen – Starlight Stage
What happens when a Swedish band plays a live score of a 20’s silent animated film in front of a bunch of tripped out people late at night? Beautiful, beautiful things. Dungen’s live score of Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 animated masterpiece The Adventures of Achmed was simply brilliant as they band succeeded in capturing the mood and strangeness of the film. Their interpretation was both psychedelic and majestic, and nearly everyone in the crowd watched it in silence with their jaws on the ground.
Ty Segall – Starlight Stage
Blistering rock and roll was the one thing Ty came to make at Pickathon. There was no bullshit here, just a bunch of tuned up cats going completely apeshit on their instruments and enjoying the hell out of it. The cluster of musicians wailing away onstage looked more like a rowdy jam party than a band performing, and the loose spirit of it all made the rock and roll sound even better. The set culminated with a monster cover of Devo’s classic art punk tune “Gut Feeling”, done all sleazy and wild by Ty and the boys.
Huun Huur Tu – Starlight Stage
Some acts are unexpectedly perfect for the late night crowd. These throat singers from a mountainous region of Serbia blew the collective mind of the audience with their hypnotic, trance-inducing style of singing. Their Tuvan folk was simultaneously universal and otherworldly, and their stories between songs proved to be an enlightening window into their musical journey.
Sunday, August 6th:
Brent Cobb – Woods Stage
The Georgia boys seemed right at home underneath the trees with a set that seemed to bridge cosmic country, 70’s folk and Southern rock. Cobb and his band kept it twangy and let their harmonies soar. Cobb’s songs about working in coal mines and living that laid back country life were refreshingly devoid of red party cups, swinging dick trucks, tight pants, and blond bimbos. Instead, songs like “Down Home” made you want to saddle up to a plate of biscuits and gravy. Cobb reminded the audience the joy of simple living on a sunny day.
Steve Gunn – Mt. Hood Stage
Steve Gunn’s lyrical dwellings on nature and intricate guitar style naturally lend themselves to more a mellow style of rock, and their music was conducive to the serene setting of the fesitval. Gunn led the band through songs like the rambling “Conditions Wild”, “Ancient Jules”, and the intricately picked “Park Bench Smile”. Each song seemed to carry its own pulse as the band let the jams unfold on their own, always grooving in a forward direction as if traveling along a sparse back road. Gunn’s vocals on songs like “Wildwood” and “Way Out Weather” had a calming effect that made listeners in the audience feel more like floating than soaring.
A-Wa – Woods Stage
While this writer wasn’t necessarily blown away by A-Wa, their set at the Woods Stage whipped the crowd into a dance frenzy. The three sisters Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim and their band fuse Yemenite folk music with hip-hop and dance music, making for a surprisingly catchy sound that is completely in a league of its own. It was easy to see the sheer amount of energy they brought to the stage and how they got the crowd excited.
Dinosaur Jr. – Mt. Hood Stage
It’s hard to believe J Mascis has any hearing left after seeing the stack of amps he surrounded himself with onstage at Pickathon. Dinosaur Jr.’s Sunday night main stage closer was loud to say the least. This was definitely not a bad thing as many in the audience probably needed a proper jolt after a weekend of music. Sipping from a trio of Gatorade, iced tea and cold brew coffee, Mascis led the band through a set that balanced out song off their new album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not alongside fan favorites like “In a Jar”, “Feel the Pain”, and “Raisans”. For seemingly every song, Mascis was handed an even prettier guitar than the last one he played, making it pleasing to see what new sounds he would produces from his mountain of Marshalls.
Photos by Brandon Easley.