I had an interesting talk about Pickathon with a local promoter who was hanging out at Pendarvis farm on Saturday night. I asked why there was such a market for festivals when the economy has gone to shit. He said, in a nutshell, that festivals like this are replacing trips to the grand canyon or Mount Rushmore. He said that the most valuable music festivals become an annual tradition for concert-goers; that they begin to treat it like an inevitable part of their summer plans. When you've got an audience that dedicated, he said, you're doing something right.
Pickathon has a dedicated following. You overhear it amongst the crowd ("Oh, this is your third? Yeah, I've been going since '99") and you can gauge it from the way crowds respond to a statement like "we'd like to thank the Pendarvis family." In general, people at Pickathon either know the festival like the back of their hand or they're there with someone who does. And so the weekend leaves the impression of a family reunion or a country fair. Even when things go wrong—sets run late, video projectors don't work, sound gets screwy—the audience is patient and well-mannered. They don't just love Pickathon, they trust Pickathon. It's got to be quite a responsibility for the event's organizers, who are trying to expand the fest in ways that don't dilute the experience.
This year's Pickathon still felt right. Except that it was too damn hot. Not much the Pendarvis family can do about that.
Here are our notes from the weekend. My diary is followed by Matthew Singer's Top 5 and a photo slideshow from Natalie Behring (we had technical difficulties with our photographer, so we apologize for only having pro photos from Sunday; hopefully the amateur ones spread throughout the piece give you a feel for what the weekend felt like.
CASEY JARMAN'S ANNOTATED PICKATHON DIARY
My first Pickathon band is the Refugee All-Stars, on the main stage, and the first three rows are already twisting and moving. It's a pretty insane reversal of skin color change when you look from the stage to the crowd. Now that I'm out in the country, and a little high, I start to think about what that means for everyone involved. It's a long road from West Africa. Everyone in the crowd is so happy.
Firemen come through en masse and it seems bad vibes. They point fingers and wave thier hands around and they CB each other. Maybe they don't like the look of the light riggings? I have to say, the lighting rigs are a little scary looking.
Hot 8 has an entire crowd of liberal white NPR folks doing the tomahawk chop and singing "whooooo-ooh-ohhhhh" out at the Woods stage. On one hand, this audience wants to please the musicians. On the other hand, they don't want to offend the Native American sensibility. So they chop very tentatively. A dude in a Pendleton native print t-shirt seems to be in an especially tough spot. The band's closing number sounds like Mingus on Caribbean holiday. There are still some kinks to be worked out at the Woods stage.
Laura Gibson tells an elaborate story in introducing her lullaby. It's actually about a dark thought she had: That maybe "dreaming is practice for death." The crowd seems quietly receptive, if also slightly bummed out by the idea.
The dude from Phosphorescent looks sorta homeless, except for his extremely skinny jeans. His band is ripping through most of Here's to Taking it Easy. That's the album I like best.
Phosphorescent - Rieke Jensen
It's our friend Jim's birthday. Friends have made him cupcakes. Seems like a fire hazard, but the candles are blown out pretty quickly.
Typhoon tries out a lot of new material—mostly about death—that was recorded at the barn next door. The horn section is the tightest I've ever seen them, but they make a conscious decision not to rock all that hard until the end of the set, when Typhoon plays a new song that ends with the repeated line "I will be good though my body be broken." It's a continuing theme for frontman/songwriter Kyle Morton, who is telling his life story in bits throughout Typhoon's releases.
The Oh Sees were pretty amazing, but I walked up to see the Foghorn String Band warming up before the big annual square dance, and these guys rock just as hard. Where earlier there was a stage and a crowd, it's now all geometrical shapes and flying colors drenched in pulsing LED lights. Pickathon is getting real weird.
The square dance forms s few giant circles with "monkeys in th middle," and the dust begins to kick up and the cheers begin to fly. This, for me, is what Pickathon is all about. People who don't know how to square dance doing it anyway, and having a blast.
I've never seen a harp player NOT look totally serious and kind of pissed. The Barr Brothers' harp player fits that MO as the band warms up. The frontman, meanwhile, is down on one knee drenched in white; his drummer makes robot noises on a bicycle wheel. It all looks and sounds like Star Wars for a minute. Barr Wars. When the set gets going, I'm reminded of Taj Majal jamming with Jack White. That has probably happened, hasn't it?
From my casket-shaped (and casket-sized) tent I can hear Los Cojolites playing the Starlight stage. I kick myself for leaving early, but the sun and the booze and the way-too-much-food have taken their toll. Tomorrow.
Half an hour after start time at Woods stage and they're still checking the sound. This has been true of every set we've seen here so far. The adults have been patient, but it's the kids you don't wanna piss off. They haven't had their candy yet.
A wizard from the Cardboard Songsters is casting spells with seemingly random words (mostly ingredients for Italian dishes and wacky phrases like "oatmeal cadillac") in an attempt to get a handful of picture-carrying folks to correctly match up their images. Kids LOVE it when the pictures get arranged wrong, and a flamingo head grows out of a potted plant.
Los Cojolites plays a mutated version of "La Bamba," [see Matt Singer's Top 5] then tells the crowd the names of the instruments and explains that one of the band members crafted a lot of the instruments. It's a nice little music lesson. But while the stringed instruments are cool, it's when the percussion starts up that the band grabs the crowd. It's like a downpour after a thunder clap—something that's only supposed to happen in movies. The band's dancer holds up her white dress, sways and smiles. Kinda Riverdance style.
The Reverend KM Williams tells the crowd that the blues mostly come from women up and leaving men. "It's your fault," a woman from the audience hollers. "I know it is," Williams replies. Then he introduces a song. "This is about my first wife," he says.
Rev KM Williams
The quite hairy Robert Ellis explains he and his band are from Houston, or "the exact polar opposite of Portland." then he plays a song about going home, shouting out individual freeway names.
Overheard from my hammock: "I could touch my brain if I wanted to," a child says. "But I don't think I want to."
A backstage incident involving Ben Meyercord and Michael Kitson of Y La Bamba
Kitty Daisy and Lewis show zero regard for cohesive aesthetics. They start out rockabilly, then invite an energetic old Jamaican dude named Tan Tan onstage to play trumpet for them. When he leaves—in sort of a sad shuffle, because his microphone went off when he wanted to address the crowd with a series of Whoos—the group starts in on a disco/R&B tune. The whole family is onstage and swinging. I think mom, the sultry stand-up bass player, is my favorite but the driven and sometimes possessed-looking Daisy is certainly up there. The set just keeps on going and going! By the end it's a wah pedal jam, and I'm absolutely won over.
I meant to go out to the woods stage to see Neko Case, but Bombino has changed my mind. "It's like African math rock," a friend suggests. He's right. Only a long conversation with a local promoter about Ticketmaster and other corporate bastards can keep me from zoning out to this amazing stuff.
Gordon Gano is making his way though a handful of Violent Femmes covers with the Lost Bayou Ramblers. On the last of them, "Blister in the Sun," he explains that the lyrics don't make any sense. "They're total bullshit," his bandmate confirms. "TOTAL BULLSHIT!" Gano says enthusiastically. This is not at all the man I pictured penning these tortured tunes, but then it has been about 30 years since he wrote it.
I'm sorry Cass McCombs, I'm just kind of bored by this right now. Heading back to the campsite.
Anne is doing Dino Tarot—a spectacle that draws in a lot of attention from festival stragglers—at a clearing near my tent. Her customers are skeptical but willing. She takes the process very seriously. It's fun to watch someone get dead serious with a skeptic.
We're in a circle, passing guitars around and drinking an unidentified brand of whiskey. A dude has wandered in to the circle, and his songs are actually pretty good, but they all reference beat poets and intellectuals from generations past. I wonder where all the heros are. Then I help make up a song about jam bands. It is not very good, but receives many cheers.
Half of our circle is off to investigate the designated Pickathon jam area. I opt for bed. If I was in any condition to drive, I'd drive home for the night, but it's off to the casket, instead.
I'm awoken by an adult telling two children that he's going to eat their faces, then explaining exactly what their faces might taste like. "You taste like donuts with sprinkle sticks," he tells one. "You taste like chocolate cake and frosting," he tells the other. There will be no more sleeping, I realize. My boogers are all black from the dust. My teeth feel like moss. There's a spot in my back that won't straighten out. I have a headache. Just outside my tent, a man who must be 60 years old is still fast asleep on a little cot that's exposed to the elements. Later I see him dutifully rolling his belongings into a travel bag, smiling while he works. I wonder if maybe he lives here year-round.
Little kids are singing Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" from memory, without accompaniment, on the Woods stage. Their voices echo through the forest and into my hung-over ears. The ABCs song gets a rousing applause, as well, which may call all of the weekends' audience ovations into question.
The author in his hammock on Sunday, hung over and sweaty.
I eat a greasy breakfast sandwich and it doesn't help matters at all. I watch Gano do the Femmes' songs again while trying to digest. I watch a new batch of fans freak out when the band plays the opening riff of "Blister in the Sun." The second time around sounds too much like the first. My gut hurts.
I fold up my stuff, leave the bottle of whiskey and the casket tent for the buddy who loaned it to me, then start walking towards the car with a pile of blankets in my arms and a heavy bag on my back. I see some friends on the way out, and they wave goodbye. "I'll probably be back," I tell them, but I don't come back. On the drive home I think a lot about the festival. I spent most of my weekend among people with whom I feel a lot in common, at an event that is radical in a lot of ways—and yet I didn't hear one dangerous statement made from the stage. I wonder why that's so rare. I get home and check the news. While we were out in the woods, some asshole shot up a Sikh Temple. Maybe that's why everyone goes on these weekend-long hiatuses; to forget about shit like this for a while. I want music and politics to mix. I find that thrilling. It doesn't ever seem to happen outside of punk shows. Everyone at Pickathon knows that everyone else at Pickathon is on roughly the same page as them, and I guess the rest can remain unsaid. And anyway, why do I need to hear this stuff from a band? Why don't I just get involved with grassroots politics? A great set—and I saw a few of them this weekend—just doesn't move me the way it used to. I need something more from it. That's a depressing thought.
After a long shower and a nap, I'm still finding dirt everywhere that my skin creases. It's good to be home, but I feel guilty for leaving early. I open the laptop and stream Neko Case's main stage set. She makes jokes about eating babies and being 41 years old. 41 doesn't sound so old to me anymore. Case seems at home at Pickathon. I flip back and forth between the festival and the NASA control center. What an amazing world this is. Goodnight, Pickathon.
MATT SINGER'S TOP FIVE PICKATHON SETS!
Thee Oh Sees (10 pm Friday, Galaxy Barn)
Let’s be honest: Generally speaking, Pickathon is a pretty sleepy little festival. Most years, the annual square-dance led by the Foghorn String Band is the most spirited performance of the weekend. So whenever a band like thee Oh Sees shows up and douses Pendarvis Farm with a blast of true rock’n’roll energy, it can’t help but stand out. Although the prolific San Francisco garage rockers delivered my favorite main stage set of the weekend, 2:30 on a sweltering Saturday afternoon is not the ideal atmosphere to take them in. The night before, however, the group turned the packed Galaxy Barn into a revved-up psychedelic basement party, complete with moshing and crowd surfing. This being Pickathon, it was all good-natured and relatively gentle, but the fact that people started to push each other around at all is a testament to how much thee Oh Sees’ whipped this unsuspecting audience into a frenzy. Spilling out of the barn afterward, the crowd certainly looked a bit dazed. Of course, in my tent later that evening, I overheard two of my campsite neighbors loudly pondering the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ opinions on whippits. So, you know, there could’ve been other reasons for the post-show delirium, but I’m sure the band helped.
Los Cojolites (1 pm Saturday, Woods Stage)
Los Cojolites play son jarocho, the folk music of Veracruz, Mexico. It’s identified by the use of small, African-inspired stringed instruments, soaring vocal harmonies and rhythms pounded out on the box-like cajon. Even if you think you’ve never heard the music before, you have: “La Bamba,” made famous in the ‘50s by Ritchie Valens and again 30 years later by Los Lobos, is a traditional son jarocho song. The band played it, but not to pander to the crowd. It is, simply, a beautiful song in its original form, and the group played it beautifully, against the heavy wilderness of the exceptionally beautiful Woods Stage. Flying a band in from Mexico to play the traditional music of its home region could easily turn into a dull, NPR-style history lesson. While there was an element of education to the group’s set, it mostly let the music speak for itself. And speak it did, with rousing melodies, energetic finger-plucking and a dancer whose nimble stomping served as a percussive accompaniment. It’s a set that almost didn’t happen: The band was detained at the border, and didn’t get to Portland until 1 am the night before. “We thought the weather would be cooler,” said one member through an interpreter, the early afternoon heat bearing down through the trees. “This reminds us of home.”
Lost Bayou Ramblers featuring Gordon Gano (10 pm Saturday, Galaxy Barn)
Before Gordon Gano—whose aggravated nasal whinny gave voice to a generation of sexually frustrated youth with the Violent Femmes—joined the Louisiana-based Ramblers to perform a few Femmes tunes, the band had already turned the Galaxy Barn into a muggy swamp-shack (although, to be fair, the 100 degree heat also had something to do with that), storming through a barn-burning (ahem) set of accordion-charged Cajun punk tunes. But when Gano—now 40-ish, dressed white shorts, an unbuttoned white shirt and tank-top, looking like everyone’s impish uncle—stepped up to the microphone, violin in hand, and began the a capella intro to “Add It Up,” well, that’s when things got really exciting. Sure, the Femmes only put out one great album in their lifetime, but the songs on that album are great enough that seeing them played in such an intimate setting made for a surprising treat. Capping the performance with zyde-punk interpretations of “American Music,” “Country Death Song,” “Add It Up” and, of course, “Blister in the Sun,” what started as one of the more innocuous sets of the weekend ended as a rapturous sing-along. Sometimes, a little nostalgia goes a long way.
Bombino (11:30 am Sunday, Galaxy Barn)
Like fellow Tuareg rockers Tinariwen, Bombino—that’s the name of the Niger-based band and its leader, guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar—has a great origin story, involving government oppression, political uprisings and flights into exile. If the music didn’t hold up, though, the story would only matter to a documentarian. Fortunately, Moctar’s crisp, spidery guitar work and his band’s entrancing, circular rhythms were captivating enough, outside the context of how lucky most of were just to hear Bombino at all.
The War on Drugs (1:30 pm Sunday, Mt. View Stage)
The difficulty with Pickathon, as with most outdoor festivals, is putting the right bands in the right spots at the right times. Even if it hadn’t been oppressively hot, seeing Philadelphia’s spacey, swirly, shoegaze-y Americana enthusiasts (and former Kurt Vile backing band) the War on Drugs out in the sunshine would’ve seemed weird. Its hazy kraut-folk—suggestive of a long night drive down Highway 61 rather than the German autobahn—would’ve worked best under the stars of Happy Valley. As it was, though, the band managed to mesmerize—even though, by the time of its main stage set, I was dirty, exhausted and practically sunstroked. It made a lovely soundtrack for my walk to the car.