We gave opbmusic contributor Matt Drenik a 1000 word assignment to cover the Pickathon music festival held on Pendarvis Farm during the first weekend of August. He turned in 5000 words on dehydration, dirt, & joy. This is his epic journey.
First things first- get cash. There’s nothing worse than being stuck out in the middle of nowhere without cash.
“You take cards?” I ask.
“Sorry,” a vendor replies.
Second, figure out where to get some water. I see all these fountains, but no cups. Kids are running by me, screaming and throwing dirt.
I walk over to one of them, “Where’d ya get that cup?”
“At the dish place!”
“Inside, dummy!” He points to an entrance just beyond the endless row of portapotties.
“Pickathon.” I mumble to myself.
A few days earlier, Jerad Walker asked me to cover the Pickathon music festival for opbmusic.
“What do you want me to write about?” I asked him. I knew that festivals weren’t really my thing. I always hated seeing bands during the day, especially in the middle of a field, but I also pitched the idea months earlier.
“You’ll find something,” he wrote back. “I trust you to find your muse on this one.”
I agreed and decided to go it alone, with no agenda, and try to find a story buried in the woods near Happy Valley, Oregon. Is it the bands? Food? Environment? What is it about seeing an endless line of musicians perform for thirty minutes at a time that makes us think we’re getting our money’s worth? What are we really after?
It’s a blazingly hot Saturday afternoon, and I’m still looking for a goddamn cup. I wander up the side of a hill, past the kid’s tent. There’s a guy in a cape singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.” One kid runs up and falls on his face. He starts crying, then his mom starts crying.
“We’re camping!” someone randomly yells nearby. All around me are tents. People are playing, eating, and strumming acoustic guitars. I glance into one, but feel awkward, wondering why anyone would camp here. But upon further investigation, I quickly realize that I’m the only one not camping. I’m the idiot.
I walk past the tents to a stage made from a mountain of cardboard circles and find a band, drenching everyone in jangled guitar rock.
“We’re Total Babes,” says their lead singer.
They’re totally not, but I guess that’s the point. They are from Cleveland, though. I think about Archers of Loaf and Ohio and how I used to love being from Ohio. First band down.
I finally find the backstage area. There’s not much to it but a bunch of haystacks and a beer line. I look around to see if I know anyone. Negative. I ask someone about the water situation.
The kid next to me looks miffed. “There’s a cup guy,” he says.
“Out there,” he points.
I think about putting my face up to the faucet and sucking.
I need a muse. What am I doing here?
Back out in the crowd, I’m frantically looking for the cup guy. Someone finally points me in the direction of the dish station. I burst with joy as I order a cup.
“Ah, man! We’re all out!” says the dish guy.
“Yeah, we ran out.”
I’m dying a slow death.
“But it’s 2pm,” I whimper.
“I know dude. I bet they still have ‘em in the beer tents. Just order a beer and they’ll get you a cup.”
“But I don’t want a beer.”
“Well, just dump it out.”
My bad luck points me back down the hill, into the main festival area, surrounded by a sea of people drinking water and dancing. There’s a band on top of it all, riding the storm with capes, wrapping everyone in a bed of psychedelic guitar sludge. Meatbodies.
“Meatbodies!” I yell.
I have no idea who they are, but they’ll be my soundtrack as I head back to the backstage beer line to try and land a cup.
In line, I run into a woman who tells me she works for the company that supplies all the festivals cups.
“Seriously?” I ask.
“Where do I get one?”
“They’re everywhere.” she says.
This is such BS. I tell her my story, how I’m lost and trying to find out where all this is heading, but she ignores me, telling me about Colorado, how she loves the snow, and how this is the hundredth festival she’s done this year.
I point to the bartender, “So, he’ll give me a cup?”
“He should,” she says as her friend comes up and cuts in line.
I speak up, “How ‘bout a cup?”
“What kinda beer?” asks the bartender.
“No beer. Just water.”
“We don’t have water back here, just beer. But I’ll get ya a cup. 5 bucks.”
I gladly hand over five bucks.
There’s a green water tank on a table. I run over. I fill my glass five times and slurp. All the while, Meatbodies hover with their weirdo, psych sludge. Watching them from the side of the stage, amped on water, I’m genuinely impressed as they effortlessly toss guitar solos high in the air. At the same time, I realize my dreams of playing psych rock are all but gone. These guys would bury me with my cup.
I get up and walk back towards the kid’s tent and text my friend Nancy. She writes back and tells me to meet her at her campsite in the RV lot, just beyond the portapotties. Now, Nancy is a Pickathon believer, a true disciple that comes every year, no matter what. But she’s not the only one. I’m beginning to see that this festival has a cultish following. People actually plan their summers around it, and I’m increasingly curious to find out why. So I’m off to find Nancy with the hope that she can give me some insight.
Nancy waves. Her metallic shades are reflecting in the sunlight.
“Hi,” she says, bringing me behind a tapestry taped up between two cars and into her own private Idaho, littered with beers, cigarettes, food, trays, and coolers. Nancy sits there with a few friends talking about the festival; who they were excited to see, why they were excited to see them.
I dive straight in. “So, what is it about this one that makes you come back, year after year?”
“Uh, it’s the best,” she says. “It’s well-curated, and clean! And I mean clean! None of that half-eaten hotdog on the ground, Sasquatch! crap. And, I can drink a beer in my tent and not have to walk a mile.”
Fair enough. I empathize.
I remember playing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a few years ago and thinking, “Man, there are a lot of people doing a lot of things in this crowd that I don’t want anything to do with.” And that’s the stigma surrounding most festivals. They can be lame. Most people call out high prices, parking, food, “bros”, and overall exhaustion as the culprits.
“But this isn’t that,” her friend chimes in. “This is different. See, I’m in my forties. I don’t wanna go hang out with a bunch of twelve year olds doing Molly. And I don’t wanna pay eleven bucks for a PBR.”
Again, fair enough I think.
I hustle back into the crowd, mainly out of habit, so as not to miss anything I’d regret. I’m still not quite sure what I’m looking for. All I know is that festivals are long. I’ve played them. They never end. One band starts, then another, then another. Pretty soon they’ve all played and I’ve somehow missed half of it because I couldn’t decide what to see. We’re almost trained to do this.
A roar comes on as the announcer yells, “JD McPherson!” I run up and watch the rhythm and slash and feel like a jerk for standing at the side of the stage instead of out in the crowd. Why am I back here? I see Nancy out in the distance, dancing. She looks happy. I hop over the plastic fence and make my way into the thick of it.
“He’s good, ain’t he?” a girl says to me, emphatically. She’s a cowgirl.
I look back at the stage. “Yeah, he’s good.”
McPherson has a soft quality that at first makes him seem tender, a serious rock ’n’ roller. The women are sold. But after a few songs he’s off to a ripping set of stomp rock that makes me feel that he’s more than just a revivalist. He can howl with the best of them. The cowgirl smiles at me.
I take off back into the woods, once again afraid of committing to anything too long.
On the trail there’s a kid drawing portraits. He looks like a mini Kurt Vile.
“Two bucks, man.” he says.
I reach into my pocket.
“You got change?” I ask.
I continue on my way, down another trail towards a warped looking Game of Thrones type pavilion called the Woods Stage. The stage is set back, behind a mess of branches forming a fence. I sit on some hay and wait. The band on stage looks young. Well, I say young, but I don’t really know how young. They make me feel old, and I’m supposed to be young.
The singer’s screaming nonsense into the mic, “Oooh!” The delay is endless, deafening, swallowing everything in its wake. I stay afloat, long enough to start up a conversation with the girl next to me.
“Broncho,” I tell her. “They’re from Oklahoma.”
This is one of the few bands I knew to see. They had a minor hit earlier this year with “Class Historian”, a slacker, pop masterpiece with just enough Stooges and just enough Mark Bolan to make you believe in their strut.
“That’s a lotta delay,” I say to her.
We start talking about the festival, and I ask her what it is that draws her in.
“It’s the bands,” she says. I like feeling like I can show up and see something I’ve never heard before and dig it. And it’s intimate. I mean, look at this place.”
I look around at the magical, fairy-like pavilion.
“Plus we stay out here, every year. Back there, in the woods. Look, don’t write a puff piece or everyone will come and ruin it.”
Once things become too good to be true, it’s usually because they are, I think.
Onstage the vocal effects are dizzying, twisting me into a pathetic daze. A guy stands right in front of me and now I’m staring at the back of his head.
“Hey, man,” I say.
I move to the side. The delays are getting worse and pretty soon I’m underwater, swimming along. The girl I was talking to is long gone now. The crowd is thick, moving closer to the stage, hanging on every delayed strut. Some are behind me, watching. I move out of the way. There’s something about this whole situation that makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m being made fun of or like I’m not invited to the party. And that stinks because I’m a good partier.
I wander back down the hill. Before long I’m side-stage staring up at Wand. Who’s Wand? I have no idea, but it’s a brain crushingly cool morph of psyche and prog into a refined serving. I’m rocked back, stunned at the chops, the guttural energy, the swinging vibe of a front man.
This is what I’m talking about!
A girl walks up. She saw me jotting notes, furiously.
“You writing for someone?”
I look up, “Yeah.”
“Cool. I’m Emma. I shoot photos.”
We go back to the band.
They’re pinning me back on my heels, flashing esoteric hooks over dark melodies, riffing and saturating the hill with lightning rods of noise and chaos, all stemming from the kinetic energy of the front man. His voice sails. He’s boyish. River Phoenix? I don’t know.
“What do you think?” Emma asks.
“I love it.”
I’m sold. I need no further introduction. I’ve arrived. And her question triggers something in me, something that I’d been hinting at all day.
What do you think?
Wait, is this it? Have I been asking all the wrong questions? All along I figured I’d walk in and try to get other people’s take on the festival. What they love and why they’re here, but that gets boring pretty quick. No one is going to pay over one hundred bucks a day and tell you it stinks. They need to believe in it.
So maybe it’s something else I’m looking for.
Maybe it’s the moment of discovery, the thing that everyone is searching for, why they came here in the first place. We’ve been buried in the heat and the dirt, slightly dehydrated, and mixed amongst strangers, somewhat brutally, all for the chance to find something that makes us forget. And here I am, forgetting. I’m lost in a sea of noise, contemplating the soul of a festival, through the eyes of a band I hardly know. And nothing feels better than being rocked back on your feet by something you weren’t expecting. Sometimes it’s love. Sometimes it’s pain. And sometimes it’s just a crusty band slinging riffs all over the stage.
“I like it too.” she says.
His voice soars, “I don’t need a thing because I have everything.”
Dirty by Sonic Youth and Gish–era Smashing Pumpkins are both coming to mind. And as the noise subsides, settling down to just a guitar and a Ray Davies’ like moan, I watch it all fade into nothingness.
“Come back to me…” he says into the mic.
Reeling, I head towards the main stage, grab a quick water, and head to the Galaxy Barn. I don’t know much about the barn, but figured I hadn’t been over there yet, so what the hell. As I approach, I see Jerad from opbmusic running out of the back entrance.
“There’s no ventilation, ” he says.
I hug him. He’s sweaty. I don’t care.
“You know those undercover animal rights videos of pigs being mistreated in small cages?” Jerad asks. “This is that, only with people. They’re cutting holes in the air duct. All for Leon Bridges!”
He makes a knife motion and smiles.
It sounds like a bad time, so I bail.
Backstage they’re serving food. I get in line.
The guy checking wristbands looks at mine. “Not for you,” he says coolly.
“Why not?” I ask.
“You got a gold band. You need a red one. Go get yourself a beer if you want something.”
“But I’m writing about the festival.”
“Good,” he says and motions me to out of the way.
Instantly, I feel like a fraud. I get in the beer line. It’s a long one, circling around like an amusement park ride. I look for someone I know. Negative. All I want to do is talk to someone about Wand. I turn to the guy behind me,
“You see Wand?”
That quickly ends our conversation. I go back to staring into space.
I come to.
The bartender’s yelling, “What do you need, man?!”
“Just give me a beer.”
Sitting down I finally check the schedule.
Ty Segall and the Rolin Stons. Galaxy Barn.
Air duct place.
I think about the pigs. Regardless, I head back in that direction.
I’m early, so I stand in back, waiting. The place fills. It feels like it’s a thousand degrees inside, and I’m sweating underneath my shirt. The sound guy is frazzled. There are topless kids running back and forth on stage, loading and unloading gear, and pretty soon I see Wand, setting up.
What the hell?
Then it hits me. They’re the backing band.
JD McPherson is in the crowd. It’s elbow to elbow. Suddenly, a wave of anticipation runs through the room, as if we’re about to witness something special.
“You want anything on your vocals?” the sound guy asks.
Ty is on stage.
“Sure. Little slap,” he replies.
With the room filled to capacity, he announces the band.
“The Rolin Stons!”
The place erupts.
Everything is soaked in a red glow, and off they go, into a deep blaze of 70’s psyche and boogie. It’s a magical, messy slab of rock that sends everyone into the stratosphere. The heat disappears. The noise is all encompassing.
This is a zoo.
Music Man amps, blasting fuzz, punching everyone in the gut. It’s a visceral feeling, one that convinces me by the second song to see beyond a stage, a band, a song. There’s an undeniable feeling that something important is happening, right now, and you’re never going to see it happen again.
There can’t be more than 100 people here. Who knows. I’m bad at judging things like numbers. But everyone is losing their minds. I see it.
Meanwhile, the band is building, building, until a wall of guitar thrash seeps through and they blast into “Feel.” One kid crowdsurfing is so visibly losing his mind that it in turn makes me lose my mind. I’m one of them now. I’m a convert. His hands are high in the air, punching, shaking to the rhythm of the riff like a gospel preacher.
The sweat and stink in the room is incredible. This is the kind of thing that makes you want to be in a band. That’s what I dig the most about Ty Segall. Imagine if Nirvana would’ve never come out with Nevermind and instead skipped straight to In Utero, ditching All Apologies. Maybe that’s what Ty Segall is now to rock ’n’ roll music. Nothing feels fake or polished or too commercial. And it’s imperfect, which is exactly why it carries such weight and charm. There’s nothing to debate with him. It is what it is. It speaks loudly, oozing with cool. What more could you want?
Afterwards, I walk back to a hay bale and sit down, exhausted. I’m emotionally drained. tUnE-yArDs is playing. Her voice is massive. I look out. There must be thousands of people watching. It dwarfs the barn in every aspect. She’s holding each one of them in the palm of her hand.
Maybe this is their moment.
There’s a girl dancing in front of me. For some reason it makes me feel awkward. It’s a hybrid of hippy and hip-hop. It’s a little like The Elaine. I keep thinking about the crowd in the barn versus the one in the field. I wish everything was red and that kid was above this crowd, shaking. Now that would be something.
I find a bigger hay bale and lay down. The night is starry. I’m losing focus.
Sunday starts easy enough.
The sun is lost behind a sea of clouds, preventing a repeat of yesterday’s heat blast. My cup is hanging from my belt, parking’s a breeze, and I make a mental note on how to get back to my car.
Inside, my pile of hay is waiting for me. I sit down and realize that I’m a different spectator than 24 hours ago. I’m a vet. That’s a relief.
It’s 2pm and Summer Cannibals are blasting from the Tree Line stage. I recognize the band’s guitar player from the Ty Segall show the previous night. He was standing in front of me for most of that performance. Onstage, the band is playing a frantic, emotional set of dissonant pop. Watching them, I can’t help but think back to my favorite parts of growing up in the 90’s, how alternative rock wasn’t always so bad, that sometimes it was good, and when it was good, it was really good. Their sound conveys a feeling of broad inclusiveness. I’m at the party, invited in, and having a good time.
Afterwards I pass the Kurt Vile looking kid again.
“Got change?” I ask again.
I walk on and eventually end up in the mangled, twisted noise of Viet Cong. I stop and watch.
“This is Monty,” the singer says. “He’s the only one I’m gonna introduce.”
“Cool festival,” Monty chimes in.
And just like that they’re back into their own labyrinth of post-apocalyptic head jams. It’s angular, difficult, brainy stuff that works me over. I’m being challenged. Twenty minutes in, I’m convinced that this is, musically, the best thing I’ll see all weekend.
“Is everyone getting this?” I ask myself, looking around.
I can’t tell. They look oddly trapped by the heavy push and pull from stage.
“I’m in love!” the guy next to me yells.
I decide to get a taco.
“No napkins?” I ask.
“We’re out,” says the taco guy.
A greasy Al Pastor is running down my hands.
Back at the Treeline stage there are hundreds of people piled in to catch three folk singers. It’s a huge crowd. Everyone is quiet, listening to a feel good ambush of lines like, “I don’t need to worry about tomorrow.”
“Who is this?” I ask the guy next to me.
“Joseph,” he says.
If the clouds were slowly closing up around Viet Cong, they seem to be lifting towards the heavens with Joseph. There’s a baby next to me, erupting in tears. She eventually pukes right next to my shoe.
I head out.
There’s a circus workshop in the kid’s tent.
What am I doing here?
What the hell, right? Quit being so serious.
“I’ll show you how to make a hula hoop,” a guy says to a group of kids. They explode with claps and screams. But as soon as I take a seat, it’s over. Kids are funneling out of the tent with parents in tow. One of the kids squirts me with a water gun.
Back inside the festival grounds I see my friend Suzi. She motions me over towards a crew of people she’s with on a blanket. I go over and sit down.
We talk about Summer Cannibals, Ty Segall, and Viet Cong.
“You having a good time?” she asks.
“I am,” I reply.
Freakwater is easing the crowd with their buoyant, alt-country croon. The Viet Cong guys are sitting in front of our patch of grass, watching. And I must admit, seeing this makes any supposed cultural divide in the festival seem truly insignificant. Every musician that I’ve seen is seemingly having a good time and enjoying other bands’ performances. JD McPherson at Broncho, then Ty Segall. Viet Cong drifting off to Freakwater. Members of Leon Bridges’ band backstage, watching everyone else. It’s all a big party. Everyone’s invited.
“This song’s about a woman playing banjo, getting raped,” the singer says. She tries to lighten the mood, “You know, we did some research. That’s what people wanted.”
The crowd awkwardly laughs. The sun is finally peaking its head out of the clouds.
I head up the hill, frantically searching for another moment like last night. Inside the barn there’s a glam-like slab of rock dominating a small crowd.
“Oh yeah,” I think.
The front woman leans into the mic, “I haven’t had a mirror for 2 weeks. I got these panties in Austin, this shirt in Nashville, this thing in New Orleans.” A Giant Dog. I like them instantly, especially her. She’s what I would call “a star.” Chances of that actually happening? Who cares! She’s uninhibited and sometimes you need that.
I see my friend Faz who leans over and offers “It’s like The Thermals with two singers.”
I can’t disagree more. They have a strut like a 70’s NYC band, perfectly molding glam and boogie woogie, making me think more New York Dolls than anything else. Or even Meatloaf. Is that bad? I don’t think so. Sounds fun to me.
Outside it’s starting to rain.
There’s nothing worse than rain when things are already starting to slow down. It can kill the groove of a festival immediately.
I head back towards the main stage. The sun is starting to creep down; darkness is on its way. The backstage area is filled, mostly with musicians, getting one last rip in before they all go their separate ways. Side-stage for Langhorn Slim, I see Jesse Ebaugh of Heartless Bastards. We’ve known each other for a long time. He was in a band in Ohio with my older brother when I was in high school. Our bands played together when he was in Pearlene. We hug.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” Jesse says. “I grew up playing bluegrass with the owner.”
“In Cincinnati?” I ask.
“Kenton County!” he replies.
He tells me it’s one of the best festivals in the country, easy and hassle-free. Everyone plays a few times and so it’s easy for fans and musicians to check things out. And they get to feel like they’re a part of something bigger, something that makes them love festivals again.
“It’s just a good hang,” he adds.
Langhorn Slim is holding court. A few songs in and he’s off, jumping into the crowd with the microphone. It’s a good move. The crowd eats it up. I lose him in the sea of heads. But I can hear him. He’s still singing. Phones are out. Everyone is videoing everything.
Pretty soon I’m feeling the burn. Maybe I’ve had too many things thrown at me at once. Maybe I’m just tired. But it’s hard to focus, especially after last night’s epic ending. I’m hoping for one last piece, but maybe that’s asking for too much. Maybe that’s my problem. Greed.
I decide to cool down with a beer. Then another.
Where is my moment today? Maybe it happened and I just wasn’t paying attention.
Looking around I can see the burn in everyone. It’s the last day and there’s nothing left but a few more hours. It’s kind of like being a kid on Christmas night. No more presents. No more anything. The anticipation of an entire year is swept away in one moment and you’re left with a bunch of stuff and dead wrapping paper.
I head to the barn to catch Heartless Bastards.
I remember playing with them back in the mid 2000s. There were five people in the crowd of a small club in Louisville. It was pretty uneventful. But afterward, the band’s lead singer Erika Wennerstrom handed me a demo CD. I popped it in my Walkman, listened, and told the rest of my band that they were going to be famous.
“I’m serious,” I said.
My drummer turned around, “Dude, you’re an idiot.”
And now, here I am, years later, watching them slam into a packed house at Pickathon.
Suddenly the mayor of the city steps out on stage with the MC.
“Heartless Bastards!” they yell in unison.
The crowd erupts.
The band launches into a boozy, sexy set of Ohio meets Texas romp. Erika’s voice is commanding, everything I remember it to be; big, bold, dynamic, gritty. And even though they’ve drenched themselves in Austin, swinging Lone Star riffs around left and right, there’s still something very “Ohio” about them. Maybe it’s the river or Cincinnati or the Afghan Whigs. Maybe I’m projecting. Pretty soon Erika’s swinging her arms back and forth, high in the air, riding the crowd into a half-time, psychedelic stomp. It’s above and beyond. I duck out feeling happy for Jesse.
On the walk back, Leon Bridges is holding down the main stage. I can’t see much but the dizzying lights. The crowd is still strong, even with the end in sight.
I grab a beer and watch from the side. I start thinking about this whole thing, about how I went from trying to find a water bottle to being here, right now, at the end. And looking out at the crowd, with all the red and blue lights dancing across their faces, there’s not much else that matters now. What are we here for? This. And honestly, it doesn’t need to be more than that. For the past two days I’ve walked back and forth, between big and small stages, searching for a story that has already been written. Pickathon is just a product of those that occupy it. It’s a smart, well-curated festival that highlights the best parts of humanity by leaving out the worst. We swear allegiances to new and old bands, having fun while doing it, all the while knowing that there is no right or wrong, that judgment is just a schtick for people with too much time on their hands. In the end, it’s just an experience, both for the artist and audience. It’s a very good hang.
Just as Leon Bridges is wrapping up his set, I run into my friend Nancy again.
“You sticking around?” she asks.
It’s late and I’m tired. But before I can answer, I see some movement on a stage up by the taco truck. “King Tuff!”
I love him.
I look up on stage and see King Tuff (A.K.A. Kyle Thomas) sitting down with another guy next to him.
I lay down in the dirt and look up at the sky.
“I’ll still be a freak when I’m dead! I’ll still be a freak when I’m dead…” Kyle begins to sing.
Here it comes. My moment.
Matt Drenik is a musician, part-time writer, lives in Portland, plays in Battleme, and enjoys getting lost in the desert with his wife and dog. Email Matt at mattvondrenik[at]gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MDrenik.