Every time it looks like Pickathon is about to go big, something reins it back in.
In 2016, it certainly seemed like Portland's biggest little music festival was approaching a tipping point. In terms of prestige, the lineup was its heftiest yet, and it showed in the turnout. Pickathon has never had trouble drawing people to the woods of Happy Valley. As you'll often hear, it's all about the experience, man, not who's playing. But last year was the first time where it felt like the festival might be on the verge of outgrowing not just its location, scenic Pendarvis Farm, but its own humble ambitions.
A year later, Pickathon was back to being Pickathon again. Whether it was the heatwave or the upcoming eclipse festivities siphoning off attendees, the crowds returned to a more manageable level. And while the bookings also returned to the mean, the moments that make the festival what it is—the experience, man!—were bountiful. Swedish psychedelic maestros Dungen live-scored a 1920s animated film under a moonlit sky. Dinosaur Jr. shredded so loud it threatened to crack the trees shading the Woods Stage in half. Young acts like Priests and Tank and the Bangas played breakthrough sets to audiences that never saw them coming. On a personal level, maybe you took a weed nap under a glowing geodesic cube, or waited in line for pie behind Robyn Hitchcock.
It won't actually stay like this forever, of course. Nothing good does. But for now, Pickathon remains one of Portland's truest pleasures. Enjoy it while you can, and save your cynicism for tomorrow.
In that spirit, here are the best of what we managed to catch over this hot, dusty weekend in Clackamas County.
Best Baby-Making Music: KING
I heard L.A. trio King playing from the Treeline Stage, and before emerging from the woods to see them I was convinced Sade had made a surprise visit to Happy Valley. Not the case, but the act impressed with its immensely smooth '90s-inspired R&B. And whereas most bands like this depend on samples and plenty of pre-recorded material, King made all but a few snap tracks from scratch. The keyboardist easily commanded three machines at once, creating bulging basslines and riffs so sparkling even the most uncoordinated festival-goers got down—and looked good doing so. MARK A. STOCK.
Best Banter: The Last Artful, Dodgr
One of the great rewards of observing Portland's music scene the last few years has been watching the Last Artful, Dodgr flower as a live performer. When the singer-rapper made her more-or-less debut at PDX Pop Now two years ago, she was admittedly anxious, and the set felt more like a teaser of her potential than a true coming-out. Late Friday night at the Starlight Stage, Dodgr confessed that she still felt the jitters playing in front of such a large crowd. Only now, she knows how to wield those nerves to her advantage. Here, she was as vulnerable as she was swagged-out, delivering a show much more loose and playful than your average rap gig, where many of the highlights came between tracks. She cracked jokes, gushed over her two backup dancers, brought a young kid onstage to thank him for helping her find food backstage, and even took some jabs at the reigning rap patriarchy. "This song is about money," she said of a catchy-as-hell new joint. "I wrote it for Drake, but I think it'd go over his head." Shots fired, shots fired! MATTHEW P. SINGER.
Best Unsung Guitar Hero: William Tyler
There's nothing showy about William Tyler. The Nashville musician makes instrumental guitar music that is both absolutely gorgeous and kind of subtle, the type of tunes that sneak up on you and then get stuck in your head for days. Tyler's performed a lot of solo finger-picking in the past, but at the Woods Stage he was backed by three members of Megafaun and playing favorites from his lovely 2016 album Modern Country, which pivots close to jam band territory without sounding overwrought. You could hear bits of Jim O'Rourke and John Fahey in the mix, but it was Tyler's love of the Grateful Dead—his guitar prominently featured the lightning skull logo—that took center stage, with long, elliptical songs just made for sipping beer on a balmy summer afternoon. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Best Eye Contact: Aldous Harding
Much of Pickathon's magic lies in its ability to throw rising artists into small barns and come away with unforgettable performances. Aldous Harding, a New Zealand musician increasingly known as much for her performance art as her musical ability, did not disappoint. She moved deftly from guitar to keys to mic stand, showing off her terrifying vocal range and unflinching gaze throughout. Her dark folk is just unhinged enough that it comes off as both artistic and haunting. If David Lynch was to remake Blue Velvet, he should look no further than Aldous for his brooding, lounge-singing femme fatale. I don't think anybody moved a muscle during her paralyzing set. (MAS)
Best Wake-Up Call: Priests
Sometimes, the scheduling at Pickathon can be downright cruel. After shutting down the Galaxy Barn the night before, Washington, D.C.'s Priests were forced to get back up and help break in the main stage on Saturday afternoon. As by far the most abrasive band on this year's bill, the odds of them connecting with a crowd just beginning to shake off their hangovers weren't particularly good. But Priests drew a surprisingly large, shockingly enthusiastic audience who must've heard their sometimes-skronky post-punk as a necessary double-shot of espresso rather than a head-splitting nuisance. Wearing a prom dress she very well may have slept in, singer Alice Greer alternately snarled and wailed, and in less discordant moments proved to possess one of the most striking voices this side of Corin Tucker. I only caught the last four songs, but that's all it took to make me kick myself for not dragging my old ass to see 'em in the barn on Friday. (MPS)
Best Mosh Pit: Ex-Cult
The Galaxy Barn was about the last place I expected to see fans stage-diving, if only because the stage only comes up to shin-level. But Pickathon is full of surprises, and so was Memphis act Ex-Cult. The band did more in 10 minutes than most of us did all week. Their sweaty, thrashing, unrelentless set offered a rare glimpse at a Happy Valley mosh pit. A telltale sign of a good punk rock set is the concerned wincing of security and roadies alike, scared for human safety and the health of thousands of dollars worth of musical commitment. Mission accomplished, Ex-Cult. (MAS)
Best Midwesterner: Black Milk
As the rapper who finally convinced Jack White to make a hip-hop record, Curtis "Black Milk" Cross's Detroit bonafides run deep. With his tight backing band Nat Turner, Cross ran through an energetic set of funk- and jazz-inspired beats and rhymes Saturday at the Treeline Stage. But the highlight came when he dug into his hometown's dance music legacy, busting out a song boasting the thump-und-drang of Detroit techno that reminded me of fellow Motor City madmen the Dirtbombs' awesome album of garage-rock house and techno covers. It ruled. (MPS)
Best Time Travel Back To Childhood: Tank & The Bangas
The New Orleans act won NPR's Tiny Desk Concert competition this year thanks to incredible energy and a bizarre fusion of funk, soul and childlike wonder. With vocals oscillating between the registers of speedy hip-hop, spoken word, springy funk and the high-pitched musings of kid excitably trying to tell a story, the band is hard to keep up with. But thanks to the pace set by arguably one of the best drummers of the long weekend, Tank and the Bangas brought the entirety of a swollen Woods Stage crowd on a magical, multi-faceted journey. (MAS)
Best Instrumental Soundtrack to the World's Oldest Surviving Animated Feature: Dungen
Okay, as far as I know no other band at the festival played an instrumental score to the 1926 German animated fairy tale The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but there's also no doubt in my mind that Swedish psych-rock masters Dungen is the perfect act to take on something this grand. Moving from slow organ pitter-patter to winding krautrock to abrasive guitar squall, Dugen showed why it's probably the best group in the world at making cinematic noise like this (and a huge influence on Tame Impala), all without singing a single note. Dungen were both arty and muscular on Saturday night, deftly moving between set pieces and things you could see being fleshed out into actual songs. It really doesn't get any more Pickathon than this. (MM)
Best Servant of the Ear Plug Lobby: Dinosaur Jr.
I should have know that Dinosaur Jr's set might be tad over-the-top after the announcer introduced J. Mascis and co. as "one of the greatest rock bands of all time." The grunge-era stars have perhaps never been recognized to the degree they deserve—and their latest record is a model citizen for aging elegantly as a band—but that's quite a statement. Mascis banished his band to play second-fiddle on the side of the Woods Stage while he destroyed eardrums before three towering stacks of amps. As much as I love the band's guitar-dominated noodling, it often felt more like a fire drill than a show. (MAS)
Best Clarinet: Andy Shauf
Not since high school jazz band has such an emphasis been placed on the underappreciated clarinet. Andy Shauf has resurrected the somber instrument, imparting airy baroqueness to his simple but sturdy indie-pop. His Lucky Barn and Woods Stage sets solidified his approach, reinforcing the fact that subtlety and nuance often trump pizazz where singer-songwriter music is concerned. Sunday's set, especially, was the ultimate accompaniment to the comedown of Pickathon's twilight phase. (MAS)