Another Pickathon is in the books, and like most music festivals, it takes a few days to recover from. Unlike most music festivals, the exhaustion always feels worth it. Although this year’s installment may have priced out a few regulars—blame the inflated rates at least partially on Feist, perhaps the biggest-name headliner the fest has scored yet, but the crowds certainly seemed a bit thinner than in recent years—it was among the best, and certainly most eclectic, in its 15-year run.
But what about it was the best, specifically? Well, let me tell you!
BEST DRESSED: The Relatives
Sure, the Galaxy Barn gets as hot as a chicken doing squat thrusts in a dog sauna (that’s got to be a Southern colloquialism, right?), but who was gonna tell these hard-funk gospel singers it wasn’t a good idea to wear matching lilac and gold suits in that kind of environment? Best to just let ‘em sweat it out. And that they did, perspiring like Jeff Cogen in church while testifying like preachers at the pulpit—not coincidentally, founders Gene and Tommie West are reverends who preside over their own congregation back home in Dallas—over the wah-wah psyche-pyrotechnics of their comparatively dorky-looking backing band. They even performed a miracle: inspiring an entire room full of white people to get low and sway more or less in rhythm.
An honorable mention in this category, though, goes to King Tuff, whose party-starting garage-pop followed the Relatives in the barn Friday night, and whose helium-voiced namesake (the government calls him Kyle Thomas) took the stage in a black cut-off vest bedazzled with punk flair and a red-billed blue hat proclaiming “ICE CREAM” in white block letters, an outfit he wore (and likely slept in) the rest of the weekend.
BEST REJECTION: The couple that ditched us at the main stage square dance
Apparently, the inability to follow simple instructions and not constantly trip over your own feet while communing with strangers is frowned upon in the square-dancing community.
BEST PORTLAND ENVY: Yellowbirds
These Brooklynites tried hard to mask their Yankee origins by forming a wall of flannel at the front of the Galaxy Barn stage while playing floaty, Southern-rock accented folk-pop, anchored by impressive, textured dual guitar work that occasionally roared into Crazy Horse territory. But then frontman Sam Cohen admitted to living in Greenpoint, introducing his song “Pulaski Bridge” by identifying its inspiration in the monstrosity within spitting distance from his home, lamenting the polluted waterway it crosses, and commenting that we probably don’t know what it’s like to live surrounded by such eyesores. Well, I don’t know, man: Has anyone shown you those new sculptures in Old Town?
BEST COMMERCIAL PITCHMAN: Dale Watson
If Dale Watson wasn’t the best artist at this year’s Pickathon—and he damn well may have been—he was, by several hundred miles, the coolest. I missed his Sunday afternoon set at the Woods Stage, but just seeing him wandering around afterward, his cotton-white pompadour offset by caterpillar-dark eyebrows and a suave black suit, was entertainment enough. And this is his tour bus, for crying out loud, which he’s rumored to drive himself. (Don’t even get me started on his brown leather guitar strap.) How a throwback honky-tonk outlaw, who spends most weekends in a tiny Austin saloon as the house artist for Chicken Shit Bingo—a game much more literal than it might seem—can afford something so opulent is unknown, though it’s possible he’s getting kickbacks from Lone Star Beer. At his raucous Galaxy Barn show on Saturday, he paused between classic country singalongs like “Jonesing for Jones” (a tribute to the recently deceased George Jones) and “I Lie When I Drink” (the chorus goes, “I lie when I drink/And I drink a lot”), his band would break into a faux-bossa-nova swing, while Watson flashed a pearly grin, extolling the virtues of Texas’ state beer (didja know dehydration > hydration? Put that Dasani down!) and swigging from a bottle. Considering there’s no place in Portland I know of to buy Lone Star, I’m convinced half the real estate in that giant vehicle of his is filled with six-packs.
BEST “THE SWEDE”: Shakey Graves
Let it be known, I don’t totally buy the hype surrounding Alejandro Rose-Garcia, an Austinite whose solo-guitar stompin’-n-emotin’ features energetic acoustic finger-picking and juuuuuust enough grit to separate him from the current emo-folk crop. Nevertheless, he drew an overstuffed crowd to the tiny Café Stage, just near the main parking lot entrance, and I gotta figure it’s because he looks like he stepped out of some on-the-range-themed Abercrombie catalog. But he was on a few episodes of maybe my favorite network TV drama ever, Friday Night Lights, as the "older man" referred to as “the Swede,” the hunk who temporarily broke up Julie Taylor and Matt Seracen in the beginning of Season 2, so he gets a bit of a pass from me. Wait a minute, what am I saying? He broke up Julie and Matt! Now that I think about it, fuck this dude even more.
BEST REACTION TO SOUND PROBLEMS: Shabazz Palaces
By the time I made it down from my campsite to catch Pickathon’s single hip-hop act, things appeared to have gotten a bit contentious between the Galaxy Barn engineer and rapper Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, who demanded levels of low-end the sound system just wasn’t equipped to give them. (By all accounts, Sharon Van Etten handled her own technical issues while playing the Woods Stage with greater aplomb.) At one point, Butler sort of threw up his hands, and introduced another song by saying it would sound “like listening to a cassette in a 1989 Toyota Corolla with a speaker blown out.” I think this was supposed to be a dig, but isn’t that basically the aesthetic chillwave was aiming for?
BEST ROCK STARS: Divine Fits
In the past few years, as the festival has broadened its scope, the idea of which artists do and do not fit in at Pickathon has been completely obliterated, to the point that you wouldn’t be surprised to see almost anyone show up on the lineup. That said, Divine Fits did not fit in at Pickathon. Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner don’t look like they’ve ever seen a bale of hay in their life, let alone sat on one. These dudes are rock stars—OK, indie rock stars, but there’s no difference these days. Mind you: This not a bad thing. In fact, it turned out to be an awesome thing. On last year’s A Thing Called Divine Fits, the band sounded less like a blending of super-egos than two guys unloading songs leftover from their other projects—that’s Spoon and Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs, for the uninitiated—but live, the group found a swaggering, propulsive middle ground between the spare, . Its Saturday headlining gig found Boeckner looking fabulously trashed, cool and slightly sickly like prime Mick Jones, assaulting his guitar and tossing his around his devil-lock, while Daniel, on bass, looked a bit bemused that his return to his onetime hometown with his new project was happening here, on a damn farm, with hippies and their hippie children hula-hooping in the dark at the back of the field. No one, sans Feist, belonged on the main stage more.
BEST OLD SOULS: Cactus Blossoms
This Minneapolis outfit, led by brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey, plays almost preternaturally authentic midcentury Western swing. Framed by the duo’s high-lonesome harmonies and augmented by standup bass and lap-steel, the music is well-studied without being pedantic. From that description, you might expect to see two grizzled old timers out front—perhaps some old Bob Wills sidemen or something—but Burkum and Torrey are babyfaced youngsters, the oldest of which couldn’t be much more than 32. In a live interview conducted inside the humid Workshop Barn, Torrey, the younger-looking Cactus and chief songwriter, proved to possess a bit of old-timey prickliness (get it?!?!) as well. Not that he was a jerk or anything, just a bit short, as if he felt uncomfortable answering questions about his music. Explaining how he came up with the tune “Stoplight Kisses”: “Well, I was at a stoplight…” That’s the end of the story. When asked if they draw inspiration from country’s many other brotherly tandems, his response was basically, “Duh.” That didn’t keep a smitten lady in the front row from asking for his sign, nor did make the group’s note-perfect performances—including a “new song” that sounded at least 70 years old—any less sweet.
BEST ADAPTION TO THE LIGHT: Kurt Vile & the Violators
The Philly guitar prodigy’s cosmically stoned psych-folk proved to be so perfectly suited for the Starlight Stage—hosting only two or three artists per evening and situated just down from the main stages, it welcomes stargazing, which helped, since Vile’s hair-in-face ax-slaying doesn’t exactly grab eyeballs along with ears—that I worried about how it would play on the main stage in the cruel sunlight, especially in the 90-degree heat that beamed down on Sunday. But his pre-sundown set was just as magically drifty, and as it turns out, watching the dude rule his instrument is a mesmeric joy—even with his face obscured behind a brunette curtain.
BEST SECOND CHANCE: Parquet Courts
To clarify, the “second chance” was all mine. While I predicted the twitchy New York post-punk act’s 1 am set at the Galaxy Barn would rule the weekend—and maybe surpass Thee Oh Sees revelatory revel-raising in the same setting last year—well, y’know, things happen at Pickathon, and certain things are consumed, and yeah…pretty much all I remember clearly from that point of the night was a lot of hollering from singer-guitarist Andrew Savage to start, on what I think was a gassed-up new song. So it was with extra anticipation that I approached their last-day set over at the main stage. Of course, it couldn’t beat seeing them fully conscious in the barn’s intimate confines. But this is one of the best new bands in America, and they proceeded to scorch the entirety of Pendarvis Farm, even if the fully engaged audience gathered up front maxed out at about 100. They were both tight and groovy (the elliptical, krautrocking “Stoned and Starving” was downright hypnotizing) and sloppily imperfect (redefining the term “false finish,” the band seemed to forget when “Borrowed Time” was actually supposed to end, stopping, apologizing, then awkwardly restarting), but never less than exhilarating. Fred Armisen, leaning against a speaker at the side of the stage, seemed to dig ‘em, too.
BEST REACTION: King Tuff watching Feist
Still wearing the “ICE CREAM” hat and street-punk vest combo (and still resembling an extra-dirtbaggy Charlie Day after a couple years’ hard-livin’), King Tuff, standing among the throng of backstage-passholes assembled at the side of the main stage to watch the festival headliner, stared up at the Canadian singer’s three LED columns with a look of either total bewilderment or that said, “Where can I get one of those?” For the record, despite the relatively massive rig she hauled with her, Feist herself was plenty charming and, as on her James Blake’d cover of her own song, “Limit To Your Love,” intermittently chilling. Both Tuff and I left halfway through to catch Ty Segall in the barn, but she shouldn’t take that as an insult.
BEST MTV UNPLUGGED AUDITION: Ty Segall
A day earlier, the garage-rock busybody and his band played a seated acoustic set in the Woods on Saturday, which seemed simply like a nod to the surroundings. Apparently, though, this is, like, a thing with him now. He performed in the same unplugged format at the Galaxy Barn, and like Nirvana long before him, played almost all new songs (because this fucking guy always has new songs to play), plus some covers, including Love’s “Live and Let Live.” It wasn’t exactly a placid affair, though, as Segall managed to whip up a furious racket regardless, even busting out the early Black Flag blast “I’ve Had It” and possibly inventing a whole other genre to explore on one of the 87 albums he’s sure to release before the year’s up: coffee shop hardcore.
BEST SIGN: The one reading “Your Pleasure Is Are Motto,” hanging inside the Galaxy Barn
This our awesome festival, don’t it?