Pickathon at Pendarvis Fram in Happy Valley, Oregon featuring Feist, Andrew Bird, Divine Fits, Parquet Courts, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile & The Violaters, Ty Segall, Shabazz Palaces, White Fence, Pure Bathing Culture, Yellowbirds, The Felice Brothers, Lightning Dust, Shakey Graves (August 2-4, 2013)
Though I have been a Portland resident for the past 10 years, 2013 marked my first attendance at Pickathon. Scheduled on the same weekend as famed events like Lollapalooza and Osheaga, Pickathon has been steadily building up its reputation as the music fest that thinks outside of the box. Less than half an hour drive from downtown Portland, the camping-friendly fest assembles in the woodsy Pendarvis Farm in the suburbia of Happy Valley. The words “Happy Valley” may conjure a free-loving hippie commune or a wholesome dairy Americana-ville to the outsiders. As a local resident, the name evokes a vista of newly erected un-Portlandic shopping plazas and cookie-cutter houses on newly-paved roads. In other words, I would never go there unless there was a damn good reason. But thanks to the enticing line up and eco-friendly practices, for three days, I had a sound motive to commute over an hour roundtrip from my NE Portland home to experience Pickathon’s fifteenth anniversary. Headlining acts included Feist, Andrew Bird, and Divine Fits. But the stages also hosted performers who were more country, and less “indie, like Dale Watson and Shinyribs, alt-folk of I Draw Slow from far away as Dublin, and even funk/soul was represented by a troupe like The Relatives. Every music festival has its identity, but Pickathon lived up to its motto to be unique and innovative.
On its first official day (Friday, August 2), the faint grey clouds evenly blanketed the blue sky and obscured the sun, providing a tolerable temperature barely reaching 80s F?. Upon arrival on the dusty dirt road, plenty of hay greeted the festival goers. The parking lot had so many bumps that it felt like you were on some DIY rural amusement ride. These were some hints to the pastoral features that awaited inside the gates constructed out of branches. If you are used to the crew handing you pamphlets with maps and schedules, forget about it. Tree huggers here provide that info on a bulletin boards, sparsely located throughout the site. And you may have to ask a half-dozen festival volunteers before finding out that Mt. View Stage you’ve been looking for is known as the “main stage”. Relax - the panic of getting lost and missing the first three songs is not a problem; the photo rules at Pickathon is so loose that you can bring your newly-acquired DSLRs and indulge in your amateur photo fancies without a photo pass.
Having just caught a wicked cold the day before, I tried to schedule my first day to be fruitful in the shortest amount of time possible in order to last until Sunday’s star-lit sky. Before meeting up with Pure Bathing Culture for press time, I stumbled in the Woods stage where Jessica Pratt sang like a pretty little bird in a timber-composed nest. Then I back-tracked to find the Bunny Glade, where I was to meet up with the Portland duo for a video interview and a portrait shoot. It was also where KEXP had positioned their mobile studio for acoustic sets to be posted online after the fest. There were no actual floppy-eared lagomorphs hopping around the clearing, but its likeness in miniature statues could be spotted if you took the time to notice.
After a nice breather in the woods, I made my way to the heart of Pickathon, canopied by an intricate system of awnings. Whether it’s the liberal policy of the fest or due to its modest size, all press members were given a backstage pass; where you could enjoy mingling with artists and enjoy the best beverage options with local brews, wine, vodka, and the life-saver known as coconut water. Shortly after 4pm, Brooklyn’s Yellowbirds performed neo-psychedelia with just enough haze to pair perfectly with the cloudy bucolic afternoon. After few songs, I had to find my way to catch Pure Bathing Culture for the first and the last time (of the fest) over at the Galaxy Barn. Near the gate, you had the option to stop and pet the big white horse.
PBC’s set took off about 10-minutes late due to technical issues, but seems such hinderance is a curse to this outbuilding. On the following day, Shabazz Palaces suffered even worser fate with compromises and 15-minutes behind the schedule. After absorbing PBC’s ethereal pop, I jetted back to catch L.A.’s White Fence at the Fir Meadows stage, adjacent to Mt. View. The third chapter into Tim Presley’s band exploration, White Fence is a rebellion against the hi-fi and the rules.
While taking a break, a voice that recalled Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife pricked up my ears. Thus, Lightning Dust from Vancouver, BC beckoned me to witness their minimalist music for a couple of tunes. Then it was time to trek back into the woods, as darkness descended, to witness the Chicago singer/songwriter/violin whiz who captivated me a few years back when he opened for The Decemberists. The just turned Quadragenarian, Andrew Bird sings, whistles, and plucks the strings all with a prowess in an understated fervor. Fellow festival performer, Tift Merritt , joined Mr. Bird on stage for several tunes, lending her soulful vocals and guitar talent. It was dark, packed, and almost too picture perfect pretty as lanterns glowed like giant fireflied-cocoons above the adoring audience.
On Saturday, the clouds dissipated and the sun hiked up the temperature few more degrees, and the attendance seemed to have almost doubled. Needing some time to recover and catch up on other things, I didn’t make it to the Farm until about 4pm to catch one of America’s most precious current female singer/songwriter, Sharon Van Etten, at The Woods Stage. The New Yorker can make a self-effacing comments about herself and flashes us a smile that brightens the room. Her honesty is so raw that it’s impossible not to be charmed. You probably can relate to at least one of Van Etten’s emotionally-loaded songs; but her poignant vocal delivery sent tremors through my heart, to the brink of tears.
Next up on the same stage was perhaps the most prolific musician at the moment. Between his solo and as a member of several bands, it seems there is always a new material from Ty Segall. Seated, the blonde-haired Californian flopped his hair, shredding his guitar or pounding the drum kit at times, for a feel-good psychedelic-garage rockamania. Brian Koch of Blitzen Trapper introduced his set. After couple of songs, I head to the canopies to cool down with a refreshing Anthem cider, before my “big date” with Divine Fits at 7 pm. Fortunately, the indie rock veterans were delightfully genial. The chemistry between Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner is that of a newlywed - this just may prove to be one of the greatest collaboration in indie rock history. While over at the Galaxy Barn, Shabazz Palaces struggled with their soundcheck as there seemed to be a communication barrier between the duo and the audio techs. But eventually, SB set off their unique combination of african tribalism with hip-hop-tronics. On my way back to the backstage, I caught a bit of Andrew Bird on Mt. View Stage. This time, I noticed the sock monkey - a longtime stage companion originally gifted by a fan.
The highlight of my Saturday was definitely Divine Fits. The synergy between the four seasoned musicians brought energy and joviality. Being the younger vocalist/guitarist, Boeckner moved about the stage with a vitality of a sugar-high child. But the Canadian was always dynamic, whether fronting Wolf Parade or Handsome Furs. Daniel naturally less animated, yet towered with his height. With light hair and white shirt, the Texan evoked the imagery of Gandalf as he raised his strings like the wizard’s staff. To have two of the most distinctive vocalist of indie rock share the mic is kind of a fantasy come true for this music geek.
By the third day of Pickathon, the warming trend was becoming a nuisance, yet my night ended with serenity in a balmy nightfall. By the time I arrived back at the sylvan fair little after 2pm, I was already feeling the threat of the heat stroke just after a few steps. [For many people, the high 80s - low 90s temperature was well within a tolerable range, the heat and the sun just happens to be my kryptonite]. Because the performers play two or three times during the festival, it allows attendees to catch most of the acts on their list. On this final day, it would have been a good time for me to explore and experience artists outside of my familiar territory. But due to my physical challenges, all I could do was rest and catch glimpses of the shows that were easily accessible from backstage till my breathing normalized. This meant I caught more of Sharon Van Etten, and the folky rock of Felice Brothers, though I wished I could have mustered up enough energy to make it to the Café stage for Breathe Owl Breathe.
By the time Kurt Vile & The Violators was due on Mt. View Stage at 6:20 pm, my body started to normalize. After missing couple of chances to catch the Philly multi-instrumentalist earlier in the year, my anticipation was high. I felt the white-attired singer’s pain as the sun shined right on him, and sweat beads rolled down from his face. But Vile endured, and his guitar skills was a thing of wonder. Next up were four Texans who released one of the most acclaimed albums of 2012. With Light Up Gold, Parquet Courts became the critics' darlings. This was actually 3.5 times catching the post-punk revivalists for me this year. Witnessing their non-stop guitar frenzy felt as fresh as the first time I saw them in Brighton, UK. And it looked like Fred Armisen (Portlandia and SNL fame) was also a fan as he watched the young lads, transfixed.
Never having seen Feist live and barely knowing what she even looks like, the Canadian songstress appeared like a big stage star with her eye-catching white-themed outfit - a dress with blue motif that recalls a Swedish table decor, extra-large shawl worn as a loose cape, finished with white ankle boots. While Feist’s ornate outfit was something to marvel, it was not to eclipse her performance and audience engagement.
Encouraged by rave reviews from festival goers, I decided to stay long enough to check out Shakey Graves. Fans gathered around the small Starlight Stage, and even a young boy shouted out repeatedly the Austin musician’s name. Though it is a Sunday night in a town not known for late-night entertainments, the crowd sure looked like the party was just getting started. I would have loved to stay and catch Divine Fits again - the final set of Pickathon 2013 but 1:00 am was too long away, and I had way too much on my plate for the next two weeks.
Like any event, there are hits and misses with Pickathon, but definitely more hits. The biggest miss was the absence of Foxygen - the band that has been riddled with instability had to cancel due to the singer (Sam France) breaking his leg during a performance few days prior. Portland folk-punk outfit, Builders and Butchers, filled in for the young duo. Few audio tech issues and dealing with dust was a bit irking at times. The hits were plenty of free drinking water (and blackberries since here, it grows like a weed), sustainable practices, nature, quality local food vendors to every diet needs, and the friendliest and the most relaxed folks you’ll find in any music festival. If you want to experience the spirit of Portland/Oregon and a corucopia of outstanding guitar-based music over three days, Pickathon would be an excellent way to go. As one first-time attendee said, “I will never not comeback.”
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