For a 20 years now a little group of music fans have been carving out a niche on the small Pendarvis Farm just outside Portland, Oregon in, perhaps fittingly, a town called Happy Valley. Pickathon is now the model of what a truly independent festival can be, and as massive corporate-backed fests bite the dust, it’s now clear that those music fans on Pendarvis Farm have been ahead of the curve all this time. With a capped audience, a devotion to sustainability, plenty of quality food vendors, and perfect weather all around, the 20th year of Pickathon on August 3-5 was once again a quintessential festival experience. Of course, the music was the center of it all and there was no shortage of talented acts big and small to catch. These are the acts that blew this writer away – sometimes twice – at Pickathon 20:
Shovels & Rope
One of the first acts of the day to get the party started was Charleston, South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope. With their stripped down setup, Michael Trent and Carry Ann Hearst started their set by serenading the crowd with their downhome blend of country, garage rock, and gritty blues and soul. Though they have developed a large and loyal following over the years, they appeared humble as they switched roles of drummer and guitarist while Michael Trent treated the crowd to more tender moments on a piano song. The set included songs off their 2017 release Busted Jukebox Vol. 2 alongside longtime fan favorites like the pounding rocker “I Know” and the catchy folk-Americana tune “Birmingham”, all served up right and raw.
During his headlining set on Saturday night, Shakey Graves commented on the amount of acts from Austin, Texas on the bill, half-jokingly saying that there were more than the Austin City Limits lineup. This was a theme throughout the weekend, and no band encapsulated the Austin delegation better than Glorietta, who also played one of the best sets of the festival on Friday night. This wasn’t exactly a surprise considering that, for lack of a better word, the supergroup features a cast of Austin heavy-hitters including Delta Spirit’s Matthew Logan Vazquez, David Ramirez, Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson, and Adrian Quesada among others. Their set in the Woods made it clear that Glorietta is first and foremost a party and then a kickass rock and roll band. Loosely based on the concept of drunk and hungover, the band jumped from cranked up 70s style rock with songs like the loose and jammy hoot “Heatstroke” and groove psych tune “Mindy” to singer-songwriter Americana with “Friends” and “Golden Lonesome”. Adrian Quesada laid down some positively gorgeous guitar solos balanced out by Noah Gundersen, who also charmed with his own songs. Ultimately, Glorietta brought to mind the laid back party town that Austin used to be and it will be exciting to see where they take it with the release of a new album and tour on the way. With the crowd getting in on the party and feeling the love, they closed their set with a joyously sloppy singalong cover of Garth Brooks’ “Friends In Low Places”.
Low Cut Connie
Playing to a packed-to-the-rafters Galaxy Barn, Philly’s Low Cut Connie would give the people of Pickathon the first of two rock and roll parties. Frontman Adam Weiner delivered nonstop theatrics as he berated his piano, banging away on songs like “Shake It Little Tina”, “Rio”, “Beverley”, “Suzanne”, and a triumphant chant-a-long rendition of Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child”. All of this was done with the kind of rock and roll boogie woogie sleaze that is all too hard to come by these days. In a contrast to their old school approach to the music, the band proved that the real magic is in their ability to create an inclusive, welcoming environment during their sets where people can dance without a care in the world, each saving their own little party. This went over well in the positivity-soaked Pickathon. The good vibes would culminate with a feisty cover of Prince’s “Controversy” that ended with Weiner walking through the crowd and giving sweaty hugs to just about everyone while the band unleashed a torrent of blissfully funky grooves from the stage. The Connie crew would return for the first main stage set of the day on Saturday and give the people a jolt of the good stuff. This time Weiner was even more fired up, coming across like a disciple of Jerry Lee Lewis and a revival tent preacher as he greeted babies (literally, babies) and danced atop his piano. There were even more special moments to be had as the band charged through an explosive cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Girl Now” and singer Saundra Williams taking on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel beauty “Didn’t It Rain, Children” for one of the high points of the weekend.
Michael Nau celebrated the release of his new album on Friday night with a mellow set for the late night crowd. Playing mostly songs off Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread, Nau and his band soothed and grooved with songs that felt carefree and dreamy. The new material would go over even better on Sunday afternoon as the band dipped into Grateful Dead-esque guitar jams and laid back psych-folk that felt made for laying on a blanket on a sunny day.
Last year Swedish artist Daniel Norgren made a major splash at Pickathon and was invited back yet again. For his set at the Woods Stage on Saturday, it was clear from the packed turnout that many of those who had caught his set last year had came back and brought their friends. Norgren began by playing piano alone. The audience was enraptured as he opened his moth and let his gritty and haunting voice carry through the trees. One by one his band mates slowly drifted onstage and joined in. Soon Norgren picked up guitar and let himself glide through bluesy jams that at times brought to mind the more mellow work of Neil Young with Crazy Horse. Norgren’s lyrics are simple and direct, at times almost meditative, and he complemented them with a sprawling 15-minute jam. His set was made up of peaks and valleys, with the unassuming Swede conjuring gothic folk that was at times momentous and other times trance-like, but always haunting and lonely. By the time he wrapped up there was a sense of collective goosebumps in the air as a result of the power and stark beauty of his performance.
Deep fried Texas soul served on a heaping platter of goodness was exactly what Kevin Russell and company served up for their late night set on Saturday. Shinyribs have been just about the hottest band in Texas for the last few years but they don’t tour outside of their home state too much, and at Pickathon it seemed like the crowd didn’t know what hit them. Dressed in a getup of purple and green like the long lost brother of Jim Carrey in The Mask (picture above is from their Friday set), Russell brought the people to church with his silky smooth and soulful vocals and one of a kind dance moves. Eventually the crowd was dancing along to darkly humorous tunes like “Baby What’s Wrong With You”, “East Texas Rust”, and the ode to root vegetables “Sweet Potato”. Throwing funk, soul, and swamp pop into the pot meant that few could resist dancing. With the help of his background singers and horn players, Russell even busted into a cover of 90s R&B song “No Diggity” and shredded his guitar while wearing a gold cape lit up by LED lights.
The War and Treaty
Every so often you wander into a set with zero expectations. Such was the case when this writer decided to check out The War and Treaty only to be blindsided by a lively congregation of Southern gospel meets rowdy blues rock. The band roused the crowd with a spirited collection of songs, veering from energetic soul to jazzy guitar and trumpet. Comprised of not one but two massively talented vocalists in Michael Trotter Jr and Tanya Blount-Trotter, the band hit their peak with a soaring take on “When the Saints Go Marking In”, only to follow by getting the whole audience joining in on their heatwarming song “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow”, sending chills through the audience.
Yet another Austin band to hit the fest were Black Pumas, who only formed in January of this year but have already been getting plenty of attention in their hometown. Kicking off appropriately at 4:20PM, the Pumas jumped from laid back soul to ferocious, danceable funk. Singer Eric Burton wasn’t short on charisma, dancing like a wild man across the stage and into the audience while never missing a verse. Having Adrian Quesada on guitar and Stephen Bidwell on drums – not to mention PR Newman on keys – meant that the beat was never dropped for a second, and the band as a whole pulsated with energy. With Quesada at the instrumental helm, the band has a deep retro funk sound that feels like revolutionary music of the 70s. He wasted no time slaying vicious guitar solos and giving those in attendance a face-melting experience on a heady Sunday afternoon.
With so much good music it would be hard to write about just eight acts. Other highlights of the weekend included Phosphorescent, Kikagaku Moyo, Sheer Mag, Broken Social Scene, The Weather Station, Valley Queen, and the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
All photos by Brandon Easley.