Welcome to Pickathon: Gates of Hell Edition.
(Photos: David Schonfeld and Patrick Weishampel)
Welcome to Pickathon: Gates of Hell Edition. Near record-breaking heat rolled into the Portland area, pushing the mercury well above 100 degrees. Though much of the Pendarvis Farm is shaded, the extreme heat changed our schedule at the last minute as we rolled in around 8pm. Traditionally, Thursday is a light day at the festival, a time when the devoted few who paid for early access can go, set-up camp early and enjoy some sets without the crowds.
Though thousands of people attended Pickathon, one of the most unique and special music festivals in this day and age, there is no singular Pickathon experience. No one person saw the same bands, stood in the same spots, conversed with the same people, ate the same food (lovingly provided by some of Portland’s best restaurants). It is amazing to think that while we were all at the same festival, our experiences could have been so different. Here, with words and pictures, is our unique Pickathon 2017 experience.
Charles Bradley brought fire to an already scorching day with his opening night set on the Mt. Hood Stage. Although he once played as a James Brown impersonator, Bradley owned the stage, strutting and gyrating and howling. In defiance to the hot day, Bradley came out wearing a sequin robe, the light shining off him like a human disco ball. It would be the first of three outfits he would sport, from a purple shirt to a backless vest. Although he would play on Friday night at the Woods Stage, Bradley was able to stretch out and demonstrate his moves, including crouching down and stalking with the mike stand over his shoulders. It was a high energy set from beginning to end, and his cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” was a definite highlight.
Discovery is always one of the most exciting things about Pickathon. With limited options on Thursday night, we decided to check out Austin band Sweet Spirit. Wearing little more than a bathing suit, singer Sabrina Ellis was the star. The songs may have sounded a bit like No Doubt with more of a punk edge, but Ellis’ acrobatic performance and rambunctious energy made the set a highlight of the festival.
Seeing Hitchcock alone on the big Mt. Hood Stage, dressed in a paisley shirt and green pants just after noon, may have been a bit disconcerting. His solo set, featuring little more than an acoustic guitar, seemed more suited for a more intimate venue such as the Lucky Barn (which he would play on Sunday). However, Hitchcock has the magnetism to make up for wide open space. Between his outrageous demands for the sound guy and his between-song banter, Hitchcock mixed old favorites such as “Madonna of the Wasps” with new tracks from his self-titled album. Much later that evening, I was taking a rest near the food carts and saw Hitchcock wandering about, examining his options with frustration. At one point, he stood with his hands on his hips and huffed. As he walked by me, I heard him mutter, “Stumptown Roasters” under his breath. He eventually opted for a scone at the pie truck.
The Woods Stage at Pickathon is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine if a group of faeries made a concert stage in a copse of trees and you get the idea. If I hadn’t seen Richman 10 or so times before, his set would have easily been a highlight for the weekend. Instead, it was a solid hour of Richman’s whimsical songs backed by his faithful drummer Tommy Larkin. Richman focused on songs about summer and the heat, breaking out to dance or shake maracas. Later, you could see him wandering about the festival in a velvet tux jacket, wide-eyed and smiling, taking in Pickathon with child-like wonderment.
William Tyler has played Pickathon before, but as a solo act. The guitar virtuoso sounds like John Fahey, but this time he was backed by the members of Megafaun. It was an hour of gentle, instrumental music, the perfect thing to which one could take a breather and sit on a haybale and watch Tyler pick away. Tyler was a good sport, ignoring an insufferable kid who stood by heckling him and telling him that he looked angry and that his song titles made no sense. Some stoned guy eventually found his way to the kid and they rocked out together in obnoxious unity. The next day, one of my friends sent me a picture of the same kid, shirtless and heckling some of the clowns who performed in the kiddie tent.
Everyone I knew behind the scenes at Pickathon said Wolf People was the band to see. The psych band has made the trip from England to Pickathon before, and the crowd appeared to love their mix of rock, blues and trippy solos. Although I would have preferred them as an instrumental act, the band traded Cream-like licks with freak-outs that would be at home on a Jethro Tull record.
Australian Alex Cameron ruled the Friday late night slot, playing songs from his much-beloved debut, Jumping the Shark, as well as tunes from upcoming record, Forced Witness. Part Bowie, part Suicide and all tongue-in-cheek, Cameron’s Friday night set kept us dancing until 2am. Along with saxophonist (and friend and business partner Rob Molloy), Cameron danced and crooned along to pre-recorded beats and synths, but it didn’t matter. His late-night Sunday set in the Galaxy Barn was also good, but tensions ran a bit high in the overcrowded and overheated audience. One guy even tossed a hot dog on stage (which may have been scripted or not), while Cameron stood in silent disbelief until someone took it away. Cameron was easily one of the weekend’s stand-outs, so good that we saw him twice.
Bands like Priests may seem antithetical to a festival called Pickathon, but the DC punk outfit turned in a stunning set early on Saturday on the Mt. Hood Stage. Guitarist GL Jaguar told me that this was the first time the band ever played outside. They ripped through songs from acclaimed album Nothing Feels Natural. Singer Katie Alice Greer yelped and screamed along, wearing a leotard and tutu. She appeared somewhere in between exploding with rage and having a nervous breakdown throughout the set. Although her vocals could have been higher, Greer and Priests started off Saturday with a dose of much-needed manic energy.
Sometimes you see a set that stays with you for days. New Zealand musician Aldous Harding shared her dark take on folk songs at both the Lucky and Galaxy Barns, turning in two haunting sets where her audience watched in rapt silence. Featuring songs from her 4AD debut, Party, and some unreleased tracks, Harding seemed to embody different people, showing off her dynamic vocal range. Although she somewhat eviscerated the poor guy who interviewed her on Saturday afternoon, Harding is a singular talent and one of the most likely to break out. Just check out a live version of her song “Horizon” or the video for “Blend” and you will be absolutely captivated.
Sometimes it’s fun to see a straight forward rock band. L.A.’s Meatbodies is just that, a down and dirty psych-pop group that shook up even the most staid concertgoers. It didn’t take long for everyone up front to begin moshing as Chad Ubovich and friends ripped it up. We even got see some little kids crowd surf. Score that, Pickathon!
Sometimes the best moments at Pickathon are the unexpected ones. Swedish band Dungen used its Saturday night set to play its score for the 1926 animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Cloaked in darkness, Dungen played what sounded like early Pink Floyd instrumental adventures while the film was projected onto a screen behind them. We alternated watching the film and lying on our backs, staring at the swirling lights that reflected on the canvass strung up above to protect people from the sun. Next to us on the lawn, a mother and her toddler cuddled together and watched the film. It was one of the most unique and touching moments of the festival.
Ex-Cult is so punk that the band only used 30 minutes of its allotted here. That was more than enough to make an impression. It’s hard to picture that sort of music on a stage such as the Woods, but they got the crowd moshing. Once known as Sex Cult, the band can count Ty Segall as a fan. He also produced their first album. The vocals might have been hard to hear, but the energy was there.
Hip hop fans aren’t likely to frequent a festival like Pickathon, yet this year featured more options for rap aficionados than ever. Everyone was raving about Black Milk & Nat Turner’s Treeline set on Saturday, so I went to check out the group on Sunday on the main stage. I always love hip hop that features a live band, and Black Milk and his three-piece backing group did not disappoint. Although there is always something funny about a field of white folks waving along to a rap song in the dead of afternoon, Black Milk turned in a great set, even with the sun staring him dead in the face.
With Dinosaur Jr. playing two sets, a performance by Mascis solo felt like icing on the cake. Even Fred Armisen was in attendance, sweating away with the rest of us in the oven also called the Galaxy Barn. Note to festival organizer: the air-conditioning still doesn’t work. Mascis played a set that drew from both his Dinosaur Jr. and solo work, including highlights such as “Listen to Me” and “Little Fury Things.” Although he played only acoustic guitar, Mascis managed to push his distortion up to the point where it seemed he was strumming on an electric. Although Dinosaur Jr. supposedly played two excellent sets, I had enough Mascis to make me happy, even as I enjoyed the band’s rendition of “Just Like Heaven” from backstage.
Even though I’ve listened to Tuvan throat singing on record, nothing prepared me for the power of Huun-Huur-Tu in a live setting. The quartet, easily the most unique thing at the festival, impressed me with its overwhelming sound and homemade instruments. Many of its songs had been passed down through generations, paeans to Tuvan life and horses. Although they wore traditional clothing, the members of Huun-Huur-Tu changed into jeans and baseball caps shortly after, blending in with the crowd and making their eerie sound that more ethereal.
Pickathon is always a place of regret. Like I should have seen Tank and the Bangas. I also regret catching only the last half of A-WA’s late set on Sunday. Featuring a trio of Israeli sisters (whose last name is Haim), A-WA mashes up Yemenite traditional music with electronic elements and hip-hop beats. It was impossible to get into the barn to see them, so we stood outside as Sunday slipped into Monday, dancing along as exhaustion set in, sated and smiling at what surprisingly became the perfect closing set for us at Pickathon 2017.