“There are a lot of music festivals,” said Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts early into his band’s set amongst the trees of Pendarvis Farm, “but there’s only one Pickathon.” The slacker affect of his voice may have muddled his sincerity, but there’s no arguing against the truth of that statement. Pickathon is truly one of a kind—to the point that it probably doesn’t even deserve to be called a “festival.” It’s small. It’s clean. There are, as of yet, no corporate sponsors. You sleep in the woods. It’s really not a festival. It’s the greatest sleepaway camp ever. And I’d say that even if my media pass didn’t get me free beer all weekend...though it doesn’t hurt.
Undoubtedly, this was a tipping point year for Pickathon, which takes place on a property in Happy Valley, 20 minutes outside Portland. Over the last few years, its “hippie” stigma has faded, as its bookings have expanded beyond the Americana umbrella to include garage rock, synth-pop, hip-hop and whatever else, with the exception of extreme metal (so far, anyway). That’s perhaps a bummer for the hula-hooping, face-painting regulars. But after what, by my eyes, seemed like a lull in attendance in 2013, this was the most crowded I’ve seen the farm in the four years I’ve attended, which no doubt had to do with the festival’s “hippest” lineup ever. Practically everyone I ran into said this was their first time there. Musicians who weren’t even scheduled to play—Ty Segall, King Tuff and, allegedly, Japandroids—came just to hang out. The New York Times was there. For the first time, Pickathon seemed like a big deal.
And yet, it didn’t feel like a big deal. It still felt like summer camp, albeit it one with late-night mosh pits, feral children busking along dusty trails, and some of the best bands currently touring playing in barns, sheds and a stage the Times’ Jon Caramanica described as “Carcosa.” Here are our highlights of an awesome weekend.
BEST UNRELEASED SONG TITLE (OF ALL TIME?): Destroyer’s “The Light Travels Down the Catwalk”
About halfway through his first set on Friday at the Woods stage, Dan Bejar of Destroyer pushed his mess of curly hair out of his eyes and told us he was going to play an unreleased song called “The Light Travels Down the Catwalk.” He then mentioned that it “was about the devil” and apologized for playing so many downer songs during the afternoon. This is noticeable for two reasons: 1) Bejar is usually pretty aloof onstage, rarely doing much besides leaning over to take a sip of beer/wine/whiskey and 2) HOLY SHIT THAT MIGHT BE THE GREATEST DESTROYER SONG TITLE EVER OR, AT THE VERY LEAST, THE MOST APPROPRIATE. Bejar played two solo sets on Friday afternoon, and each was a perfect mix of new classics (“Savage Night at the Opera” forever) and old favorites, including stunning renditions of “Virgin With a Memory,” rarely played Mannheimer mixtape staple “To the Heart of the Sun on the Back of a Vulture, I’ll Go” and New Pornographer’s sing along jam “Streets of Fire.” Bejar spent the rest of the weekend roaming backstage with his family, eating ice cream and looking dapper in khaki shorts. My Pickathon weekend was made before the sun even went down on Friday, and the rest was just dessert. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
BEST REASON TO BELIEVE IN CLASSIC ROCK: The War on Drugs
Philadelphia classic rock revisionists the War on Drugs often get compared to soft-rock touchstones like Don Henley, but the band did everything it could to dispel the notion that it’s just another #dadrock band during a blazing Friday night set in the Woods. They were loud. They were likely a little drunk. They didn’t pull any punches. It’s clear the War on Drugs are a group meant to be experienced live, when the motorik grooves and thick layers of keyboard and guitar fuzz combine to make you think you’re listening to Can performing a cover of a long lost Springsteen b-side. I’ll admit that I’m still not their biggest disciple—though I like this year’s Lost in the Dream, I hardly think it’s the Album of the Year or anything. Yet these guys quickly turned me from a casual fan to a believer just a few minutes into “Come to the City.” Three days later, and I still have the wordless chant at the end stuck in my head. (MM)
BEST UNIFIER: Foxygen
Last year, Foxygen frontman Sam France broke his leg just before the band was scheduled to play Pickathon. Naturally, they canceled. In between then and their, um, “triumphant” return, Foxygen evolved from an ironic psych band to an almost satirical soul band, with France playing the role of a sort of coked-up Mick Jagger. It wasn’t a good look, and local music journos took note. All of them:
Foxygen are not very good at their job, I'm afraid. #pickathon2014— End Hits (@endhits) August 2, 2014
If Foxygen was a Steppenwolf tribute band, I think they'd actually be better #pickathon2014— David Greenwald (@davidegreenwald) August 2, 2014
So no, Foxygen wasn’t good (and the Pickathon Gods apparently agreed: The band reportedly suffered serious sound problems during its main stage set Sunday). But they did unite the local media, so that’s worth something.
What I'm trying to say is Foxygen fucking sucks. #pickathon— Matthew Singer (@mpsinger) August 2, 2014
"We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Foxygen" - WWeek, Mercury, Oregonian #pickathon2014— Jason Cohen (@cohenesque) August 2, 2014
BEST MOSH PIT: Diarrhea Planet
Parquet Courts won this category handily at Sasquatch, and nearly took it again by delivering the rowdiest Wood Stage show I’ve seen. But while the Courts are, in my opinion, one of the finest rock bands in the country right now, they unfortunately do not have a song called “Ghost With a Boner.” Y’know who does? Diarrhea Planet, a band that perhaps resembles your own high-school garage band, if you had stayed together, added three guitars and let your little brother pick the name. Soundchecking with Third Eye Blind and Thin Lizzy riffs and entering to the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius,” a.k.a. the Chicago Bulls Theme Song, the Nashville power-punkers took the stage at the Galaxy Barn at 1 am and roared straight into the pantheon of classic late-night Pickathon performances, up there with Thee Oh Sees in 2012. It’s hard to pick out specific moments from the whirlwind of solos and sing-along choruses and faux butt-rock riffage and people cheerfully pushing and piling atop one another and swinging from the shack’s wooden cross-beam, though I do recall they introduced a new song, called “Spooners,” which guitarist Jordan Smith said was about Tinder. “I encourage everyone to download the app,” he said. “Let’s turn this place into the Olympic Village!” (MS)
BEST FOOD TO EAT WHILE WATCHING JONATHAN RICHMAN ON THE MAIN STAGE: Boke Bowl’s fried chicken steam buns
I doubt there’s a better way to start your day than eating fried chicken while listening to Jonathan Richman sing about visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Richman brought his usual brand of quirky energy, strumming a nylon string guitar and mixing in solo songs with a few Modern Lovers classics. He also inspired a drunk dude waiting in front of us for a beer to complain about the dude “singing about sustainability and stuff,” which, lolz. (MM)
BEST PDX MUSIC MOMENT: Ural Thomas getting down to Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like ol’ Ural was out there by the main stage, spinning around and doing the splits as UMO dropped its funky psych-rock on Saturday afternoon, but the Portland-grown soulman was definitely feeling it, bobbing his head and flashing the same wide smile as onstage in the humid Galaxy Barn earlier that morning. It was a small but encouraging acknowledgement, from one generation of Portland music to the next. And when the band busted out the soulful shuffle of “How Can You Love Me” a moment later, it was hard to imagine some kind of collaboration not working out. (MS)
BEST X THAT ISN’T X: Those Darlins
If I didn’t know any better, I’d assumed Those Darlins were formed specifically for this festival, as an homage to headliners X. The band played a spirited and well-received set among wood pallets surrounding the Tree Line Stage, and it was clear the band owed a good deal of debt of the L.A. legends, filtering rockabilly swagger and girl-group vocals through the lens of punk. My friend described them as “soda-fountain” rock, which is as apt a description as any. (MS)
BEST MISPLACED DANCE PARTY: Operators
The music Dan Boeckner makes as Operators isn’t that much different than what he was doing with Handsome Furs—in fact all five tracks released on the band’s debut EP could very well be leftovers from that group’s demise. For possibly the he first time in his career, though, Boeckner—who was the co-lead of both Wolf Parade and Divine Fits—is unquestionably the star of the show. Despite a few technical glitches, including numerous times where Boeckner had to show new knob twiddler Devojka what button to push on her sequencer, Operators were pretty thrilling, pushing out skewed synth-pop that sounded both weirder and someone poppier than anything Boeckner’s ever done before. There were still hints of New Order and Depeche Mode in songs like “True” and “Start Again,” but overall the tracks showed an increased push toward the drill-like repetition of industrial and house music. Operators will no doubt sound better in a small club (or the Galaxy Barn, where they played Sunday), but Pickathon’s one real dose of dance music still slayed in the hot afternoon sun. (MM)
BEST Q&A SESSION: Angel Olsen at the Lucky Barn
Those of us lucky enough to get into Angel Olsen’s gig at the tiny Lucky Barn (I’d say there was seating for maybe 50 people and a handful of musicians, including Mac DeMarco and Jacob Portrait of UMO) were treated to the one of the best performances of the weekend and easily the best comedy show. The idea behind the space is that fans get to watch an intimate performance and also partake in a live Q&A session. As someone who has been forced to host similar shows a few times, I can tell you that it is always awkward for everyone involved—especially when you are heckled by a shirtless bro who might secretly be your biggest fan. “Heckled” might not be the best word, actually; as Olsen and her band tore the roof off the barn playing rousing versions of songs from her new album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, nameless shirtless bro was quick to let everyone know his thoughts. After the host asked about Olsen’s gorgeous voice, shirtless bro shouted “Your voice is stupid good!” Olsen’s response? “You’re not wearing a shirt.” Despite the setting and the uncomfortable format, Olsen was never phased by the questions, politely answering a fan’s inquiry that was essentially “Roy Orbison? Do you know him?” by saying that she enjoyed his music and grew up listening to lots of 1950s and ’60s records with her parents. It was hard not to laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing, especially when Dan Boeckner of Operators, who admitted to being a huge fan, asked her how she maintained her voice on the road.
I was also #blessed to see Olsen play a second time, and her songs sounded even better without interruption and given a little space to breathe. Olsen’s voice is simply stunning live—so powerful, forceful, and raw that it I feel like an idiot even trying to explain it. When she sang “Acrobat” and “Lights Out” the entire crowd just stood in total awe, completely mesmerized by an incredible performer who really defies lazy comparison. (MM)
BEST X THAT IS X: X
“This is the strangest X show you’ll ever see,” said John Doe at the Wood Stage on Saturday night. That’s a typical reaction from first-timers realizing they’re playing inside what looks like a set piece from The Wicker Man, but it was doubly true for X, who as far as I know haven’t stripped down as they did here since their 1995 acoustic set, Unclogged. But turning down the volume only amplified what I already knew: That X isn’t just some L.A. punk relic but one of the best American rock’n’roll bands of the last 30 years. Unplugging underscored the hooks in classics like “Los Angeles,” “White Girl” and “True Love” and emphasized Doe and Exene Cervenka’s rough harmonizing, still raggedly beautiful after all these years. And anyway, it wasn’t totally unplugged: Guitarist Billy Zoom, coolly detached as always, mostly stayed electric, shooting out those great rockabilly-meets-Ramones riffs while seated in a stool with an extra pick plastered on his forehead. Occasionally, DJ Bonebrake came out from behind the drumkit to play vibes, most stirringly on “The Unheard Music,” from the seminal Los Angeles. And there was at least one rarity: “Come Back to Me,” a pleading ballad featuring a mournful sax solo from Zoom, which Doe said they’d only played about six times ever. (Understandable, considering it’s about the death of Exene’s sister.) Overall, it was the most engaged set I’ve seen them play in a long time. X is my favorite band of all-time, but I’ve witnessed enough uninspired shows over the years that I’d just about sworn off ever bothering to see them live again. Here, they sounded like a band reborn—at least for the moment. (MS)
BEST FAN: Shakey Graves
I’ve been pretty hard on Alejandro Rose-Garcia. I mean, he did break up Julie Taylor and Matt Saracen, but that was years ago, and it happened on a fictional television show. In real life, the guy I know best as “the Swede” from Friday Night Lights plays foot-stomping nu-blues as Shakey Graves, and it’s OK or whatever. Other folks seem to love it: His Wood Stage set was packed, with a row of young girls crammed in at the front. I found many of the songs mumbly and directionless, driven by enthusiastic acoustic finger-picking that rarely goes anywhere. Anyway, I can’t say I’m a fan. But I can say that Mr. Rose-Garcia is great at being a fan. He was everywhere at Pickathon: shopping for records, taking photos, vibing to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, tweeting about “singing ‘90s jams at the top of my lungs with Mac DeMarco.” We even had a personal moment of connection, standing next to each other at X and screaming for an encore. So, consider this a mea culpa of sorts. I don’t think I’ll ever like Shakey Graves. I’ll always hate the Swede. But I’m cool with Alejandro. (MS)
BEST DISCOVERY: Quilt
On Sunday morning I stumbled down to the Galaxy barn, slightly hungover and looking for a place to charge my phone, only to walk into one of my favorite sets of the whole weekend. Boston’s Quilt are cut from the same cloth of psych-folk band Woods (who, appropriately, also played a great set at the Woods Stage later in the day) but its songs are less jammy and more pop-leaning. All four members sing, but the songs led by Anna Fox Rochinski had an earthy quality that made the band seem like a lost relic from another time. Best brunch set of the weekend. (MM)
BEST CRAZY HORSE: The Men
The Men don’t stay in one place very long. They began as a straight-up, in-the-red noise band, went through a black-metal period they’ve since renounced and broke through as Husker Du-ian shredders. Over their last two albums, the New York-based band has shifted shapes yet again, morphing into countryish rockers in the vein of Crazy Horse, or something like early Bruce Springsteen raised on ‘80s punk. It’s a guise that fits them surprisingly well. Most of the audience for their main stage set had been siphoned off into the woods to watch Angel Olsen, but for those milling around the field Sunday afternoon, the Men delivered a set made up mostly of songs from last year’s New Moon and the recent Tomorrow’s Hits, groovy jams that maintained a certain level of punk sloppiness (trebly, thudding bass, questionable drumming), proving they haven’t gone full classic-rock just yet. (MS)
BEST AROMATHERAPY SOUNDTRACK: Julianna Barwick
At first, Barwick’s looped hymnals seemed mighty misplaced among the 80-degree heat and pallet boards of the Tree Line Stage, as her crystal-delicate layers of vocals and keyboard were often interrupted by screaming kids and a vehicle ambling up the dirt path into the neighboring forest. She’s something like Portland’s own Like a Villain, minus the bouts of blood-curdling screams, and should really only perform in churches. But then I realized that the massage and acupuncture tent was within listening distance of the stage, and it all started to make sense. I imagine Barwick is what they must play over the speakers at Bath & Body Works in Heaven. (MS)
BEST ’90s REVIVAL: Courtney Barnett
It seems fitting that Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett would wear a Kurt Cobain T-shirt to Pickathon. Throughout the weekend, it seemed like every person I met commented on just how much of a great rock ‘n’ roll festival this has become; yes, there are still plenty of acoustic acts, bluegrass bands and the annual Pickathon Square Dance with Old Buck and Caller Caroline Oakley. But there was a certain swagger to this year’s booking, and though Barnett isn’t playing, like, heavy metal songs or anything, her performance perfectly captured what so many people (myself included) loved about indie-rock in the ’90s. Live, she strips everything down to the most essential elements so the power of her voice can shine: guitar, bass, drums. With a keen eye, Barnett tackles the everyday-life shit all twenty-somethings endure, punctuating stoned rambles with funny in-jokes and small burns. Matt tweeted that her sound is “Chrissie Hynde meets Dylan meets Malkmus” and I think that’s not too far off. Like Malkmus, Barnett’s songs have this almost effortless grace that makes it easy to peg her band as slackers, but her Sunday night set was both loose and confident, funny and totally of the time. I can’t wait to see what she does next. (MM)
BEST COTTAGE INDUSTRY: The Child-Busker Economy
Pickathon is an exceedingly family-friendly festival, but rarely do you see an entire family together at once. While the parents are off swaying awkwardly to the Barr Brothers and secretly hoping someone passes them a doob, you’ll see an awful lot of unattended children, mostly along the dirt trail leading up to the Wood Stage. Don’t call Child Protective Services just yet, though. Left to their own devices, the kids of Pickathon do quite well. In fact, leave them alone long enough, and they actually develop their own economy. Walking the dirt path to the Wood Stage, you’ll encounter a gauntlet of miniature street performers, strumming guitars, fiddling, sometimes playing as full bands. You’ll also find kids charging $1 for hand-drawn portraits and sprays of water. At one point, I walked past a group of lil’uns crouched on the grass in front of multiple stacks of dollar bills, apparently haggling over how to dole them out. There wasn’t an adult in sight. So don’t worry, the kids of Pickathon are all right—and probably roaming the woods around Pendarvis Farm right now. (MS)
MORE PHOTOS FROM PICKATHON (by Thomas Teal and Natalie Behring)