“We play a lot of festivals,” said Adam Granduciel, the lead singer of The War on Drugs, midway through a scorching set that capped the first day at Pickathon 2014, “and out of all the ones we’ve been to, this is the one we’d actually attend.”
That’s the way lots of artists feel about Pickathon, a small music festival that takes place every year in Happy Valley, Oregon, about 20 minutes outside Portland. As it enters its sixteenth year, it has gained a reputation as a convivial, laid-back oasis in an industry crowded with money-minting cattle calls like Coachella.
Pickathon’s great advantage is its size. Last year there were around 7,000 people on site — 3,500 adult ticket-holders, 1,000 children under 12, and 2,500 volunteers running audiovisual equipment and manning dishwashing booths. Pendarvis Farm, the organic farm on which Pickathon is held, could easily accommodate five times that, if the festival’s organizers aspired to the density (and profits) of a Lollapalooza or Sasquatch. But they don’t. Instead, after consulting the event’s close-knit community, they have elected to cap the number of tickets at 3,500, covering their rising costs with slightly higher ticket prices and new revenue streams.
So it’s never crowded. Everyone can move around freely, find a good-sized camping spot in the surrounding woods, and get close to the bands they want to see. Children have a dedicated area with guided nature walks, a talent show and a puppet circus. What’s more, unlike at virtually any other large event, there’s no trash anywhere — all food and drink, served by food trucks out from Portland, comes in reusable containers. (Kleen Kanteen is a longtime sponsor.)
Artists sleep in tents, eat from bamboo plates, and play at least two sets over the course of the weekend, usually on one of two main stages and again at one of five small satellite stages. Most of them also record a few songs at the Pumphouse, a small, tucked-away studio on site, surrounded by outdoor couches and a keg, that also serves as the site of many unscheduled late-night jams.
It adds up to a loose, relaxed atmosphere, with plenty of room for those little bits of magic and synchronicity that make a festival experience memorable. With no drunk dudebros, long lines or aggressive corporate advertising, it is, simply, a pleasant experience.
Pickathon’s diminutive size means it won’t be hosting Outkast or Arcade Fire any time soon, but it curates its line-up of rising artists, cult favorites and mid-level working bands with care and imagination. While roots music is well-represented, everything from soul to hip-hop to indie rock is in the mix.
In addition to The War on Drugs, Friday featured the unexpected punk-pop kick of Those Darlins, a hushed, gorgeous set from Colorado singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, and, at midnight on the Starlight Stage, haunting roots music from Memphis chanteuse Valerie June.
Saturday was one of the musically richest days I’ve ever spent at a festival. It began with a wry, charismatic main-stage set from Jonathan Richman. Then it was off to Woods Stage, one of the most gorgeous outdoor live venues in the country. At the base of a natural amphitheater filled with hay bale seats is a woven-wood stage that looks like it grew out of the surrounding forest. Every artist who plays on it pauses to comment on the beauty. After another set from Valerie June, Saturday — and the festival, and maybe the year — peaked with a set from the unfortunately named Diarrhea Planet, a young Nashville-based band little-known among crunchy Northwesterners. Arrayed behind four, count ‘em, four lead guitars, they barreled into a set of unabashed, guitar-squealing, fist-pumping rock.
It takes a lot to get visible excitement out of pale Portland hipster crowds, who are attentive, but rarely move beyond a desultory hands-in-the-pockets sway. By the time Diahhrea Planet was through, however, guitarist Evan Bird had climbed a 12′ stack of amps, guitarists Jordan Smith and Brent Toler were crowdsurfing and a full-on mosh pit had broken out down front. “We weren’t sure what to expect when we were invited up here,” panted Toler between songs, “but everyone has treated us so well.”
After that came veteran Los Angeles indie-rappers People Under the Stairs, then back to the main stage for the slinky, sexy grooves of Warpaint and the virtuosic pop-bluegrass of Nickel Creek.
After such a, er, vigorous Saturday, Sunday is a bit of a blur, but highlights include an unexpectedly rocking set from indie sweethearts Woods and the droll, twangy stylings of rising Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett.
Especially for an old man like me, big music festivals have become too much — too big, too expensive, too crowded, too hectic. I don’t want to see The National from 500 feet away, jammed shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people who heard that one National song on Scandal, clutching a $10 plastic cup of beer I worked a half-hour to obtain. Pickathon, for me and a select group of in-the-know Northwesterners, has returned the festival experience to human scale and refocused it on discovery and serendipity. It’s a refuge, our little secret, but it probably won’t stay that way for long. -David Roberts