By Hollister Dixon
“Your favorite band two years from now is playing two sets this weekend at Pickathon.”
-Peter Shaver, Sound Advice
Pickathon is the festival that I want to be, but as a person – sonically omnivorous, ceaselessly welcoming, and full to bursting with life and love.
It’s hard to know just where to begin with a festival like Pickathon. I’m still a newbie to the festival (this is only year two for me, and my first year camping [or, at least, attempting to]), but I could talk for hours about everything the festival does perfectly right. There’s a willingness to grant concertgoers the ability to truly experiment and see bands they never knew they needed to see, and for those who get the chance to see those sets, it gives them the ability to tell all their friends, “Go see them again with me tomorrow.” It’s a festival that breaks down what it means to even be a festival in 2017, shrugging off corporate sponsorship and mass appeal for something much, much more interesting: the spirit of curation, and the thrill of discovery.
It’s also hard to really explain Pickathon in some ways, because it’s so unlike other festivals. There’s a magic in walking up a hill in the woods and hearing the steadily growing sound of “Freak Scene” by Dinosaur Jr. being played by Dinosaur Jr., or wandering down a random path and discovering a band playing a tiny set in the middle of nowhere.
I saw bands that shook me hard enough that I started pre-apologizing to people for how much of an insufferable fanboy I knew I’d become, and on one occasion I did so directly to the band. I got to see bands I’ve loved for years play sets that felt almost too good to be true, in places I never expected to get to watch them.
You know that bit above, where I pre-apologized to a musician for being too much of a fanboy? This is that band. I said “This is what Pickathon is all about!” about a few bands this weekend, but when I think about Peter Shaver’s quote at the top of this review, Jay Som are the band that comes to mind immediately. Sometimes, you just know when you’ve found a new favorite.
Jay Som was on my “Should See” list before Friday’s Treeline Stage performance, but if I’m honest, part of the motivation for making the trek to the stage was that Treeline offered the shade we desperately craved as the weekend’s heat wore us down. By the end of their set I was bound and determined to be at Galaxy Barn for a second set. This is the band that will likely stick with me the longest; Melina Duterte’s a songwriter with a knack for making tender, emotional songwriting look remarkably easy. “Take time to figure it out / I’ll be the one who sticks around” is a line that’s simple on paper, but when filtered through a kaleidoscopic dream-pop lens, and sung with more yearning than most 22-year-old can even pretend to muster, it becomes something remarkable.
Live, Duterte and her band bring to life the loud bash of dreamy indie pop feelings that she created alone in her bedroom studio, and though this year’s Everybody Works is a remarkable official debut (or sophomore album, if you count the demos that became Turn Into), these songs truly soar when done with others who are in perfect lockstep. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about the band, there’s a lot of magic in a band that has managed to present a fully-formed sound and aesthetic so early on, which makes it really exciting to think about how fantastic this band will be – both live and on record – in just a few short years. Keep an eye on this band.
I discovered Priests purely by accident. Standing outside the Galaxy Barn, I heard the band’s first chords start up and felt like it was worth my time. By the end of the set I was drenched in sweat and cider, battered from the moshpit that grew inside the Galaxy Barn. Priests’ set was constructed brilliantly: the first two songs gave the impression that they’re merely a punk band, indebted to The Sonics as they are to Bikini Kill. Then came the sprawling, almost Sonic Youth-lite number, which added a second layer to what the band is capable of. Then, after that feeling settled in, the drummer began her rapid, frantic monologue of Nothing Feels Natural standout “No Big Bang”, and it felt like the band was willing me to try to get comfortable, only to repeatedly yank the rug from under my feet. The combination of frontwoman Katie Alice Greer and guitarist GL Jaguar was some of the best interplay I saw during the whole festival, as they fed each other’s manic energy that propelled them into being too compelling to not want to tell everyone about after walking out of the barn.
While I greatly preferred the blistering catharsis that came with drunkenly stumbling into a band as visceral as this one at their Galaxy Barn show, some of the most fun came at the band’s second performance at the Mt. Hood stage the following afternoon. Greer traded her bright red 80s prom dress from the previous night for a tutu and a leotard, nobly bowing to the pressures of the weekend’s oppressive heat – the only concession the band made for their midday, outdoor set. Nothing could really replace the rowdiness and the sense of awe I felt during that Galaxy Barn set, but it was a thrill to watch the hillside in front of the stage freaking out to the abrasive sound that this band makes. Go see this band whenever possible.
I stood in the small sweatbox that exists between the door to the extremely small, sitting-only Lucky Barn and the shade curtain just long enough to be rewarded with a chance to sit and watch New Zealander http://www.aldousharding.com make music that sounds downright haunted. By the end of the set I felt emotionally exhausted, and that’s a rare quality in live music. This year’s Party is a sparsely composed collection of affecting music that feels like it’s at the intersection between PJ Harvey and Perfume Genius, and somehow Harding’s live reworkings of these songs render them even more threadbare. Even though she performs with two other people – specifically H. Hawkline on guitar and Invisible Familiars (aka Jared Samuel) on keyboards – watching her perform leaves you with the feeling that nobody else in the room exists, other than you and her. It’s hard to put a finger on why this feeling happens, but it was easy to feel the rest of the world dissolve away in a haze of emotional intimacy and minimal instrumentation.
By the following day, she’d loosened slightly. “I know it’s hot in here, you guys,” she joked partway through Sunday’s Galaxy Barn show. Later, when the stage lights brightened, she quipped, “Yes, turn them up, that’s going to help.” The crowd laughed nervously, seeming almost afraid to entertain the notion that any laughter could exist in this space. Part of me wondered if the AC in the barn had failed, or if the festival organizers wanted to ensure that nothing would take away from the woman performing onstage.
I’m going to ramble about Drive-By Truckers now. Bear with me.
I’m not ashamed to tell you that I cry at shows sometimes. I’m an emotional person, and over the course of my life, that’s become inseparable from the music that I love. The only time I cried during Pickathon, however, wasn’t during a song at all: as Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood talked about the love he felt for his new hometown of Portland, about the fear and dread that came from uprooting his family to come here, about seeing Hiss Golden Messenger play on the same stage where he was now playing, that Hiss Golden Messenger had performed on just hours before, I became overwhelmed with remembering how the “Things I Love” speech was a testament to the welcoming love for my city that I felt when I moved here, but also to the spirit of Pickathon itself – we walk onto Pendarvis Farm as strangers, but people will leave as family.
Hood is one of this generation’s best storytellers, but it never gets in the way of their ability to play incredible rock music. To say that Drive-By Truckers is one of rock’s most consistently good bands could be a controversial statement, but it’s hard to see a Truckers show without feeling a small sense of awe at the well-oiled machine of Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jay Gonzalez’ three-guitar assault. Look, these guys can play, okay? The mild star of the show, though, was bassist Mike Patton, who spent both their Mt. Hood performance and their Woods stage show beaming almost ceaselessly, his mouth permanently stuck in a “How lucky am I to be here?” grin.
The only criticism I have is that it didn’t feel like they didn’t use the differences in both venues to their advantage. Both sets were remarkably good, but part of me wished they’d used their earlier, more intimate Woods performance to utilize Patterson Hood’s ability to keep the crowd rapt when it’s only he and an acoustic guitar. This is a minor trifle, however. Drive-By Truckers aren’t going anywhere, and neither is Hood. He loves our city too much, I fear, to ever want to leave again.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal highlight of the entire weekend: this reporter shamelessly shouted a humble request for The Dirty South standout “Puttin’ People on the Moon”, a cutting story about the destructive properties of poverty and illness. My cavalier jackassery was rewarded not solely by the fact that they immediately played it (I’m serious, there was maybe a two-second beat between my request and Hood beginning to tell the crowd about the reception they got when the song came out [“we got booed at every show!” – keep in mind, this is 2004]), but by the fact that they stretched the five-minute song into a mammoth, blistering 10-minute guitar freakout. It’s rare that the experience of seeing a band perform your favorite song vastly surpasses your expectations, but I’ll hold that song in even higher regard from now on.
Photo Credit: Christopher Ryan Altenburg
Stockholm’s Dungen are the only band I saw on this list that I only saw once during the festival that I only saw once, but they may have put on the most “You can’t see this almost anywhere else” performance. Pickathon is an outlier in that it gives bands two separate time-slots on separate days, which means the more daring bands can use one of these slots to shrug off a more traditional set in favor of something much, much stranger (see: Yo La Tengo’s acoustic Woods set from last year, versus their more traditional electric Mt. Hood performance). For Dungen, the answer was obvious: a live score for a 90-year-old silent German animated movie.
At their best, a live score for a film will make you forget that there’s a band playing, and it’s a testament to the quality of Dungen as musicians they (a band of fair renown) were able to make themselves invisible for much of the performance. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the world’s oldest surviving animated film, more of a performance of shadows than an actual piece of animation. Despite its age, it almost felt like Dungen’s score for the film was the film’s intended score, as it fit every moment of the piece perfectly. My only complaint from the performance came not from the performance itself but from the crowd. While lots of people watched the performance seated on the grass, quite a lot of people decided to stand, making good visibility extremely difficult for actually watching the movie that was playing. It’s a movie, folks, have a seat!
William Tyler & the Modern Country Band
Photo Courtesy: David Harris
Sometimes, you see a band that doesn’t blow you away, but instead perfectly fits what you need at a certain moment. This happened twice with William Tyler, backed by the Modern Country Band, who were once members of Megafaun. As I sat chatting with friends next to the Starlight stage, we became aware of the beautiful sounds of William Tyler’s tightly-constructed but seemingly effortless instrumental wanderings. It was the perfect way to end the Thursday night of the festival, and though their Woods stage performance the very next day was equally beautiful, it failed to capture the magic that that very first show had.
Regardless of the lack of atmosphere of the second show, this was the first performance of the year that made me say, “This is what Pickathon is about!” Those moments are the ones where you’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right band, with the right people. These moments are somewhat rare, but each year of this festival provides at least a couple of these. William Tyler was a late addition to the festival, helping to fill in the space left by Thai freakout artists Khun Narin. While it was a disappointment to lose that band, I can’t complain about the discovery that came with their absence.