August 3, 2012

Close your eyes jaded festival-goer, take a deep cleansing breath, and let all your preconceptions melt away.  Now, imagine a spacious organic farm, adjacent to acres of wooded northwest hillside.  Colored string lights code the forest pathways.  Vibrant temporary encampments sprout between trees.  Okay… so it’s also fuckin’ HOT outside and people are everywhere, but they’re lovely, genuinely pleasant people and they’re contently smiling: they’re lying in hammocks with their babies; they’re canoodling with their lovers inside tents.  They’re encircling their campsites with homemade batik flags (like the best kind of hippies).  They’re catching up with old friends, they’re crackin’ jokes, and they’re sharing gourmet sour-cherry-french-toast (made on the spot) with you/a-stranger/a-campsite-neighbor.

You pass a band of beautiful filthy children.  They offer to cool you with a spritz from their water bottles.  You accept the gift of IPA from the neighboring campsite’s keg.  Maybe you have some free water (“free” meaning plentiful and no charge).  You run into people that you know (and actually like) on a hiking trail leading to your new camp home.  You throw a blanket in the pine needles.  You rest in.  You lie there.  Sprawled out in an old growth forest, open, arms around your plus-one, under the canopy of Doug Firs, you listen to some nearby neighbors harmonizing together.  They’re actually serenading you with love songs (cheesy & funny).  Their beautiful, surprisingly excellent, voices sing everything from Hall & Oats to Built to Spill; it’s a silly concert just for you.

What now?  Do you rise up from this blissful spot to seek some delicious, reasonably priced (some would say inexpensive) local, sustainable food?  Do you stroll down the pathways to get a closer taste of Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass?  Do you dare indulge in a ($5) shower & massage to start your adventure clean and subtle?  What is this place with delicious ice cream sandwiches, its own circus school for kids, and 6 stages of music ranging from garage rock to classic blue grass?

It’s Pickathon!!  Just outside of Portland, for three to five days a year, in Happy Valley Oregon (a well named — and not a made up location), there is a fleeting festival Shangri-La erected on 80 acres of organic family farm.  The Pendarvis family has been hosting this pleasant gathering for 13 years.  It is family supported, with the help of some key–mostly local and nearly invisible–corporate sponsorship.

The people in charge of the marketing and planning of this event are thoughtful and thorough.  A tribe has been carefully engineered around these concepts:

Do unto the festival-goer as you would want done unto you:

  • The temporary city that is Pickathon provides amenities that I have pined for at other festivals.  Basic facilities for hygiene, human interaction, and eating & drinking are plentiful and affordable.  A variety of local food offerings serve everything from vegan pastries to homemade Basque chorizo (ranging from $3-$9).  The water is free and available (which I already mentioned above, but it’s so humane that I have to mention it again).  Hand-washing stations with actual running water (hot & cold) are also located throughout the premises.  Showers are open from 7am-10pm.  There are places to get out of the sun, quiet camp zones for families, a pay-what-you-can first aid station, bags of ice available for purchase at the merchandise tables, and plenty of fun activities for the cool kids (meaning the under 12 years old set).  I know that’s it’s unbelievable, but it’s all true.

Variety is the Spice of Indie-Roots Life:

  • Unless you’re a dedicated candy raver, juggalo, gangsta rapper, complete moron, or a whiny snob, you will find some music that you can groove to at this event.  The offerings are diverse; from the hard driving punk tinged sounds of Thee Oh Sees to the old-timey banjo murder ballads of Abagail Washburn.  You will find something interesting that you weren’t looking for.  There is something for most.  But, there are so many interesting acts playing at the same time that you might worry about missing something.  Don’t fear missing out!  Here are two good reasons not to stress about missing your favorite act:
    • Most performers play more than once (perhaps late Friday night and maybe early Sunday morning), and you can also catch most acts at very different venues (say, on a small stage deep in the woods, while lying in a hammock, or in a massive field, while dancing your heart out).
    • Don’t stress, even if you did (ahem… like me) sleep through an act that you aimed to see.  The success of your experience at this music festival will not be wholly reliant on the musical line-up.  The schedule is good as any.  But, while many/most music festivals rely on their acts to bring in the crowds, this festival’s culture is a reason in itself to attend.

    As evidence to the last statement, nearly every performer that I saw spent some good stage time earnestly thanking Pickathon for inviting them, and talking about what a rare and excellent experience we were all part of.

Tread lightly on the earth and on the Pendarvis Meadows & Forests:

  • What is micro-trash?  We learned that it’s the tiny little bits of debris that humans leave behind, and Pickathon wants none of it!  The green aim of this festival is set from the first “please throw away some micro-trash” signage and is authentically carried through the event in endless non-puritanical ways.  Everyone’s favorite sustainable touch is the system of ten dollar wooden tokens.  This magic token meant that any of a variety of (popular & local) food-truck vendors would fill a recycled souvenir plate-bowl for us to use.  After we filled our bellies, we would simply drop our food-ware at a dishwashing station.  No single use crap for us to feel poorly about, no dishes for us to do, and we got to keep a clean souvenir plate-bowl to take home.

The organizers of this event are doing something realyl special here, because the reality is that I HATE festivals.  Just the idea of listening to drunk people shout at each other while I wait in an enormous porta-potty line, before drinking a $8 bottle of water, and consuming a $10 hot dog makes me borderline suicidal, but that nightmare is noticeably absent at Pickathon.  You’re treated like an intelligent human that deserves basic hygiene.  The diverse offerings insure that you’re probably going to see something wonderful that you likely have never seen before.   And, somehow, those loud, drunk, self-involved festival-idiot-regulars that push/cut in line, litter, or fall down drunk into you don’t exist in this crowd.  My only disappointment is that this event has somehow escaped my attention for last 12 years.

Interested?  The following is a diary of my experience at the 2012 Pickathon Festival, including a brief survival-guide, with my must-do list for next year.  [I’m already planning for next year!]

Day One [8/3/12]

10:00am(ish) – The road to someplace:

My boyfriend, Jamie & I leave Seattle later than we had hoped.  We’ve skimmed the online recommendations for Pickathon, but are still unsure if we’ve packed too little or too much.  We make a stop to pick up my daughter’s all-terrain Radio Flyer wagon.  Wagon’s are recommended on the online Pickathon Survival Guide.  My tiny Suzuki is jam packed. Off we go!

12:30pm – Eat it, support veterans, choose pancakes, and beat it:

An hour or so outside of Pickathon and we’re starving.  We pull off the road to the American Café’, a small diner with a large gravel parking lot and a restroom around the back of the building.  It was just off of the highway.  I don’t remember what city it’s in or even the exact name of it; I think it’s “the American Café.”  You’ll know it by the floor to ceiling framed images of veterans (from WWI to present), the choice of pancakes or toast with your giant brunch (which delighted Jamie), and by the servers who are either way too sweet or completely sassy (in that great old school diner sarcasm way).  Our server Nate (?) harasses us while we grin.

1:30pm – Finding the festival:

Satiated and jolly, we continue on driving outside of Portland, then debate whether we’re anywhere near the festival.  The blinky blue sphere on my phone looks promising, but we don’t see any traffic, disorder or commotion.  At last, we see a Pickathon sign in a dirt lot on our left.  There still isn’t any commotion.  There are, however, happy helpers in Pickathon T-shirts.  We follow the waving arms of the parking attendants.  This is where we pick up tickets and get information.  Jamie stands in a general admission line, which is fairly long, but it’s moving.  I mock him as I prance up to the press table.  The helpers are helpful.  I get my press-pass-wristband and directions to the general parking area.

I have three fairly carefree days with my fella ahead of me.  No work, no work, or work.  Only two obligations: take pictures & write about whatever I see fit.  I also have amazing access at this event.  The Pickathon back stage situation is deluxe (it includes free ice cream, beer, and massages, but more on that later).  All this good stuff and free time makes me feel like a super hero with the superpower of being obnoxious.

I can’t find my boyfriend through the winding will-call line.  I start to shout “Marco….?”  Then I hesitate.  I am intent on embarrassing myself.  Suddenly, I feel like my own Jewish Grandmother–so embarrassing–only this time it’s me that’s embarrassing me.  Before I can pretend that I didn’t say “Marco…?” I hear “Polo!” from the back of the line.  It is the voice of a lady that I don’t know.  Conveniently, she is standing in front of Jamie.  I sheepishly apologize for being annoying.  She introduces herself and her husband Marc (that she sometimes calls Marco).  She then informs us that they play the same finding game in a large crowd.  Only they have a twist: one of them shouts “Nacho” the other shouts “Bravo.”  They explain that they actually have a certain friend with this quirky name.  “I have a friend with this name too,” I admit excitedly.  We deduce that we know the exact same friend with the fun name.  What’s more, “Nacho” will be joining them at Pickathon this weekend.  I haven’t seen my good sweet friend in years.  I take this as an omen of good things to come.

2:00pm – Loading up:

We drive a short distance to the official parking lot and do our best to load ourselves up thoughtfully, settling on an uncomfortable combination of carrying, wearing, and rolling.

2:30pm – Campsite schmampsite:

We had read the online survival guide, which recommended arriving early for the best pick of camping spots.  WE DECIDED NOT TO LISTEN.  Instead, we took our time getting here and now we suffer the consequences.  We check in at the camp host, which consists of a large map and a few dudes that point to where we might find camping.  They shrug and seem uncertain.  We head into the woods and wander around aimlessly.  It’s incredibly hot and we’re being weighed down by all of our stuff.  It’s difficult to locate any kind of opening for a tent to fit in.  I contemplate setting our tent in a small ditch of overgrown brambles, which is jammed between a half a dozen trees, but we opt against it and continue to search for any flat spot that we can find.

After 40 or so minutes of aimlessly wandering with no results, I go off on my own (with my cell phone and a blanket) and leave Jamie behind with our supplies in a pile.  His ankles are suffering from the constant angle of tramping up and down hill.  I am suffering from being out of shape and old.  I wind all around the dusty pathways until I just give up looking for a reasonable location.  Eventually, I locate a map that lays out the farthest reaches of the property.  “There must be a spot high up,” I think.  I find a small trail which is labeled the “Back 40 Loop.”  Even the Back 40 is dense with tents.  When I find a spot big enough for us, I get all weepy.  Throwing our blanket down in the pine needles, I treat myself to a brief rest.

3:30pm – The uphill battle:

Now – somehow—we have located one another deep in the woods and are making our way back to our distant campsite.  It’s exhausting lugging our stuff uphill, but the wagon is a blessing.  Jamie is stronger than I am, but I feel badly that he has the worst of it.  We see people really struggling without wheels.  Jamie helps some folks push uphill, and some other folks stop to help us push our wagon up a particularly rough patch.  There are friendly folks at every turn.

4:00pm – The neighbors’ house:

By the time we do actually get to our site, which, at this point, equals our blanket thrown in the woods, we are out of breath and covered in a thin layer of dirt that’s sticking to our sweat.  We park our wagon and drop everything else on the ground.  Then we hit the ground.  I lie on the blanket looking up at the pines.  Jamie lies down next to me.  So, we’re just lying there without saying anything.  It is slightly cooler down low.  We lie here on our backs with our arms around each other.  People are still milling around looking for spots, but we hardly notice.  It’s so peaceful in this moment.  We look up into the old growth pines swaying.  It’s dorky as all get out, but it feels like we are the only two people in the world now.  It’s seems like time has stopped.

We consciously come to.  We’re pretty happy right here, so debate whether being at a music festival entails getting up from this spot to actually see the music or not.

I now notice that our campsite is actually just a wee little spot within the fringes of the complex, temporary outdoor home, constructed by our new neighbors.  It’s clear that they’ve done this Pickathon weekend before.  Like many regulars to this festival, they’ve built themselves an elaborate set-up, which has both utility and panache.  There are giant international flags creating the framework for outdoor rooms.  Two large family sized tents make dorms.  Hammocks, paper lanterns, an outdoor kitchen, a toileting area complete with mirror & dressing room, a music/jamming circle/living room around a large lantern (like a make-believe campfire), and kitschy framed artwork which has been lovingly nailed to the trees all make-up the scene.

I don’t know how I didn’t notice this before I picked our spot, but there are now a handful of twenty-somethings that we are intimately sharing our weekend with.

We listen as they jokingly harass each other about their clothing choices.  One of the guys has opted for corduroys on the hottest weekend of the year.  The group brainstorms alternatives based on what they have collectively packed.  Bike-shorts is one of the options that he declines (“Good for you” I think).  Finally, the group decides on a jersey skirt for their friend.  He puts on a straw hat to complete the look.  He looks great, actually.

We’re on our feet putting our tent together.  Our new friends introduce themselves.  They’re gracious, boisterous, and friendly.  We let them borrow our wagon to transport their keg uphill and they offer us a cold beer.  We chat a little, but decline beer for now.  We make a loose hit list of bands to see and head down to the music.

5:30pm – Abagail Washburn:

A few years’ back I saw Abigail Washburn open for Steve Martin.  She was a highlight of that show for me, so I’m keen to see her perform as more of a main event.  We make our first trip out of the woods and into festival proper, passing several stages, vendors, and services.  The “Galaxy Barn” sits to the far edges of the festival grounds and is packed.  Jamie and I stand outside on tiptoes trying to see over heads through the barn door.  It takes me a minute to remember that I have press access to the stage.  I apologetically ditch my no-access boyfriend and try to politely locate a viewing position.  I see a few event workers and they’re misting folks and manning the backstage entrance with smiles.  They check my wrist band and are attitude free.  “Go on in, there’s beer and cold water” a nice blond girl says.  Hesitating at first, I then make my way through the makeshift walls made of sheets.  I always feel like a borderline douchebag when I have access to things that other people don’t, but then I quell my Jewish guilt by reminding myself that those other folks aren’t working, and that I have to think a lot harder about what I’m seeing than they do.  There are kegs of beer, water dispensers, a utility sink, and various strewn bags of half empty snacks that I pass on my way to find a worn wooden door, leading to a dark nook between gear, stage left.  There are five or so other people standing where I am, but they notice my camera and soundlessly invite me to the best spot.

It’s nice to see Washburn as more than an opening claw-hammer act.  This time she’s on stage with singer songwriter, Kai Welch.  On the Pickathon line-up page it states that Abigail had originally stumbled upon him while he was “playing Keyboards with the Nashville band Tommy & the Whale.”  Additionally,  Kai contributes harmonica and guitar in support of Washburn this afternoon.  They’re a good compliment for each other.  Like any good duo, they have the chemistry to be able to play songs and switch gears in time with barely a nod.

Her banjo driven tunes are accompanied by engaging stories about living in China, living in Tennessee, and living in Vermont while missing China.  She rotates her own modern murder ballads with traditional songs from the Szechuan province.  She sings in clear English, with a Southern gospel tinge, and then in fluent Chinese.  She shares the story of a Chinese friend that received a letter from his wife in China, a letter which explained that his wife was leaving him and taking their child away.  The song is dedicated to all of those that spend their days working hard for a better life.  It’s a cheesy story, but it hits home.  It feels like the truth.

Washburn and Welch harmonize, whisper, belt, and yodel through an exquisite selection of songs.  Then she puts down her instrument and walks to the front of the stage, welcoming what appears to be a young family member of hers.  “My family is here,” she says, but I don’t quite catch the pre-teens girls’ exact relation to her.  They stand there at the edge of the small stage and Abigail invites the crowd to join them as they sing “Keys to the Kingdom” a capella.  This is an intimate moment in a small space.  Some of the crowd sings.  Some just clap or snap along with Washburn.

Something rare is in the air here.  I soon learn that most artists are spending the weekend jamming privately in small unofficial venues all over the festival grounds.  For the love of actual music making, they jam in tiny huts, near stumps in the woods, and impromptu, backstage.  Here is just one moment with Washburn and Welch caught backstage at the festival this year:

5:50pm – Leaving the banjo:

I am enjoying myself, but am having a hard time not feeling guilty.  I’m shaded and drinking a free cold water, just feet from the stage with an unimpeded view.  I see Jamie now and again through the crush outside the sliding barn door.  He is the whitest guy that I know and he’s standing in the direct sunlight craning for a peek at the show.  This is our first festival experience together, and I don’t care how gracious he is, I feel like an ass for leaving him to sunburn within the first hour.  Abandoning my perfect spot, I go to meet him outside.

We check our iPhones for the online schedule, comparing it with our informal list of bands to catch.  We’re still trying to understand which stages have which names.  Locating the large dual main stages with minimal trouble, we find a pretty decent spot and lay our blanket down in the grass.   Soon we’re sitting and eating local spring rolls and Thai noodles and taking in the festival scene.  There are old hippies, classic Portland hepsters, moms in REI camp-skirts with kids on their hips, modern day cowboys, and plenty of ironic and non-ironic mustaches.

6:00pm- White Denim:

Christopher (Monsterfresh founder/editor) shared some recommendations with me via text.  White Denim is on the list.   The Pickathon line-up blurb stated that they’re “danceable rock music.”  I also read a Guardian UK review which labels them as a “classic stoners’ band.”  While we wait, I gloss more reviews that include the terms “complex time-signatures,” “psychedelic,” “fiddly,” “impressive,” and “guitar driven” as descriptors for this Austin quartet.  Nothing that I read prepares me for the contagious joy which White Denim provide on the Fir Meadows Stage this evening.  They politely take the stage, then gleefully tear it apart.  Guitarist/vocalist, James Petralli is the polite part of the act.  He manages to shred complex rhythms while maintaining the allure of a reluctant frontman.  Even while growling through a track like “Bess St.,” he appears, oddly, like the boy that your parents would be thrilled to have at dinner.  But, the music conveys a mood that betrays Petralli’s composed demeanor.  Part jazz, jam, funk, “math-rock,” alt-country and a gazillion other genres, these guys know their music history and they’ve blended it together, somehow pulling it off with pure rockin’ joy.  Guitarist Austin Jenkins is the tell, with an ear-to-ear grin like a visual megaphone of delight!  I am fairly occupied with photographing Jenkins.  He’s having so much fun that it’s hard to take my camera off of him.

They perform many off of their 2011 release, D, including “Burnished,” “Anvil Everything,” “It’s Him,” and the Pedarvis Farm-appropriate title, “At the Farm.”  I am enjoying White Denim.  I am also enjoying the scenery.  The Fir Meadows Stage is one of two main stages which are positioned side by side in festival central.  A huge sculptural fabric awning shades both the stages and the crowd.  Idyllic scenery abuts the festival site on every side.  These guys occasionally get out-wowed by the backdrop which surrounds them.  I make a note to attend a White Denim show in a smaller venue, where they can properly blow the roof off a joint.

7:00pm- Whitey Morgan:

The genius of the two main stages being placed adjacent to each other is that one band sets up while the other is playing.  You could sit in one spot all weekend and see a wide variety of acts playing non-stop side-by-side.  White Denim completes their set, so we turn our heads slightly to the left and we’re ready to watch Whitey Morgan & the 78’s.  Since we’re sitting here, we get to see a band that we might not otherwise have made the effort to catch.  How do I explain Whitey Morgan and his mates?  They are genuine unapologetic honky tonk.  All beards, leather vests, and a “Thin Lizzy cover,” we listen and enjoy the straightforwardness.  Here is a clip of the band performing in the Galaxy Barn on the following night:

8:00pm – Typhoon:

Now we face slightly to the right for the next act.  The members of Typhoon (2 violins, 2 drummers, accompanied by keyboards, guitars, electric bass, and a horn section) have set up and are ready to go.  Lead singer, Kyle Morton’s voice reminds me of Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, but the music (in contrast to Koenig’s band) has a sweet melancholic layer beneath even the most up tempo songs.  Soon after they begin, we agree that they are our favorite act so far.  For such a large ensemble they seem to operate as one organism.  In a post from MySpoonful.com, writer, Lauren Rosenthal describes them as follows:

The group masterfully combines indie rock instrumentals and vocals with violins, percussion, hand claps, xylophone, horns and a choir of other instruments, making for inspiring and catchy songs.”

I can’t describe it any better.  I’ll buy the album when I get home.

Here is a clip from a private session that Seattle’s KEXP radio station filmed with Typhoon at Pickathon:

9:00pm – Blitzen Trapper:

It is twilight and warm outside.  We walk past the car camping area and onto a wooded pathway.  Giant inflatable lanterns light the entrance and strings of colored L.E.D.s illuminate each path.  We’re headed to the Woods Stage to see Blitzen Trapper.  Here forested trails merge into a clearing.  In the open space is an amphitheatre with straw-bale seating for the many and hammocks (which line the surrounding trees) for the early arrivers.  The smallish stage is embraced by walls of branches.  It takes some time before the band is ready to go on.

They enter the stage in the dim light.  These are Portland-boys-gone-big, so the crowd is also quite large.  They thank everyone.  They thank Pickathon.  They say they’ve spent two months on the road and that they’re happy to be home.

I’ve never made an effort to see Blitzen Trapper before.  Maybe it’s because I don’t hear their name correctly in my messed up brain–for some reason I always associate their moniker with Trapper Keepers— but, I’ve heard so much buzz that I’m curious and am willing to walk back into the woods to see what the big deal is all about.  The big deal is this: they’re great musicians and worth the hype!

Some of the most popular bands here expertly mix genres.  This band vacillates between southern rock, folk and, 80‘s prog, and old school rock and roll.  After a long day of listening to music, the thing that sets them apart is that their clothing says disheveled burnout rocker, but their performance is nearly flawless.  In person (at least on this night), their sound almost comes through like a recording.  They’re mature, deft musicians, not a garage band of twenty-somethings.  They reference 70‘s greats and, during the song, “Astronaut,” they even remind me a bit of late 70s Elton John.  They cover “Good Times, Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin and are so clean that it’s almost missing something.  But it’s fun!  People are singing and dancing.  The band ends their set with the popular “Big Black Bird.”  The audience knows the words, dancing in the dark and shouting a chorus of “Heave ho…”  Before leaving the stage, they thank everyone for coming, taking a moment to inform us about how much this festival means to them.  “Give it up for the crew that made this possible,” says lead singer Eric Early.  There’s no doubt that we’re lucky to be here.

11:00pm – The Rest:

We’ve had a full day.  We choose to skip the three other things that we could be seeing and opt to rest a little.  There’ll be time to see all those bands again in the next few days.

1:00pm – Not the Barr Brothers:

We set our alarms for 12:30amThe Barr Brothers are scheduled to play the Starlight Stage at 1:00am.  I’ve read that the group has a warbling folk rock sound that is best caught live.  They’ve also been recommended by more than one friend.  We’re sleepy, but we rise and walk the camp ground trails to a smaller outdoor stage, which is set back behind the sound booth for the large twin stage set-up.  Empty blankets informally reserve seats on the darkened fields in front of the Mountain View and Fir Meadows stages.  Most people have gone to bed, but a crowd is gathered around the starlight stage.  Los Cojolites is playing music.  Dressed in whites and baby blues, the Veracruz band is like a cartoon mirage to my sleepy eyes.

Where are the Barr Brothers?”  We ask a nearby ukulele vendor.  He makes his way toward us from behind the back curtain of an adjacent booth.  “They were just on” he says.  We realize that the schedule listing was wrong.  At first I’m disappointed.  I had set my alarm for the Barr Brothers and now, I’d hiked down to the Starlight Stage when I could be sleeping.  But then I pay closer attention to the band that is performing.  They’re captivating–a group inspired by traditions of their native Mexico.  I’m hazy, but there’s no doubt that they’re pleasant to watch.  Jamie buys us each a slice of wood-fire pizza.  Yum, these babies are just out of the mobile pizza oven.  We listen to the feet dancing rhythms on a hollow wooden box which sits on the stage, and observe the ethereal Los Cojolites with hot cheese on our tongues.  The sky is crusted with stars.  A few songs filter through like a dream.  We amble back to our tent and to bed.  It’s cooling down.  Tomorrow, it is certain, will be another great day.

[Click Here for Day 2]