Review & Photos | Pickathon Music Festival | Happy Valley
Words by: Donovan Farley
Pickathon Music Festival :: 8.1.14 -8.3.14 :: Pendarvis Farm :: Happy Valley, OR
Last weekend the Pickathon Music Festival took place in Oregon’s aptly-named Happy Valley, and I’m here to testify as to what an absolutely enchanted success the weekend was. After working at Bonnaroo for 8+ years and having attended countless other festivals all around the country, I figured I had the festival experience pretty much down. What went down between August 1 and 3 changed all that.
The first factor that differentiates Pickathon from other festivals is its being the first festival to eliminate plastic and severely minimize single use items. Like all of Oregon, they take the environment and treating it with respect very seriously. Attendees were encouraged to bring their own plates, silverware and water containers into the festival grounds (if you didn’t bring any you could rent reusable plates and silver) and for $6 received a metal, reusable pint glass which was used for all adult beverages and served as a cool keepsake. Children were also everywhere. I know you’re thinking that that sounds like a terrible idea for all involved; no one wants to party with a bunch of screaming kids around and those poor children’s lives will be ruined forever. Not true at Pickathon, as the festival is setup for parents to easily take their kids up the mountain back to camp when they get tuckered out. More than that though, the overall vibe at Pickathon is one of total respect: for the earth, for each other and certainly for the kids. This ain’t an EDM festival with people leaving the earth scorched with trash and the brain stems scorched from fake molly folks. I heard nary a single blood curdling scream all weekend, but saw endless smiles, both from the children and provided by them.
Then there’s the setup: wow. Two main stages covered by a gorgeous and impressive bit of engineering that managed to provide both shade and a breeze, two barns converted into rock clubs (packed and hot ones), and what is now my favorite place to see a show on earth: the Woods stage. The Woods stage really needs to be seen to be believed as it’s in the middle of the nearby forest where people camp, has seating made out of bales of hay and the stage itself is made up of wood from the forest it resides in and resembles a sort of human-sized devil catcher. All were intimate and unique and each served as a perfect setting to take in the amazing lineup Pickathon curated this year.
After hiking up the “mountain” and staking our claim on a camping spot (you literally hike up a hill and clear a spot), we’d worked up a bit of a sweat and were very excited about the prospect of our first craft beers, and Pickathon wasted no time becoming a memorable experience. Early highlights on Friday for our group (other than surviving setting up camp, I only look like a mountain man) were seeing the great and under-appreciated Bobby Patterson, local soul powerhouse Ural Thomas & The Pain and the awe inspiring noodling of guitarist Steve Gunn. This was my first time seeing all three and each act absolutely impressed. A particular highlight for me was hearing Peterson belt out “She Don’t Have To See You (To See Through You),” a song I first became aware of via cover versions by Jeff Tweedy. I’d long forgotten Peterson wrote the gorgeous song, so hearing it was a bit of the kind of magic that always seems to occur at successful festivals, and was the first of several such instances at Pickathon.
From there we excitedly made our way over to the slice of heaven known as the Woods Stage for the first set from The War On Drugs. As we walked, I began to feel a level of electric anticipation I hadn’t felt since my early college days when scoring a Phish ticket was as important to me as paying the power bill (sorry mom and dad). The Philadelphia-based band’s latest effort, Lost In The Dream, is not only my favorite record of the year, it has quickly taken a place among my favorite records of all time, so to say I was excited to catch them live for the first time is a massive understatement.
Clearly I was not alone in this sentiment because even as Adam Granduciel and Co. began their soundcheck, the crowd extended deep into the woods and well beyond my field of vision, which made for (yet another) an amazing visual. As I stood backstage watching the enraptured audience collectively and joyously lose their shit during the breathtaking guitar outro of “An Ocean Between The Waves”, I had a rather dramatic vision. It was a cinematic scene of what may occur when we humans have finally and completely destroyed the Earth and have sent the last man left alive, humanity’s only remaining vestige of hope, hurtling deep into the obsidian nothingness of space on a desperate search of a future for humankind. I watched as the flames from the decimated and exploding planet behind him licked the sides of his terrifyingly shaking ship and threatened to engulf him and destroy any remnants of humanity. I pictured the sweat beading on his forehead and heard his desperate cry rise towards the heavens as it melded with Granduciel’s masterful, synapse-searing guitar work and propelled him away from everything he’d ever known and loved towards horrifying and complete uncertainty.
I don’t know, perhaps it was exhaustion. Maybe it was the otherworldly beauty of the Woods Stage…or maybe it was the bowl I was sharing with half of Foxygen at the time, but that over-the-top scene seemed to fit then and it does now. Ground control to Major Tom.
By the time The Last Man Left Alive and I had returned from our spaceship and were left wandering the ruined wreckage of our psyches, it was time to head back into the main festival grounds for an intriguing late night. Friday’s after-midnight bill featured the juxtaposition of the eternally pleasant and quirky folk of Valerie June versus the unhinged, psychedelic classic rock revival that is Foxygen’s live show.
My faithful companion and I attempted to brave the sauna-like temperatures of the Galaxy Barn for Foxygen, but were quickly motivated to head to the cool outside areas and watch some of the set on the several big screens that were setup. This was one of the many times that the fact that every act was playing two sets came in handy, as it made our decision incredibly easy to head over to Valerie June and take in her wonderful set knowing we were still going to be seeing Foxygen two days later. We both commented several times on that being one of our favorite aspects of the festival. Also, considering the dramatic mission to outer space The War On Drugs hadjust taken my brain on, I was probably better off not spending an hour packed into barn whose temperature and overall vibe was that of a Native American vision quest (my notes for this time say “I can see my ancestors” and “my organs are boiling). Ditto for the four-guitar attack of Diarrhea Planet that was to follow; as excited as we were to catch them, we knew we’d have another chance later.
On Saturday, proximity was the name of the game, as the two set policy worked out perfectly again and we were able to catch fantastic performances by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Operators, Warpaint and Mikal Cronin on the main stages and Woods, Spanish Gold, The Men and The War On Drugs (again) at the Galaxy Barn. The only thing that lured us back into those enchanted woods was the promise of a rowdy set from Diarrhea Planet, and the horribly (wonderfully?) named Nashville band did not disappoint.
While the idyllic afternoon peace and tranquility of the Woods Stage may seem an odd setting for the moshing and stage diving that acts like Diarrhea Planet and Parquet Courts can inspire in an audience, both were right at home. The former played a typically raucous set that found its members alternating leaps into the first few rows, and the latter was an intense blast of NYC art-punk that would have made Thurston Moore happy. Of particular note was one of the guitarists in Parquet Courts using his metal, environmentally friendly Pickathon cup as a slide during an especially intense jam in ways only the most inventive of guitarists could imagine.
Marco Benevento provided a perfect soundtrack for the sweaty late night dance party in the barn, one that didn’t stop as DJ Nitty Gritty (aka Garrett Lunceford) spun a fantastic set afterwards. My girlfriend of a year told me she’d never seen so much “dancing” from me during Nitty Gritty’s fantastic set, and while I’m not sure how impressed she was with my sweet moves, it was a helluva “get down” party either way.
After all that soul shaking, people began to exit the main area to either crash at their camps on the now-cool mountain or explore the surrounding hills in a blissed-out daze. We opted for the latter and were wonderfully rewarded in the form of a little more of that festival magic I spoke of earlier. As we wandered along the winding mountain paths we suddenly happened upon a small pickin’ circle of what we figured to be a group of stoned and/or tripping amateurs having a little fun before bed. Instead, we were treated to a half an hour of some of the best actual “picking” we heard all weekend. A small crowd that had gathered to watch in the darkness, and the pitch black setting added to the haunting feel of songs like John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind,” a cover that was made all the more eerie for me personally because I hadn’t heard the song since my days as a child attending Florida State University football games with my family.
Due to the unrelenting darkness, a song rising from my past like a ghost and my rather boggled mindset at that late of an hour, we stumbled off into the night to our campsites before learning who any of the players were. Well, cue the festival magic, because as we headed towards the woods to catch Angel Olsen the next day, we passed another stage where I received a sudden electric jolt when I realized the voice singing on the PA was that of the man who was leading the jam the night before. The sound guy told us it was none other than Cahalen Morrison, whose official festival set(s) we had missed. God bless my sharp hearing and good fortune, because Mr. Morrison has two lifelong fans now. To say it was fortuitous doesn’t cover it, that’s some festival magic right there y’all.
Sunday we caught all or most of sets from Foxygen, The Men, Courtney Barnett and Marco Benevento again. Foxygen and The Men were intense and fantastic for entirely different reasons, and my very high expectations for Courtney Barnett were exceeded. Do yourself a favor and check out her two EPs that have been combined in one LP, for me she recalls Dylan one moment and Cobain the next. Yes, I’m aware of what I just said.
Mr. Benevento’s second set was just as joyous an occasion as his first, and the only thing he did more than infectiously smile like a maniac (the good kind) was play wild and inventive covers. By my count he covered (or at least quoted) all or parts of songs by The Knife, Spoon, Cold War Kids, LCD Soundsystem, Led Zeppelin and Elton John.
Due to the stage setup, all we had to do was get a new beer, turn around and the let the gorgeously melancholic folk of The Barr Brothers wash over us. I was pretty unfamiliar with the band until I sat down to listen, but I was instantly entranced. The band’s unique setup includes a harp, a standup bass, two multi-instrumentalists and lead man Brad Barr’s uniquely haunting acoustic guitar that matches the pain in his voice. Brad Barr and his brother Andrew made their bones in the fantastic improv group The Slip, and it shows in their approach. Each song began with a captivatingly wondrous wall of sound intro that was jaw dropping in its pastoral, haunting beauty and had the previously chatty crowd silenced in rapt attention. Brad Barr manipulates his acoustic guitar in ways that few others are capable of, and much of the beautiful “noise” they created together reminded me of Jay Bennett’s work on Wilco’s masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Our final day on the farm saw us spending the most time yet at the Woods Stage, and Angel Olsen, Woods, Warpaint and Parquet Courts all brought the house down for very different reasons. Angel Olsen followed the aforementioned Parquet Courts set, and she lived up to her name and made the Woods Stage her church. Perfect. Woods’ brand of Californian, light-as-air jamming had people staring with mouths agape in amazement by the time they closed their set thrashing about the stage during a 10+ minute version of “With Light And Love”. Perfect (I mean, they’re called Woods for Christ’s sake).
And the ladies of Warpaint? Their first set was great, but this one in the woods at night? Haunting. Danceable. Gorgeous. Sensual. Everything a great rock set should be. I was totally blown away (again). I could keep going, but I’ll just say this: there were two pre-teen boys and a pre-teen girl in the front row for this set and I’m pretty sure both of the young men went through puberty by the third song and that the young lady’s amazed look meant she’ll be getting a guitar for Christmas and/or running for president. Homegirl looked positively in awe watching women in front of her, and it was beautiful a beautiful thing to see.
Our final late night began with the Andy Kaufman of rock music, Mac DeMarco. DeMarco’s set was everything you could want from a late night appearance by he and his band: he drank beer from a personal pitcher, he covered “Takin’ Care Of Business” and played a metal version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and he ordered an entire cheese pizza for the front row in the middle of his set from a nearby pizza stand. Of course he did. In the midst of all this, DeMarco also played a pretty kick ass set.
Next was the latin funk of Brown Sabbath, a nine member band that interprets Black Sabbath via incredible funk jams. My sweet moves were now at an all time high for what was a very fun and intriguing set, definitely check out this tour if you have the chance. Also of note is the fact that over the course of the weekend Brown Sabbath guitarist Adrian Quesada played two sets with Brown Sabbath, two sets with Spanish Gold, two behind-the-scenes sets and then a final set Monday evening at Music Millennium, the biggest record shop in Portland. Dude earned his check this weekend.
From there the weekend ended the only way it could: yet another random moment of festival magic. As the smoke cleared and people began stumbling home with smiles plastered on their faces, we wandered into the empty and deserted backstage area to see if there was any water left. Once we walked by the kitchen area, I suddenly heard the chorus of a familiar song, Blind Pilot’s beautiful “We Are The Tide”. We pulled back the curtain to the kitchen area to a wonderful scene: Israel Nebeker, Kati Claborn and Luke Ydstie of Blind Pilot were serenading the kitchen staff after a job well done. Of course they were. At that point, I’d stop being surprised by such wonderful occurrences and had come to expect them as the norm. We were at Pickathon after all, the kind of place where magic happens.