The Dream is Alive at Pickathon
“Don’t review the weather. Don’t review the weather.”
This was my mantra as we arrived at our first Pickathon Festival in Happy Valley, Oregon to triple digit temperatures. Until last Saturday, I would’ve told you that an outdoor music festival in 100 degree weather was pretty much my personal version of hell, but Pickathon changed my mind.
And if I can love something, anything, in weather that you sweat just sitting in, where I slept downhill on a rock and found myself 17 different kinds of dirty — someone, somewhere is doing a very special thing … and the folks who run Pickathon certainly are.
Held on Pendarvis Farm, deceptively close to Portland, Oregon, Pickathon is a small festival turned gigantic. Over 3,200 paying attendees and nearly as many volunteers, staff, bands and guests turned the wooded properties into something of a bluegrass Burning Man, minus many of the crazy drugs and all of the annoying strobe lights. Despite its size and scope — there are over four miles of lit trails, every nook and cranny filled with tents and elaborate campsites, decorated with batik blankets, flowers, sculptures and lanterns; and bands from all over the world play from early afternoon to early in the morning on five different stages — Pickathon feels homegrown, anti-corporate and lovingly put together.
At Pickathon, they’ve thought of just about everything to maximize your festival experience. The two main-stages sit side-by-side in an open field, making for none of the long turnover time of your average festival or sprinting between stages for the biggest names. Then there’s the fact that the biggest names, and just about everyone playing the festival, plays at least two sets during the weekend, giving you a chance to see them multiple times or in different settings and lessening scheduling dilemmas. No band is too big for even the smallest festival stage at Pickathon. Headliners Dr. Dog closed out the weekend with an early Monday morning set in the Galaxy Barn, a two to three hundred person room, and Neko Case crooned on a stage built of branches nestled in the Pendarvis woods. Two of my favorite musical moments of the weekend were mainstage performers War on Drugs and Phosphorescent performing intimate sets in the sweltering barn.
And while it’s great to see big names on a tiny stage, Pickathon’s two set paradigm is most beneficial for the lesser known names on the line-up. A stellar first set of the weekend leads to word of mouth buzz all over the festival grounds, making for a much better attended second set. All weekend we heard high praise about The Barr Brothers Friday night starlight set, which had the Woods stage full of people waiting as their Sunday set ran over an hour behind schedule. But it was Lake Street Dive who benefited most from multiple plays. With sassy powerhouse vocalist Rachael Price and the sweetest backing vocals and stand up bass playing you may ever see from Bridget Kearney, this downright cheeky lounge act was the break out of the weekend. Their starlight stage set Saturday night was well attended and word obviously spread quickly as their Sunday afternoon set was the densest day crowd of the weekend and the audience roared for minutes after the band’s set, begging for an encore which they were never granted.
If I had my way, the multiple set and close-by mainstages would be adopted by music festivals everywhere. So would the reasonably priced, locally made food. A handful of Portland’s famous food carts and breweries sold food at the festival, including personal favorite, Pine State Biscuits. The breweries guaranteed there was nary a $14 Budweiser in sight as local brews sold for $4 a glass, as did kombucha for us non-drinkers. These delicious eats were served almost solely on reusable plates you either brought yourself or purchased from the Festival for $10 … and they did the dishes all weekend. To deal with the extreme heat, there were free water trucks all over the festival grounds to fill water bottles and cups with and volunteers and eager children walked around the festival misting over-heated attendants. Shade was found in the open fields of the farm from sculptures that seemed attached to nothing and the natural shade provided by the woods.
These details, thoughtful planning and leave-little-trace approach make Pickathon a revelation and a revolution from traditional festivals. So is Pickathon’s diverse booking. The festival has eschewed the traditional festival season line-up, which lets every region have the chance to see the same giant headliners at their giant, corporate, regional festival, for a uniquely curated event. While a few of the bands, like War on Drugs and Neko Case have been on this summer’s festival circuit, most of the line-up would never be considered for festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza. While some of that surely is disinterest from the average festival going crowd for French zydeco bands, there were infinitely bookable bands at Pickathon playing everything from country music to hip hop. And surely the diversity of the line-up introduced audience members to bands they’d never heard of and would never normally see. All around me barefoot hippies, middle-aged Portland Moms and a man wearing a t-shirt with a wolf and a dream catcher unironically, raved about THEESatisfaction’s deeply satisfying Saturday night set with a mix of surprise and excitement. Unlike the festival circuit, where you know the equation (blog buzz band + this year’s one hit wonder + stomp/clap along band + reunion tour ….) you really never knew what was coming next at Pickathon. While it wasn’t always up my alley, it was always interesting.
While it felt like Pickathon had thought of everything, the festival wasn’t without its flaws. Finding camping on the gigantic property if you don’t arrive early is difficult. There’s over four miles of trails and zero assigned camping. When we arrived, we were told by a camp host it would be hard to find a spot and were pointed in a general direction where she last heard there might be room. We set off with no clue where we were going, no map and hiked for perhaps a mile or more on dusty trails before Derek Fudesco of the Cave Singers, who had just left his campsite pointed us up a small trail to a free spot. Tents are anywhere and everywhere they can be fit and maybe a few places they shouldn’t be. While I appreciate the freedom in finding a spot that best suits you and the general no rules / do it yourself attitude of Pickathon, finding a camping spot was the one unnecessarily stressful part of the weekend.
My only other serious complaint within the festivals control (please make it not a hundred degrees next year) was the perpetual tardiness of the Woods stage. While it is hard to keep a stage on time, letting festival goers know that things are running late isn’t. Considering the Woods stage was a hike away from the main stages and barns where the rest of the music was happening, it would’ve been really nice to know on Sunday that I would leave Blitzen Trapper’s set to wait an hour after the Barr Brothers were supposed to start their set and never see a note of the band. A simple announcement from the main stages would suffice, though an app for festival goers that could provide such updates, would be even better.
Stopping back at our tent for a breather Sunday afternoon, we happened to run into festival founder and organizer Zale Schoenborn and strike up a conversation. Schoenborn appeared to be hiking the trails just chatting to attendants, making sure they were having a good time at the festival and hopefully admiring his handiwork. Because, like the Portlandia skits say, the dream is alive at Pickathon. All festivals don’t have to be alike, they can be wonderfully their own, they can be about more than the music, they can be just what you want them to be. And for me, Pickathon was all of those things. Sustainable, beautifully curated in every aspect, well-executed and enjoyable even in triple digit weather, it is what all festivals, big and small and of every genre, should aspire to be more like.