By Hollister Dixon
Editor’s Note: Due to some unfortunate technical issues, all of the actual photos I took over the weekend were lost. I have a few decent ones I got with my cell phone, however. I apologize for this.
I’ve been hearing about Pickathon for years. Two years ago, Faces on the Radio cohost Arya Imig went for the first time, and came back with stories of immeasurable joy and brilliance. I resolved to get there as soon as I possibly could. It took a year longer than I would have liked, but I finally made it: I spent three unbelievable days at Pickathon 2016.
I’m just going to get this out of the way, before we move on: I really struggled to find things that could be better about the festival. Eventually, I realized that “There’s just too much hay for my liking” and “It’s about five degrees too hot out” weren’t valid criticisms, but minor ways for me to try and rectify the fact that I am, by and large, an incredibly positive critic. Still, Pickathon is a festival made for people like me: people with an obsessive need to geek out about music, with other people who want to do the same, in an environment that breeds that kind of behavior. Pickathon isn’t so much a festival as it is a four-day summer camp where all of your favorite bands are playing, and nobody feels like they’re there out of obligation. I had a few conversations with different performers about how they felt about the festival, and the consensus is that it’s the perfect antidote to just about every other North American festival out there. It’s clean, it’s free of gigantic sponsors, it’s eco-friendly. It does everything right.
I really, really wish I could talk about things that are wrong with it, but I haven’t got much. All I actually have is the fact that I would have liked to do and see more. There were some tough scheduling conflicts, and the smaller Lucky Barn was so consistently packed, I never actually saw a band perform there. I also never saw the Starlight Stage or a night show at Galaxy Barn, but this is a consequence of a) seeing the final act at the Woods Stage every evening, and b) not camping out, but instead going home every night. I also never made it to the fabled Pumphouse, which apparently saw a set by Dan Boeckner and Arlen Thompson’s Frankfurt Boys, the “the one-millionth Wolf Parade offshoot band” (in Dan Boeckner’s words), which was plagued with technical issues. And still, the experience I got was truly satisfying, in a way I haven’t experienced at any other festival – or, at least, haven’t come close to since the old multi-venue days of MusicFest Northwest.
It was impossibly hard for me to figure out how to break this festival down, because doing it day by day feels wrong. So, I’m going to do it in two Top Fives: The Old (bands I already knew), and The New (acts I discovered this year). All said and done, I saw 24 performances by 20 different acts (with four acts seen twice).
1. Yo La Tengo
Yes, I know, this is close to cheating: for anyone who knows me, the obvious selling point of this festival was the presence of Hoboken’s own Yo La Tengo. I’ve seen the band twice, but the idea of seeing their two performances this year was too great to pass up. One of Pickathon’s greatest features is the fact that acts play multiple sets, and YLT took advantage of this by performing two absolutely different sets – different enough that you could hear both and assume they were two different bands. On Friday night, on the Woods Stage, the band played an extremely stripped-down acoustic set, pulling heavily from last year’s covers album Stuff Like That There. It was a hauntingly beautiful set, one that I’m still struggling to find the words for: it was the right place, at the right time, with the right band, playing the right songs for the right people. Reports from people that weren’t up front said the set was lost on them, but this set was my first taste of unbridled magic.
Then, the following evening, the band played a blistering hour of their own hits on the Mountain Stage, shredding through “Ohm” (during which Ira Kaplan handed his guitar to a woman in the front row to make noise with [others, including myself, joined in) and “Heard You Looking”, while also pulling back for “I’ll Be Around” and “Nowhere Near”. Both nights also got a taste of the criminally underrated James McNew, doing “Black Flowers” (Woods Stage, dedicated to Richard Meltzer) and “Stockholm Syndrome” (Mountain Stage). I will never tire of my love for this band, and seeing them on these stages was a true treat.
2. Wolf Parade
I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a newbie when it comes to Quebec’s Wolf Parade. I’ve listened to their records and enjoyed them a lot, but they’re a band that never clicked with me in the way they did for other people. They took a five-year break following their ’10 album Expo 86, and their return to the stage (and their newest EP, EP 4) gave the impression that they didn’t so much take a hiatus as spend five years recharging just enough that they could come back and blow minds more than they had initially. To anyone who caught either of their sets – Friday night at Mountain Stage, Saturday night at Woods Stage – it was hard to not feel converted by the sounds the band made, and by the energy of the crowd. To either of those crowds, it didn’t matter that there was a festival happening around them; all that mattered was the infectious, destructively danceable energy Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug bring to the stage. Worth noting: Dan Boeckner’s reason why the band were absent for five years? “We got sad.”
Like the aforementioned Yo La Tengo, Wolf Parade brought two different energies to their sets: their pseudo-dance rock blowout set on the giant Mountain Stage – starting with “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” had the crowd hungry from second one, which was a beautiful move – and the noisy, raucous, almost unhinged stuff on the tiny Woods Stage. To make everything better, Dan Boeckner was there for the third year (2014 had Divine Fits, last year got Operators), so we weren’t just seeing a performer, we were seeing a genuine fan of the festival. Make absolutely no mistake: a performer being thrilled to be where they are will turn even the best performance into a life-changing one. For those fans who didn’t get the opportunity to see them here, worry not: something tells me they’ve got too much energy to stay away from the stage going forward.
3. Thee Oh Sees
If I were to take the experience of Pickathon and give you a look at how I felt about everything, Jeff Tweedy (we’ll get to him in a moment) would be in this slot. However, like any good festival, a lot of the joy comes from discovery, and seeing how others react to music you love. I’ve been a fan of Thee Oh Sees since seeing them on accident at Star Theater years ago at MusicFest Northwest, and would happily take any opportunity to see them live. Their overlap with Jeff Tweedy on Saturday night meant I assumed I would miss them this year, but my girlfriend’s desire to get a comfortable spot at Woods Stage for Wolf Parade meant I was willing to leave Tweedy’s beautiful set at Mountain Stage with just enough time to see a blistering 20 minutes of pure garage freakout noise.
My girlfriend had heard Thee Oh Sees before this, but there is a massive difference between hearing their records and seeing them perform. Just a few moments after finding a spot uphill, she asked me, almost angrily, “Why the fuck didn’t you bring me to this earlier?” This is the best feeling possible when attending a music festival with someone else: showing someone something you enjoy, and responding to it with joy, excitement, and the thrill of true discovery. I love going to festivals to feel that myself, and getting to see that in another person makes the entire long weekend worth it.
4. Jeff Tweedy
There was a lot of speculation in the lead-up to Jeff Tweedy‘s sets about what they would look like. What would he be with his band (and his son, Spencer)? Would it just be him and a guitar? Would we actually get a surprise Wilco show? Of course we wouldn’t but we did get two magical sets wherein Jeff Tweedy was armed solely by a bevy of acoustic guitars, his tremendous stage banter, and the entirety of his musical career – yes, including Uncle Tupelo and Golden Smog songs.
I’m admittedly nowhere near enough of a Tweedy fanatic – I love Wilco, but I’m still a novice – but getting to see someone with the rich songwriting history of Jeff Tweedy is a true beauty to behold. Getting to hear a farm full of people sing along with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” at sunset was a treat, and getting to hear songs like “New Madrid” and “Reservations” couldn’t have been better. I only saw the first few songs of his Mountain Stage set (see #3 above), but watching his performance at the Woods Stage Sunday night was transcendent. He spent a few moments the first evening playfully terrorizing small unruly children on the side of the stage (he’s possibly the cutest dfa and tactically mocking Donald Trump (“I have the best songs. Nobody has better songs than I do.”), though the following night he admitted that it may have been a bad idea to spend his anniversary mocking Trump (“My wife said she wasn’t going to watch the livestream, but she did… so she saw me turning my commitment to her into a Donald Trump joke.”)
Even as a relatively minor Tweedy fan, it felt inspiring seeing him, 30 years into his career, getting the opportunity to do whatever he wanted onstage while knowing that, no matter what, the crowd would be there for the whole ride.
5. TIE: Dan Deacon vs. Moon Duo
I couldn’t choose between the two of these, for various reasons:
Dan Deacon is here because he’s one of the best performers alive. I’m typically pretty against the idea of crowd participation (I find it to be grating and frustrating at best), but Deacon has built an industry around the art of engaging the audience. This is my second time seeing him perform, and though I opted to instead watch this part of things from the side (though I did happily get to the front and get appropriately apoplectic when he performed Spiderman of the Rings cut “Wham City”), I happily joined in the madcap show when I saw him perform in Pioneer Square a few years back. Deacon is a reigning king of positivity and joy in live music, and getting the chance to see him perform on the Woods Stage was a bizarre thrill.
Moon Duo are here because, like my girlfriend and Thee Oh Sees, they are a band who came into my life because I accidentally wandered in on them at MFNW ’12 at the Star Theater. They were my “Favorite Find” of that year’s festival, and it was great getting the chance to see them play their surf-drone in Galaxy Barn and Treeline Stage – though the sheer heat in the Galaxy Barn was stifling enough that I only made it through three songs. Still, the band’s capable wall of beautiful noise anywhere in the vicinity of the barn sounded pristine.
1. Adia Victoria
In talking with people at the festival about the new things they’d discovered, no artist’s name came up more than Adia Victoria. Serving as the missing link between gospel and shoegaze, Victoria and her band – each clad all in white, for a good cultlike aesthetic – transported the Galaxy Barn to some other plain with their blistering combination of heartaching vocals and wall-of-sound guitar effects. Adia Victoria, for me, represents what was deeply lovable about this year’s festival, and any really good festival: the knowledge that you can wander into a new space and be taken on a ride you didn’t know you were going on. I don’t know when she’ll be back in Portland, but I’ll happily be there.
Did I know that I needed a blistering blast of relentless metal when I signed up for this festival? Of course I didn’t. Did anyone? The presence of VHÖL marks a delicate turning point for Pickathon, serving as the very first metal band to ever play the festival, getting to show their might on the Treeline Stage and the Galaxy Barn, two spaces that couldn’t be more dissimilar. Despite that, they managed to deftly serve as unbelievable ambassadors to all of the blissed out indie rock lovers who came to the festival to see acts completely unlike this one. Seeing VHÖL on a stage at the edge of a forest felt almost unnerving, especially combined with the screams of Yob vocalist Mike Scheidt combining with this doom-laden beast propelling a brutal looking moshpit, but somehow everything here just worked. I listened to (but didn’t watch) their set at Galaxy Barn Sunday afternoon, and it felt like they’d completed the puzzle that was my first Pickathon weekend: I got a taste of everything, and got to see true, unbridled joy pour out of people so truly excited to watch a band with that much power on a sunny afternoon day on a farm. What could be better?
It’s worth noting that three of the bands in this section were ones I’d seen because of the suggestions of others: VHÖL were the suggestion of Portland’s greatest metalhead Nate Carson, and Palehound came to me courtesy of Amit Gordon. Though there’s nothing technically transformative about Palehound’s straightforward Bostonian indie rock sound, a lot of the charm comes from the infectious energy and stage presence of frontwoman Ellen Kempner, who commanded the stage with the love and grace typically reserved for people who have been doing what her band does for longer than she’s been alive. Keep watching this band.
4. King Sunny Ade
“I haven’t seen King Sunny Ade since the 80s!” is a phrase I heard at least five times over the weekend, and getting to catch two completely unique performances from the nearly 70-year-old Nigerian world music superstar was probably the coolest thing I did over the weekend. It feels weird to include Ade in my “New” section, all things considered, but this was one of the discoveries that threw me for a loop the most during the festival. There was a beautifully laid-back and joyful vibe to his Mountain Stage performance, but later Friday night, on the Woods Stage, he and his humongous band crammed onto the stage and played a mind-bending performance packed to the gills with unbridled love, and perhaps helped convince everyone of two things: 1) great music exists absolutely everywhere, even if you aren’t aware of it, and 2) King Sunny Ade may actually be deathless. One can only hope.
5. Ezra Furman
The “thank you”s here go to Colin McLaughlin, who was incredibly insistent that I catch Ezra Furman at some point over the weekend. “He’s the real deal,” he insisted, and he wasn’t wrong: Furman and his band, The Boy-Friends, managed to make the Mountain Stage all their own with some of the most infectious, weird, inspiring energy I saw during the entire weekend. There’s something comforting about the yowly, sometimes raspy voice of Furman, as though he’s channeling the spirit of every great 80s and 90s indie guitar band with just his voice, while flanked by the best use of a saxophone in an indie band since Portland royalty Menomena. I didn’t catch enough of this set as I’d like to – I made the mistake of leaving to attempt to see Blossom in the Galaxy Barn – but you’ll find me dancing up front the next time Furman brings his show back to town.