As tempting as it is to resort to the type of quick hubris typically reserved for psilocybic adventures and dreamstate escapades, encapsulating Pickathon into recap form ought to be a more thoughtful endeavor. To tie it up in a neat bow of magical hyperbole has been done (and not unfittingly), even probably by my own hand at some point; but while the magic remained strong at Pendarvis Farm as the 21st annual Pickathon blinked a sad adieu Monday morning to its groggy Sunday night campers, the job of trying to put it all into perspective is important. To separate spectator from experiencer. To make sure it mattered.
In short, it did matter. It does every year, even as the festival grows without growing, refines itself in stealthy ways and reimagines the festival experience for those who’ve been attending since it took place at Horning’s Hideout, as well as for those for whom the 2019 edition was their first time. Hopefully, those who do go every year don’t begin to take the free water, the lack of single-use dishware and utensils, the delicious artisan fare for granted. But the main attraction, as ever, is the music, so let’s take a look at some of the highlights from the weekend’s stacked lineup of performers.
Reptaliens: Treeline Stage
Portland’s Reptaliens welcomed a still-arriving crowd to their Treeline Stage performance donning shoulder-length white wigs, dinosaur costumes, extra-long appendage prosthetics, and a heaping dose of funked-out lounge rock. Bassist Bambi Browning is a total dynamo at holding the rhythmic interplay together, and as maestro to the teeming woodspeople, she and the band were a fantastic coronation to the weekend’s musical mazes.
Phil Lesh: Mt. Hood Stage
You needn’t be a Dead scholar to have appreciated the fact that legendary bassist Phil Lesh was indeed performing this year, along with the Terrapin Family Band; and you don’t need to have encyclopedic knowledge of the back catalog to have immersed yourself in the jammy wormholes heard in Lesh’s Thursday night Mt. Hood Stage set. Whether through the deconstruction of staple tunes like “Sugar Magnolia,” “Scarlet Begonias,” or any other sorta flower-related gem, Lesh’s transcendent performance was picture-perfect for Pickathon.
Mountain Man: Starlight Stage
Like an aural time warp to backporch Appalachia, Vermont vocal trio Mountain Man mesmerized during their late-night Starlight Stage set, offering songs that seem ingrained into the American roots-folk subconscious. Their playful between-song banter juxtaposed nicely with the witchy harmonics they bellowed their tunes with, and the audience at one point gifted them with apples and peanut butter upon (a likely sarcastic) request, prompting them to verbally acquiesce to the infamous Pickathon “magic.”
Soft Kill: Galaxy Barn
They may have looked a little uncomfortable, it being such an illuminated festival, but Portland’s Soft Kill executed a stunning late-night set at the Galaxy Barn on Thursday. The band’s intrinsic, moody, Cure-inspired pop landed the gloomy hues you’d expect, even when they were shrouded in neon lights they likely weren’t accustomed to. “This lighting guy is fucked!” laughed vocalist and guitarist Tobias Grave at one point. The band’s intense set was a cathartic exposition, steeped in redemption from addiction, and won over the audience as much as the band seemed to be won over by Pickathon’s positive atmosphere.
Help: Galaxy Barn
Portland’s Best New Band (as voted upon by many Portland artists, including yours truly, and heralded as such in Willamette Week) was a last-minute addition to Pickathon’s lineup, but showed up determined to make the most of the short turnaround the way they always do: by decimating every eardrum in proximity to their ruckus. Their Treeline Stage set was but a precursor to the sweaty, loud, punk-club explosion of their Galaxy Barn set later in the weekend. The band is so new, they only have about seven songs total, so rather than posture some free-jam supplement to their sets, the band just hit rewind and started the whole set again, which made for dynamic, propulsive, painful-looking performances by the band, who all looked like they’d been in a 15-round prizefight by the end of the weekend.
Sudan Archives: Mt. Hood Stage
Shrouded in a flowy red dress from head-to-toe, Sudan Archives—the project of Los Angeles-based artist Brittney Parks—unleashed a hypnotic set of loop-based violin and vocal tracks that slaked the thirst of an overheated crowd during her afternoon main stage set. Parks’ multifaceted performance soared, as the one-woman crew belted out R&B-sourced anthems, hip-hop-centric bangers, and experimental Sudanese outbursts in what became a signature set of the entire weekend.
Altin Gün: Treeline Stage
In one of the final sets of the weekend, Amsterdam-based Turk psych rockers Altin Gün took advantage of the trippy lights and deep forest grooves of the Treeline Stage, turning it into a psychedelic freakout of epic proportions in the process. The band’s other set occurred in the afternoon light of the Mt. Hood Stage, and was also a highlight, though the atmosphere and revelry of the festival faithful seemed to shine the darker it was outside. Steeped in rare-groove rhythms and impressive technicality, Altin Gün staked their claim to being the biggest surprise of the weekend.
Courtney Marie Andrews: Treeline Stage
Courtney Marie Andrews’ voice is so majestic it’s hard to put into words. Suffice it to say that only the previous weekend, she’d been handpicked by Dolly Parton to accompany her onstage during her surprise performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Uh… yeah, she’s that good. Andrews and her band were pitch-perfect in-the-pocket during both of her sets, but this afternoon affair at the Treeline Stage was particularly enchanting, and provided new listeners a great primer for the wonders that Andrews’ songwriting and delivery can achieve.
Viagra Boys: Woods Stage
Stockholm art-punks Viagra Boys began their Woods Stage set with a lot of swagger, and a barely contained depravity, which paired oddly well with the soothing harmonics of wonky saxophones, driving bass lines and squirrelly synths. It was an exhibition of excess with vocalist Sebastian Murphy, whose chain-smoking, beer-chugging hobo ruse worked wonders in an insane Bee Gees-Stooges hybrid that was as funny as it was filthy.
Bodega: Mt. Hood Stage
Brooklyn post-punks Bodega rocked a high-energy, minimalist set of ragged missives on internet culture, pseudo-culture and poseurs, luring in a bevvy of shoeless dancers to the Mt. Hood Stage. Interspersed throughout their performance were cheeky robotic commentaries on the automaton smartphone user endlessly scrolling, liking, swiping right, as is a central theme on their aptly titled recent LP, Endless Scroll. Raucous tunes like “Name Escape” and “Why Did This Happen?” were unrelenting, musically interesting nuggets as steeped in the punky songcraft of Violent Femmes as they were explorative post-punk outfits like Parquet Courts.
Nap Eyes: Mt. Hood Stage
In keeping with the ease-in vibes of Pickathon’s main stage openers, Nova Scotia’s Nap Eyes dropped dreamy lo-fi pop onto a sleepy Sunday morning festival still grabbing coffee and Pine State Biscuits. Vocalist Nigel Chapman’s annunciation for every sung syllable was reminiscent of a heavy-lidded Lou Reed, and projected some mystic-lite wisdoms from the band’s subdued set. This was a pristine set of easy-does-it bedroom rock that I have been unable to shake since hearing it.
Yob: Woods Stage
Another late-weekend highlight was the sheer wall of noise emanating from the mains of the Woods Stage when Eugene metal overlords Yob began their set. It’s still a bit of an anomaly for music this heavy to make its way out to Pendarvis Farm, and the only other time it happened was when vocalist and guitarist Mike Scheidt’s other band VHÖL performed in 2016. Needless to say, it was a maelstrom of heavy, doom metal decadence, replete with copious hair whips, squalling guitars and jackhammer drumming that completely ruined anyone’s campsite napping for over an hour, were they unfortunate enough to have chosen an early evening. Long live metal at Pickathon though; so long as it’s a little witchy.
News on Sunday of yet another couple of mass shootings seemed like such a stupefying contrast to the bucolic joy coursing through Pickathon’s four-day celebration, and threatened to tear down a lot of the festive ambiance of the event. Later news in the days following Pickathon’s finale of two workers being killed while breaking down the shade rigging further brought the scope of the festival back down to earth, in a tragic, accidental incident. Still, the camaraderie of a relatively low-key gathering of loving people in the woods outside of Portland, dancing, laughing and singing together for a while—muting out the cold hysterics of a divided nation and poisoned, ideological extremes—was a kind of salve... a primer for how to get along with each other better. And I guess that’s where the temptation to deify something as magically communal as Pickathon gets a bit more legs. Maybe we can let something be magic and not try to twist it up into the rest of the socio-political sphere for just a few days. Maybe the whole world oughta spend a few days in the woods being kind to each other. —Ryan J. Prado