In Living Color: Pickathon Indie Roots Music Festival 2012
Filed under: In Living Color | Posted by: Nick
I think the realization finally hit me as I snaked my car over the mountains on the Oregon border late Monday afternoon; my radio tuned to some phantom AM station playing Elvis gospel records and forgotten Kingston Trio album cuts while the afternoon sunshine was being devoured by giant clouds that seemed to flow from the ominous California redwoods lurking in the distance. As I listened to Sonny James croon “Young Love,” it gradually occurred to me that trying to explain (let alone write) or even trying to share some thoughts about my trip to the Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Oregon was going to be an impossible task.
After all, how can you even describe Pickathon itself to someone for the first time?
“This all started 14 years ago as a planned party among a group of friends and has just organically grown” Pickathon volunteer and stage MC Jeffrey Thomas told me as we stood under the shelter of a hamburger truck on the final night of the festival while a light drizzle of rain started to sprinkle on the open field before us. “Pickathon sounds like a straight on bluegrass festival but it has become an indie roots festival with music from Niger, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Canada, New Orleans – a complete variety of music in different settings” said Thomas “plus I don’t think the musicians themselves have ever had an experience quite like this; they leave the Pickathon festival with a feeling of what a well-run, small, manageable festival can do and how it can create a community through music.”
So what do you tell someone who has never heard of Pickathon? Do you tell them it is just a fun 72 hours? A giant party/camping trip coupled with a roots and world music extravaganza? Perhaps at the end of the day that is all Pickathon is; nothing more and nothing less. However, for me, Pickathon was nothing short of a grand adventure. An adventure not just for the ears but an adventure for the mind and the soul, an example of how creativity, community, volunteer spirit and the ultimate “business” of running a music festival can somehow co-exist on an 80 acre farm located in the same valley where less than 200 years ago, the end of the Oregon trail brought the weary pioneers to their new homes among the tall trees which rest under the shadow of Mount Hood.
If this all sounds like grand hyperbole I can assure you it is not, because three days at this festival will make even the most jaded, burnt out, narcissistic music fan grin with the knowledge that they are the witness to something special. Simply put, Pickathon is a weekend which reminds you why you love music; a weekend spent relishing the feeling you get when you see a band that makes the goose bumps jump out of your skin, the hair stand up on the back of your neck and no matter how hard you try, the smile on your face will not go away. It is a weekend which provides a gentle reminder of how music can cast a spell on those who are willing to follow it and those who are willing listen to it.
So as I sit in a small northern California laundromat, watching my clothes get scrubbed from a weekend’s worth of dust and dirt, here are my thoughts and photos from Pickathon 2012. Everything I followed, everything I listened to and everything I learned.
Day One – Thursday August 2nd
The Pickathon festival officially starts on Friday morning but I managed to get inside on Thursday afternoon to set up camp and take a look around the festival site. After an easy drive up from Eugene to Happy Valley and along the Oregon timber line, I reached my ultimate destination; Pendarvis Farm.
After parking my car and grabbing my supplies I made my way into the woods that surround the farm and was immediately greeted with this image along the trails to my campsite….
Once you are inside the “woods” of the festival site, you cannot help but get the feeling you have been transported to another world; far beyond a farm 20 minutes outside Portland. Rows of intricate Christmas lights and art fixtures dot the trees along the miles of trails that snake up the hills into a canopy of green wilderness. While families rushed in to grab camping spots and meet up with old friends, I settled on a small plot by the “bunny trail” just off the main “quail trail” which ran directly into the woods themselves. As I pitched my tent, farm owner Sherry Pendarvis herself rode along the trails on a grey horse while smiling, laughing and helping the newest visitors on her property get acclimated.
Eventually (and after some struggling) my base camp was set and my shelter was complete. After a quick hike around the festival site, I made my way to the “galaxy barn” where local Portland band Pure Bathing Culture and the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars began the festivities with sets of music into the early evening.
While the bands cooked away, I tried to fend off the chill from a cool night by finding a seat next to the campfire pit outside the barn. There is always a feeling of great comfort and joy, sitting around an open campfire on a chilly night with a full moon overhead. A feeling a of warmth and strength radiates from the glowing embers, even when you are in a new place surrounded by complete strangers while trying to get your bearings set for a weekend of no sleep and lots of music. Around the campfire, new friends became old friends, old friends made new friends and festival volunteers, performers and directors all sat around and excitedly talked of the coming weekend. When I eventually remarked to a girl sitting next to me that this was my first trip to Pickathon (let alone my first trip to Oregon) the look on her face was one of amazement and awe; “just wait,” she told me with a sly grin “this festival…you’ve never seen anything like it.”
Day Two – Friday August 3rd
Friday afternoon the music on the main stage fired up while I made my way back to the “Galaxy Barn” to see my first musical performance of the weekend – Minneapolis brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, better known as The Cactus Blossoms. Thirty seconds into their first song I was grinning ear to ear as the brothers rolled through a collection of their own hillbilly gems. The Cactus Blossoms draw from the sounds of the great old time country brother groups but also infuse their music with a little bit of honky tonk swing which only adds to their great harmonies.
After closing out their set with some Hank Williams and Ray Price covers, I ran over to an already packed house in the “Workshop Barn” to see festival favorites the Foghorn Stringband. I have long been a fan of the Foghorn Stringband’s blend of bluegrass and old time folk music but this was my first time seeing the group in concert and they did not disappoint. While fighting the sweltering heat of the barn (a common theme all weekend) the group moved through old fiddle breakdowns, bluegrass chestnuts and an especially wonderful cover of the Hazel Dickens/Alice Gerrard classic “The Mining Camp Blues” featuring the perfect Appalachian twang of guitar player Reeb Willms and bass player Nadine Landry.
After two and a half hours spent listening to music inside, it was time for some fresh air, so I hiked off for my first trip to the stage which probably defines and separates the Pickathon festival from any other music festival in America, the “Woods Stage.”
To give you an idea of what this stage entails, picture a fully built wood platform topped by a canopy of tree limbs which rest at the bowl of a natural amphitheater in the heart of a deep wooden forest. As I marveled at the scenic beauty of this spot, the musicians on stage channeled the unique surroundings into some incredible performances; especially notable was the hard driving Pennsylvania bluegrass of Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass and some full throttle rock and roll from San Francisco natives Sonny at the Sunsets.
However, Friday night in the woods belonged to Portland’s own Blitzen Trapper who celebrated their Oregon homecoming by taking to the stage at sundown and then proceeding to make the forest come alive with an hour’s worth of blazing rock and country gems to an overflow audience.
After a hike back to the main festival site, it was time to kick off Saturday night at the galaxy barn where San Francisco punk rockers The Oh Sees were already well into their set of lightning fast, screaming rock to an enraptured audience that was literally spilling out of the windows. After the The Oh Sees concluded their punk onslaught, the stage changed gears for one of the groups that was on my must see festival list, Flint, Michigan country music saviors Whitey Morgan & The 78’s. Armed with his leather tooled telecaster and a brand new band, Whitey proceeded to light up the galaxy barn with an hour’s worth of country music that would make Waylon and David Alan Coe blush. Lots of Paycheck, Haggard, Hank Jr. and even some Thin Lizzy highlighted a set that drew from Whitey’s latest album and some other original gems. Day one complete, I headed back to camp ready for Saturday and Sunday.
Day Three – Saturday August 4th
I woke up on Saturday with the somewhat dreamy sound of a pedal steel guitar echoing through the trees of my campsite, a kind of country music bugle call to shake the sleep out of my eyes and get moving. As I got my gear together, I realized the music was actually an early morning wake-up call from Neko Case’s sound crew, checking equipment for her highly anticipated “Woods Stage” performance later that night. As I made my way to the main festival site, it was already apparent that the rumored 100 degree heat was going to become a reality. So armed with a canteen and my spf 70 waterproof sunblock (when you’re 6’ 8’’ and Irish the sun is not your friend) it was off to an 11am kick off performance from Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass on the main stage of the festival.
Next up, a trip to the workshop barn to see Petunia and The Vipers. I must admit, one of the problems with a big or even medium sized festival like Pickathon is that so many groups are really never seen by the large crowds at the festival site. Sadly, I think Petunia and The Vipers fell into this category. Every local review of the festival I read afterwards did not mention the group or give any reference to their Saturday or Sunday sets – yet both of their performances were spellbinding.
Their music is a combination of rockabilly, western swing, some jazz and even bee bop which was all wrapped by Petunia’s effecting and unique vocal style – a kind hybrid voice which infused the of phrasing of Floyd Tillman, the growl of Johnny Horton and even the yodel of Slim Whitman. Petunia and the Vipers have a new album coming out later this year and if it is anything like their sets at Pickathon it is a can’t miss lp.
After Petunia and The Vipers ended their set with a somber (dare I say almost dreamlike) version of the American standard Stardust, I made a quick dash to the galaxy barn to try and catch singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, whose recent album “Photographs” has a been one of my personal favorites over the last few months. A simple two piece band backed up Robert as they breezed through what he himself called “dark folk” songs and some absolutely killer country music gems, especially his original composition “What’s In It For Me,” a bar room country weeper which sounds like a long forgotten gem by Harlan Howard or Hank Cochran.
Dinnertime was spent near the main stage as Phosphorescent started up their late afternoon set to a captive audience. As their set concluded, most of the crowd and fellow performers began making their way into the forest to hear Neko Case and her late night set at the “Woods Stage”. After weighing the options I decided to skip the woods stage and go get an early “prime” spot at the “Galaxy Barn” which would be hosting late night performances by Langhorne Slim and The Lost Bayou Ramblers.
As the murderous weather of Saturday slowly began to subside, Langhorn Slim began his set which quickly escalated into an all-out musical free for all with Langhorn jumping on the drums, jumping off the stage, jumping into the crowd – trying to somehow will the audience to match his intensity in a barn that was literally cooking in the early evening heat.
After one solid hour of incredible music the Texas/Louisiana based Lost Bayou Ramblers hit the stage and somehow managed to match the intensity of Langhorne Slim by getting, as lead singer Louis Micho mentioned, “twisted” with their full-on assault of what can only be described as a beautiful blend of the Balfa Brothers and the Stooges, a musical stew that left people dancing, screaming and laughing for joy. “We love coming out west but it’s a long way from home so we gotta’ make it count” Louis later told me, as the band sweated through one song after the next, the energy literally rippling off the stage.
After 30 minutes of non-stop music, the group decided to bring up a special guest – Violent Femmes lead singer Gordon Gano. Mr. Gano wasted no time getting out his fiddle and leading the band through some traditional Cajun numbers before delighting the crowd with set of Violent Femmes classics that became a festival wide sing along; “American Music” “Day After Day” and “Blister In The Sun” all were lovingly performed by the group as Langhorne Slim’s drummer Malachi DeLorenzo (son of original Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo) sat in for all three songs. “We’re playing American music, cajun music” Louis later told me “like we learned it and the way we want to play it, but this festival it’s just an amazing opportunity to experience and expand on music.”
After two and a half hours of music that left me drained from sheer exhaustion, I stepped into the cool night air and stumbled away from the galaxy barn on a mission to find the mythical Pickathon “pump house” – a site where the festival hosts live video and audio recordings of musicians while they are on the festival grounds. An anonymous source told me that Whitey Morgan would be cutting a few songs with his full band in the pump house around 11pm and after stumbling through the woods for nearly 20 minutes I somehow found my destination.
All I can remember from the performances at the pump house is that I truly feel sorry for anyone who tried to get an early nights rest in their campsites, because Whitey and the boys let it rip through a set of country chestnuts like Merle Haggard’s “I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” and Whitey’s own “I’m Ain’t Drunk, I’ve Just Been Drinking”. After 30 minutes of hard driving country music I vaguely remember having some various discussions about Los Angeles, a youtube video of a wasted Johnny Paycheck pouring his soul out to Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1970’s (seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGKhf-sEhaw) and some kind of glowing papier-mâché Bengal tiger that somehow materialized out of the woods. After getting back to the galaxy barn with Whitey and the band to see the Heartless Bastards charge through their late night (now early morning) set, my day concluded with a long walk back to my tent and the sounds of a never ending bluegrass jam in a distant campground until my ears and mind gave out sometime near 4am.
Day Four – Sunday August 5th
My Sunday morning started with coffee and an easy going main stage performance by Casey MacGill who delivered lots of folk, country and string band music to start off the final day of the festival. I spent most of the afternoon marveling at performances by Lake Street Drive and the amazing two piece band Shovels and Rope while also managing to make one last trip out to the woods stage for performances by Alela Diane and The Barr Brothers.
After the afternoon sun gave way to some rather potent rain clouds, I found myself heading back to the galaxy barn to see the group that so many other festival goers had been buzzing about all weekend, the London based Durham family – better known as Kitty, Daisy and Lewis. While simultaneously trading off instruments, the trio moved through a set of rockabilly gems, boogie-woogie piano favorites and even some ska inspired reggae, all highlighted by the growling vocals of Kitty and Daisy. However, it was the last song of the Kitty, Daisy and Lewis set that really provided the jaw dropping moment of the night. Seemingly without warning Lewis started the group off with a simple John Lee Hooker type blues riff that the entire family simply built on for a good 10 minutes. In the hands of lesser musicians this kind of song can easily become repetitive and stale, but in the hands of the three siblings the driving instrumental became an exercise in raw musical power, the wailing harmonica and ramshackle guitar almost reminiscent of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” the only difference being that Van Morrison and the boys eventually take their foots off the pedal to sing after driving through the opening minutes of the song; Kitty, Daisy and Lewis simply put their collective feet down and never looked back.
After Kitty, Daisy and Lewis I made my way back to the aptly named “Twilight Stage” where I intended to catch a full set from Robert Ellis. After about 20 minutes of music, the sky above the festival somehow opened up and began a shed a light rain on the crowd. Somewhat inspired by the now bizarre weather, Robert invited some of the members of Phosphorescent on stage for a full on classic country revival – covers of Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Faron Young, Bill Monroe and a stunning version of George Jones “The Grand Tour” had the tired (and now wet) crowd on their feet, seemingly oblivious to the rain.
After Robert Ellis’s set it was back to the “Galaxy Barn” where the New Orleans based Hot 8 Brass Band was whipping the packed house into a frenzy. As the crowd around the barn continued to grow, I inevitably found myself walking back to the same campfire that I sat around Thursday night before the festival began. As I came across new friends and people I crossed paths with all weekend, I somehow ran into the same girl that I sat next to on Thursday night around the campfire, “hey – you survived!” she gleefully proclaimed “so what did you think?” As I looked around at the crowd of smiling, tried faces all basking in a few more hours of musical bliss, I honestly replied “I don’t know what to think but this has been something special.”
So the next morning, after all the dust cleared (literally), I quietly packed up my tent, got in my car and moved my way back to interstate 5; driving in silence trying to try and figure out how to describe a weekend at Pickathon. After some debate, I think I will still stick with my original assessment; Pickathon is truly something special. Special for the performers, special for the army of volunteers and special for the audience who get to experience a festival where music is simply celebrated. I do not know if I will ever make it back to Pickathon but I am sure going to try, if only to bring a friend and have them experience the festival for the first time; to see the look in their eyes when they sit down under a tall maple tree in the afternoon sun and the magic of this one of a kind festival unfolds before them.
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