Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley, Oregon
Thursday, July 30–Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015
I can’t recall the time I first heard of Pickathon, a now-ecletic summertime festival that just wrapped its 17th-annual installment outside Portland, Oregon. I at least know how I heard about what began as a gathering of less than 100 people with mostly local roots-based artists. Some of my favorite “underground” country bands like The Weary Boys, Bad Livers, Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock and many others kept turning up on the festival’s live compilation CDs. Much like the event itself, the discs were well-curated and produced.
But it wasn’t until years later that I’d get a glimpse of the festival itself. In 2010, the performance video series Live & Breathing began filming bands in an old pumphouse on the festival grounds. Festival organizers started mining talent from North Carolina, too: The Avett Brothers, Chatham County Line, Bombadil, Town Mountain, Megafaun, ex-pats Future Islands. This year’s lineup proved no different, as the festival drafted three groups from the Old North State: Alice Gerrard, Hiss Golden Messenger and Mandolin Orange.
Pickathon organizers pride themselves on creating a unique and memorable event for patrons, so they seem less concerned with yearly expansion for bigger spaces and acts. The festival remains intimate, with only 3,500 tickets sold. It is sustainable in that it almost completely eliminates the use of paper and plastic, and it is visually appealing by working with various groups to cover the grounds with art and create stages that are strange.
Walking to the Mountain Stage on Thursday for the “Portlandia & Friends” set, for instance, a large interwoven fabric canopy stopped the 100-degree temperatures from punishing the curious crowd that had arrived early to watch pieces of an episode filmed on festival grounds. The patience was rewarded when the “and Friends” portion of the program turned out to be The Flaming Lips. After filming a few scenes involving the show’s lead actors Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the band treated the crowd to two songs by playing “Do You Realize?” and “Fight Song.” They inflated a large balloon that spelled out “Fuck Yeah Portland” and passed it through the crowd, much to the delight of the few hundred people there.
Just as the Portlandia and Flaming Lips program served as a unique experience Thursday, each stage throughout the festival grounds would do much the same over the course of the next three days. The hot sun continued to beat down as I made my way to the Treeline Stage to catch William Tyler’s set early Friday evening. The backdrop proved very impressive. The festival partnered with architectural students from Portland State College to reuse 435 giant cardboard tubes to create a backdrop that reached high above stage level. Bolted together, the structure provided a towering backdrop. Tyler appeared after being introduced as one of the country’s “pre-eminent instrumentalists.” He offered a mesmerizing, hour-long set.
Riding with Mandolin Orange on a golf cart through the festival grounds and passing the Galaxy & Lucky Barn stages, we made our way up to the “secret stage”—the former pumphouse where Live & Breathing was set up to film Sam Cohen. Walking up the pathway in the forest revealed a living-room type configuration with secondhand couches and chairs forming a circle. It served as a comfortable setting for taking a break from the sun and enjoying a cold beer from a nearby keg.
Only a handful of non-production folks lingered as Sam Cohen and his band performed a few of his atmospheric rock songs, backed by an elaborate setting of old picture frames and floating lamps. They were rigged to create a very bright and transparent background, where the lush forest behind the stage served as the true star. Later that evening, Hiss Golden Messenger took to the footlight-lined Starlight Stage. Under a rare blue moon that occasionally peaked through the canopy, the band packed many high-intensity and danceable songs into a long set. Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood enjoyed the set up front. With his hands on the stage monitors, he looked back at the crowd every so often, as if to make sure the crowd was enjoying the set as much as he was.
Saturday kicked off with folk legend Alice Gerrard, joined on stage by the entire Hiss Golden Messenger band and Mandolin Orange. Gerrard performed a number of selections from her Grammy-nominated Follow the Music. Many crowd members yelled “We love you, Alice!” between songs, recognizing the rare opportunity to see her perform on the West Coast. Later in the afternoon, Mandolin Orange was set to perform on what is likely the most talked about and photographed stage on the festival grounds, the Woods Stage. Walking across the fern-covered forest floor and passing fireball-like balloons hanging above the path, it was easy to see why it is the crown jewel of the grounds.
The stage was positioned at the base of what appeared to be an old stream. Looking up the hill, the crowd sits on hay bales shielded from the sun by dense foliage of moss-covered tree branches and swaying pines. After the duo received a standing ovation, I continued exploring at the Galaxy Barn Stage.
I walked into the dark Galaxy Barn Stage in time to catch the tail end of Sonny and the Sunsets’ show and quickly realized that, by the festival’s loose definition, the stage was “air conditioned”. Playing rockabilly-ish tunes, the San Francisco-based band took time to applaud several in the crowd who took part in the “bridge drops” the day before, which had subsequently been on the front page of The Oregonian. Protestors rappelled down the St. Johns Bridge just outside Portland to stop a Shell Oil rig from heading to the Arctic to drill for oil. The crowd cheered the commendation.
Later that evening, the highly touted Leon Bridges stepped to the Galaxy Stage with his six-piece. The great thing about the smaller “barn” stages was that, when they became full, there was an overflow area for those outside to watch—in this case, a garage door on the side of the stage opened to reveal a sea of people with a clear line of sight to Bridges. Those inside the barn were treated to an intimate yet sweltering set from Bridges, who lives up to the hype in terms of a throwback sound to the likes of Sam Cooke; however, he still seems to be finding his own place. His songs fit the Cooke mold as they were intended, but they didn’t seem to have a unique enough spin to make them distinctive.
Leaving the festival grounds Sunday evening, just as Bridges settled in for his second set, the stage announcer hyped the performance with, “Remember the date and time of this set, as your life will never be the same again after it.” That might have been the only overstatement of the weekend, as the beauty that was seen onstage and throughout the festival grounds otherwise lived up to the hype.