Amid the music festival apocalypse, Pickathon feels like a breath of life.
The year the Happy Valley festival turns 20 is also the year MusicfestNW went on hiatus and Sasquatch shut down for good. Even long-standing giants like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza continue to report dwindling ticket sales.
The collapse isn't exactly surprising. Music festivals have long been co-opted by affluent attendees who are more interested in a dusty, weekendlong party than in bingeing on performances by buzzy bands.
But even from the beginning, Pickathon has been a festival where the crowds are attentive, the undercard is just as carefully booked as the headliners, and drunken bros haven't pissed all over the portable toilets by the first day.
Two decades in, the Happy Valley festival has branched out far beyond softly picked guitars and stomping roots music. But even with the welcome inclusion of local rappers, world beat and amped rock, the fact that Pickathon remains so low key is what makes it great. It isn't just folk music, but there's still a lot of it. The festival's generous idea of what counts as folk music—lyrical MCs, anthemic queer-identifying ballads, protest songs channeled through arena rock—is what makes the festival inclusive, cohesive and often surprising.
Here are the sets we're most looking forward to this year.
Galaxy Barn, 10 pm Thursday
Rasheed Jamal knows how to work a crowd. The Portland MC's two albums are built from a backbone of OutKast-influenced Southern rap but lean on Jamal's charisma, sense of storytelling and optimistic worldview more than a particular subgenre. That's all the more evident live, especially since his choruses are designed for audience call and response. His small-stage set on the first night of the festival is guaranteed to be high energy.
Circuit des Yeux
Treeline Stage, 3:10 pm Friday
For more than a decade, songwriter Haley Fohr has used the moniker Circuit des Yeux to push folk beyond its darkest, most dirgy limits. 2015's In Plain Speech sounded closer to electronic doom metal than folk, partially due to Fohr's unmistakable deep, theatrical voice. But on last year's Reaching for Indigo, Fohr moved away from her more abrasive tendencies—her newest album succumbs to bliss rather than intensity. Even with her recent shift in sound, Fohr remains reliably weird, and is one of the most off-kilter experimenters in this year's lineup.
Built to Spill
Woods Stage, 10:20 pm Friday
Built to Spill sets aren't exactly rare—the Boise, Idaho, icons have already played Portland twice this year. But neither of those shows was on a stage in the middle of the woods with hay bales and hammocks for seating. It's also fitting the semilocal legends are headlining Pickathon's 20th-anniversary lineup, especially since Built to Spill just celebrated the two-decade anniversary of their slow-burning masterpiece Perfect From Now On. The band's Saturday set at the bigger Mt. Hood Stage might be more celebratory, but their Friday show will be more intimate, scenic and potentially more magical.
Woods Stage, 7:30 pm Saturday
Arena rock is as difficult to love as it is to resist. Sheer Mag adheres to the same riff-based pleasure principles of Thin Lizzy and Poison but filter them through modern sensibilities. Last year's Need to Feel Your Love is packed with rowdy riffs, indulgent guitar solos and frontman Tina Halladay's snarling voice that could rival Axl Rose's. But instead of pervy lyrics in which consent is vague to nonexistent, the Philadelphia band writes songs about the Stonewall Riots, resisting capitalism and voting against rich white men.
Galaxy Barn, 10 pm Saturday
After years of grinding away in Chicago's indie-rock scene, Ezra Furman reached his widest audience yet with this year's Transangelic Exodus. Anthemic from beginning to end, it's a gritty, sublime odyssey about utopian road trips and being too hungover to go to synagogue. Following the album's release in January, Furman has been performing the late-show circuit, wearing bright red lipstick and dresses bought from Goodwill, while howling into the microphone with his ecstatic, box-of-nails rasp. At Pickathon, the inevitable performance of "Suck the Blood From My Wound" is sure to be rousing. With lyrics about broken-down lovers escaping a forlorn town and lines like "Angel don't fight it/To them we'll always be freaks," it's basically a queer-identifying "Born to Run."
Starlight Stage, 11:40 pm Saturday
There was a brief period when Jamila Woods was known only as the singer who delivered the bright-eyed choruses on Chance the Rapper's "Sunday Candy" and "Blessings." But as soon as Woods released her debut album, Heavn, in 2016, it was clear the Chicago vocalist was a messiah in her own right. Full of understated, bright electro-soul, Wood's smoky-sweet voice is the backbone of every track. Her songs about self-love and black girl magic will be all the more euphoric at her late-night, small-stage set.
Lucky Barn, 11:20 am Sunday
Sunday mornings at music festivals are rough. After a weekend of sleeping in the woods and living in the sun, noise and heat, it's hard to rally. If anyone can revive you, it's experimental Portland guitarist Marisa Anderson. Released in June, the rambling, instrumental Cloud Corner is particularly mystical. With only her guitar and minimal background ambience, Anderson creates a meticulous reverie. Even in Cloud Corner's most melancholic moments, she still finds transcendent beauty.
Woods Stage, 6 pm Sunday
Only a few months after she released her debut album, I Need to Start a Garden, Haley Heynderickx has already checked off most of her career goals. Last year, she achieved her childhood dreams of placing in WW's Best New Band poll and playing a set on KEXP-FM in Seattle. Now that she's also up racked up glowing reviews from National Public Radio and Pitchfork, those dreams seem modest. The hype is deserved. Heynderickx is a master of gentle, candid songwriting that cuts deep. On "Oom Sha La La," she sings in her resonant, Joni Mitchell-like warble, "I need to start a garden," until she's practically screaming it. It's emblematic of Heynderickx's rising status as a patron saint of aggro quietude. Her album release show earlier this year at Mississippi Studios sold out, and hopefully the crowd at the Oregon native's first year playing Pickathon will be just as devoted.
SEE IT: Pickathon is at Pendarvis Farm, 16581 SE Hagen Road, Happy Valley, pickathon.com. Aug. 2-5. $125-$320, children under 12 free.