The Pickathon Music Festival celebrates its 20th year this weekend, with a four-day event in Happy Valley, Oregon.
Over those two decades, the festival’s grown and changed significantly, from a community radio fundraiser and bluegrass festival to a family-friendly, green, music festival that gives as much time to indie rock bands as traditional pickers. Pickathon shares the same home-grown and volunteer-driven feel as another summertime institution in the state, the Oregon Country Fair.
Kids’ areas and activities, the lack of heavy-handed sponsorship or corporate branding, the green ethos (no disposable dishes or cups are involved — attendees bring their own or buy reusable ones at the festival), and most of all, the laid-back feel among people around the festival, all create an environment likened more to summer camp than a music festival.
Musically, the 2018 festival continues where 2017 left off, with a two-decades-long transformation to attract major indie rock bands alongside more traditional Americana acts. While it’s usually been a festival that likes to uncover regional acts from elsewhere that would resonate with its reliably adventurous and welcoming audiences, that discovery effort has stepped up in the past few years to bring in international artists, alongside a few jazz, soul and hip hop artists, while still maintaining the core roots and Americana base on which the festival was built. This year’s international acts include the revelatory Ukrainian group Dakha Brakha, as well as the North African desert blues group (and frequent performers in Portland), Tinariwen.
This year’s lineup seems to signal that for Pickathon, its slow evolution is working.
Scroll to see reviews and photos from Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.
Built To Spill
Idaho band Built to Spill played their first of two shows in front of a large audience at the Woods stage Friday evening. Although only a three-piece, the band delivered a sound that matched the size of the crowd, with explosive guitar interludes echoing in between Doug Martsch’s melodic tenor voice. The drums and bass laid out the canvas for the fuzzed-out guitar solos that were drawn out and even psychedelic. It was a special set painted by these indie rock legends. — Arthur C. Lee
Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms
Pickathon has become known for its eclectic lineups — both sonically and geographically. The 2018 edition is no different, with a gaggle of L.A. rock bands performing next to an Ethiopian jazz legend, an insurgent Tuareg guitar collective from the Sahara Desert and an up-and-coming Chicago-based R&B singer who has collaborated with Chance The Rapper. But on Friday afternoon, I was reminded that the festival’s origins are rooted in traditional American music. Portlanders Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms performed an endearing set inside the Galaxy Barn that featured classic country tunes and a healthy dose of originals that sounded like they came straight out of a time machine set to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. — Jerad Walker
Texas-based Charley Crockett put on a show at the Woods Stage Friday afternoon. Between a few polite “You fine people there” and “That’s what I’ve been talking about!” Crocket and his band moved effortlessly from classic country covers to tightly performed Texas swing and then soul, punctuated by a couple of stirring horn solos from his keys player. Born in South Texas, Crockett got his musical start a decade ago busking in New Orleans and isn’t well known in the Northwest, but judging from the reception he got in the Woods, he’s going to be back more often. — David Christensen
In the mid 1980s, many Western ears were opened to a dramatic kind of eastern choral singing, through a pair of mysterious LPs titled “Mysteres des Voix Bulgares.” These records, credited to the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir, were dramatic and dissonant. The material was drawn from traditional folk songs, but the arrangements toyed with quivering half intervals that seemed otherworldly. Now a staple of film soundtracks for an austere beauty, it’s a sound no longer unfamiliar but a style of singing rarely heard in concert here. This came to mind watching Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha, who finished the night at the Wood Stage, and gave the huge crowd a jolt of surprise and delight when they began. Beating bass drums, with multiple percussionists, a cellist, accordion and piano — and most of all, gloriously intertwined and occasionally dissonant voices, the band was a revelation. The stage emcee introduced the act saying the set would include songs about contemporary political events, including the Russian annexation of Crimea. Singing in Ukrainian, these lyrics were lost on most of the crowd, who nonetheless responded to thrilling set. — David Christensen
Despite a shaky start to the set due to audio issues, Phosphorescent and its lead singer Matthew Houck hit their stride about four songs in. That was the point where the band played their best-known tune, “Song for Zula” from 2013 album “Muchacho.” That song’s bottomless sadness came to life as Houck walked about the stage, microphone cord draped over his back, singing mostly with his face covered by the brim of his hat. People around me sang along. Finishing the last lyric to loud applause, and wiping his forehead with his hand, he seemed to turn a corner into music from his new album. Its ebullient first single — which he played to strong effect — is “New Birth in New England.” — David Christensen
House and Land
It’s my first year at Pickathon, and one of the appeals of the festival, so far, has been the way you can wander around Pendarvis Farm and the surrounding campgrounds. After watching Hailu Mergia play, I walked through the woods, past dusty hayfields and blackberry bushes and a horse stable. And I came across a barn, where the duo House and Land was playing songs to a packed room. The crowd listened intently to Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise Henson’s beautiful covers of old folk songs, played on fiddle and guitar. Go Kurosawa joined them on the drums. A lovely, contemplative set. — Isabel Lyndon
Low Cut Connie
I only caught a few minutes of Low Cut Connie, but that was partly because the set was so packed I could hardly get in the door. The band played a rousing version of the song “Controvery” to a fired up crowd. Frontman Adam Weiner is a total ham, and everyone went nuts as he danced on stage, blew kisses and ripped his tank top off, Hulk-style. This is rhythm-driven rock that you can’t help but move to. — Isabel Lyndon
Rising Appalachia has much of the same ethos as Pickathon: No single-use plastic; being an accepting and welcoming presence for people of all ages and backgrounds; a folky background. The band, led by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, serenaded the audience with warm songs — even tracks that weren’t familiar felt that way because of the Smith sisters’ resonant voices. The multi-talented group ended their set with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that had the audience leaning in as if hearing the traditional song for the first time. — Sararosa Davies
Shovels & Rope
Carolina-based folk duo Shovels & Rope played to a packed crowd at the Woods Stage. The band, made up of husband and wife Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, isn’t the only married or family duo playing Pickathon this year, but nonetheless, their harmonies were perfect for the woodsy setting. The set included a cover of a song by Icelandic art-rock group Sigur Ros, as well as tracks from the band’s most recent release, “Busted Jukebox Vol. 2.” — Sararosa Davies
L.A rock outfit Valley Queen proved that they are destined for great things with their set on Pickathon’s large Mt. Hood stage. Lead singer Natalie Carol was clad in all white, an oddity for the dusty festival. She powered through songs from the band’s most recent album “Supergiant.” Her voice retained its power and stamina live, with guitarist Shawn Morones adding his milky backing vocals. A large crowd gathered to watch the Pickathon newcomers in the late afternoon sun. — Sararosa Davies