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Pickathon 2016 Festival Review: The 10 Best Performances

Jeff Tweedy, Wolf Parade, and Yo La Tengo rile up Portland, OR, at its annual Pickathon Music Festival

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Photography by Colin McLaughlin

This could be the year that Pickathon, the modest Portland, Oregon-area music festival that takes place over a weekend in August, finally breaks big into the consciousness of the world at large. Truth be told, it could have happened any time in the past five years. During that stretch, the event has expanded well beyond its original intent — a celebration of folk and roots music whose beneficiary was the city’s community radio station, KBOO — into much more daring territory. In years past, that has included letting old-school folkster Willie Watson and Delta blues legend Little Freddie King rub shoulders with scruffy garage rockers in Meatbodies and fusion jazz genius Kamasi Washington. Eclectic, yes, yet still modest when compared to festivals such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza that charge a similar ticket price (around $300) but boast keystone acts like Dead & Company and Kanye West.

As word started to spread among artists and booking agents about how special Pickathon actually is, 2016 was when some bigger names made themselves available. It would have been unthinkable even two years ago to find Beach House stopping by to close out the biggest of the festival’s six official stages or to see Jeff Tweedy playing a solo acoustic set on a small stage in the woods. Yet, both artists insisted on being there even, in one case, over the objections of their management.

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It’s not hard to see the appeal, though, once you’re on the grounds of Pendarvis Farm, the 80-acre spread where the fest has been held since 2006. The bucolic setting, with its unencumbered view of nearby Mount Hood and its heavily forested area where attendees pitch camp, is undeniably lovely. The organizers’ insistence on as close to zero waste as possible by serving all food and drink in reusable containers helps keep the grounds from becoming the trash heap that you often see at similar events.

Beyond all of that, Pickathon has become a premiere destination for music lovers. Not the folks that pay lip service to the idea of being a fan or subsist on a diet of Spotify streams. The 3,500 souls that descend into Happy Valley every year can track the connections between the rousing set of Afrobeat by King Sunny Ade and the free-form rhyming of Open Mike Eagle and the stomping Springsteen-ism of Ezra Furman. Nor did they seem to bat an eye when thrash metal quartet VHÖL was added to the lineup. They started a mosh pit instead. If you’re lucky enough to get the inside scoop, you can find unofficial performances going on outside the festival grounds in various spots. Keep your ears open and you’ll be rewarded.

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Where Pickathon goes from here is anyone’s guess. The folks who put it together each year recognize the blind luck that landed them one of their most stacked lineups yet, but also seem to realize that they have a lot to live up to once discussion of 2017 starts happening. This could be a major turning point towards greatness or the kind of sponsor-driven bloat that is infecting even the most well-intentioned music festivals worldwide. What direction the needle points will be revealed in due time. Until then, it’s time to keep basking in the glow of another awe-inspiring weekend of music.

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10. Hurray For The Riff Raff

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The vibe of Pickathon was, by and large, unceasingly positive, a lovely respite from the agonizing stream of bullshit that is defining our current presidential race. It was then up to Hurray for the Riff Raff leader Alynda Lee Segarra to bring the attendees back down to earth. The Puerto Rican singer-songwriter daringly dedicated her song “The Body Electric” to the “brown and black-skinned people” of the world and kept steering her elegiac set back into the choppy waters of our sociopolitical climate. It was a fairly bold move, even considering the liberal tendencies of the folks swarming around the Wood Stage to catch the set. With very few brown- and black-skinned folks in attendance, her commentary felt damning and necessary.

Even more impressive was how Segarra and her band was able to ground her performance in those harsh realities while still leaving everyone filled with hope afterwards. That has everything to do with the homey warmth of the music that held to the rootsy, Americana foundations that built this festival and the spirit with which they performed it all. The whole ensemble seemed laser-focused on landing every fiddle swell and banjo strum with precision. Segarra’s voice swooped, dived, and floated among the instrumentals, urging us closer to hear every last bitter truth and beautiful sentiment she had.

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09. Ultimate Painting

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The success of any artist playing any festival often has to do with what time of day and in what setting they perform. Which could very well help explain why UK shimmering pop band Ultimate Painting elevated itself above the pack when they hit the big Mountain Stage. Co-leaders James Hoare and Jack Cooper (joined by tour mates Bill Roe and Will Young) coaxed to life the many folks plunked down on blankets in the early afternoon sun through their close-knit harmonies and crystalline guitar tones.

Like a lot of the acts during the weekend, their influences are readily apparent. These Londoners were raised on the sounds of the Velvet Underground, Television, and the jangle pop of New Zealand. Yet, those sonic elements felt welcome and fresh through their collective lens, particularly during the long closing track that afforded the two men time to do a little gentle guitar dueling and the rhythm section to push deep into the pocket without flinching. As wonderful as it was to hear them greeting the dusk the night before (especially as Dusk is the title of the band’s forthcoming third LP), pushing the four men and their music into the sunlight did both a world of good.

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08. Open Mike Eagle

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Pickathon’s embrace of hip-hop has been one of its finest decisions, with thoughtful bookings like Shabazz Palaces and People Under the Stairs. This year even went one step further by including a local rhymer (Myke Bogan) in the mix. But it was rapper/comedian/podcaster/Adventure Time super fan Open Mike Eagle that won the weekend with his sly wit, ample charm, and nimble improvisation. The 35-year-old’s Friday night set in the sweatbox that is the Galaxy Barn wasn’t the most well attended, but the folks wise enough to brave the temperature inside were treated to a masterful set.

Using a laptop and Novation Launchpad, Eagle spun through his most self-aware tracks from recent album Hella Personal Film Festival, allowing himself the indulgence of repeating certain verses — or at least bringing them back so he could correct a flubbed line or lackluster line reading. There was even a further effort to poke a hole in the image of the egotistical rapper as he used a loop of Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” to empathize with the rocker and help build to his song about splitting his only set of pants on tour.

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07. Yo La Tengo

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Another entry you should have on your pro-Pickathon list is that the organizers insist that every act play at least two sets over the weekend. That often means the same batch of tunes in two different locales, but the artists that win over the music fanatics in attendance are those that mix it up. For Yo La Tengo, that kind of move is in their blood due to their deep catalog and the versatility of the trio’s membership. So for their Friday night appearance on the smaller Woods Stage, the band went with a mellow acoustic set, promising to break out the amplifiers the following evening.

Not only were they true to their word, but they also played the better set on Saturday. As elegantly rendered as the many cover songs and placid sentiments of the night before, the volume put a charge into the band. Ira Kaplan, especially, felt the spark, devolving many songs into free-flowing psychedelic guitar solos that treated tremolo and feedback like a splatter painting. He was also inspired during opening song “Ohm” to hand his guitar over to a young woman at the lip of the stage, with peals of furiously strummed, detuned chords cutting through the early evening air.

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06. Margo Price

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Country fans had a small conflict on Friday night of Pickathon as they had to choose between staying on the grounds to revel in the throwback sounds of Margo Price or truck across town to catch a performance by blog-anointed charmer Kacey Musgraves. While I heard that the latter put on a fine show, the advantage felt clearly in favor of the former based on the material alone. Musgraves’ boot-scootin’ odes to being yourself are just no match for the hard-drinkin’, harder-livin’ songs that Price has in her hip pocket. When the Jack White protege sings about spending the weekend in prison, she leaves little doubt that it’s actually coming from past experience.

Outside of Beach House, Price’s set was the most polished of the weekend, the product of years worth of Nashville training and the months of touring she and her band have been doing. It fit the tone of her Dolly and Reba-style sound perfectly, though. Sure, a little dustier, honky-tonk grit might have been fun to witness, but in the locales where Price played at Pickathon — the hilltop Treeline Stage and the cozy Galaxy Barn — having the music gallop and canter smoothly along felt just right.

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05. Cory Henry

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If there was a breakout star of the weekend, it had to be Cory Henry. This young Brooklynite has already built his reputation in the gospel and jazz worlds, but is now poised to leap forward in a big way. The initially uncertain mid-afternoon crowd on Sunday at the Mountain Stage were, by the third song of his set, lapping up every last note of Henry’s Hammond B-3 playing. It didn’t matter that he was simply running through covers of “Sir Duke” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”; he imbued them with such grease and panache that they felt brand-new.

This also meant that when Henry played again later that night at the Woods Stage (this time with his band the Funk Apostles), the crowd was easily three times what it might have been otherwise. The nine-person ensemble turned that little patch of forest into a bustling dance party and responded, in turn, with a little extra oomph to their set of cover tunes. He deserves extra credit for not turning “Proud Mary” into an Ike & Tina rave-up, preferring to ride a steady mid-tempo groove that drove everyone to greater ecstatic heights.

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04. Ty Segall and the Muggers

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Ty Segall and crew might as well be the house band for Pickathon at this point, or at least the festival’s mascot. As the Mountain Stage MC announced, they’ve been to the event for the previous five years, including one time not to play but to just hang out and drink in the scene (and the free beer that flowed copiously backstage). This white-hot ensemble was well served both by the hype of their previous shows at Pickathon and the seemingly nonstop touring that they’ve been doing since the release of Emotional Mugger earlier this year.

You could tell their collective love of the fest from the first note of their late-night Galaxy Barn set. The sextet let loose like I’ve never seen them before and had the crowd moving in one heaving, sweat-drenched mass. Segall, too, played up his new role as frontman to the hilt, with a wild-eyed glee and some truly surreal touches like bringing a spacesuit to the gig and insisting that a young woman wear it for most of the night.

Their set two nights later was only a hair less energetic but no less wonderful. The Mountain Stage may be the home for the biggest acts of the fest, but the front lip of the stage isn’t anymore than three feet off the ground. That means that everyone playing got up close and personal with everyone in the audience. That also meant a mosh pit that needed some regulating by security and Segall urging those security folks to stage dive. And that was before the band did an impromptu snippet of the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain”, with Segall yelling “JERRY!” to the sky.

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03. Wolf Parade

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Here’s another thing you should know about Pickathon: It’s the rare festival that doesn’t allow its bands to change the look of the stage or employ flashy visuals or pyrotechnics or any of that attention-grabbing nonsense. They know that, more often than not, the sets don’t need any extra help and certainly would serve to be a distraction or a danger.

I didn’t even consider that until I saw Wolf Parade tear its collective way through their hour-long set on the Mountain Stage. This is a band that could easily bring some kind of intricate LED light show with them or other such stadium-sized palaver that would emphasize the hugeness of their sound. But with nothing to support them but each other and the giddy faces that lined the stages on Friday and Saturday nights at Pickathon, they kept up every bit of the same energy and bombast of an arena show.

To see that happen on the big stage was one thing, but to watch them go full throttle on the Woods Stage was next-level incredible. The angularity of many of their songs took precedent, and there was an added taste of acidity in their delivery. The dust being kicked up in the crowd was no match for the storms stirred into sonic existence by this Canadian group.

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02. Jeff Tweedy

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Without a doubt, one of the biggest gets of the 2016 Pickathon was Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. It was, as one of my writer colleagues pointed out last week in his preview for the weekend, the “platonic ideal” for what this festival intends to do now as, in his own scruffy way, he bridges the worlds of roots music and indie rock ably. Without the work of Tweedy and his many projects, we might not have plenty of the acts that have played Pickathon in the past few years.

Gratefully, the mercurial singer/songwriter seemed to take to the mood of the festival, even if he didn’t spend any time mingling backstage like nearly every other performer on the bill. He breezed onto the grounds quickly, hit the stage, and set to work. But both sets that he played set a perfect, warm, poignant, and archly funny tone to close out Saturday and Sunday night.

His far-reaching sets brought in tunes from throughout his long career, including an Uncle Tupelo classic (“New Madrid”) and something from his joyously wonky side project Loose Fur, and were played with an appreciable and appreciated bit of looseness. He also adjusted his performances slightly to fit the setting with a lot of cornball banter and big vocal moments marking the Mountain Stage set and a more humbled, hushed take on his songs on the Woods Stage.

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01. VHÖL

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If any eyebrows were raised by fans when looking over the lineup for this year’s Pickathon, it was when their gaze landed on VHÖL’s name. The festival’s interest in loud garage rock is one thing, but to throw a vintage-sounding thrash metal band into the mix is an entirely different tub of corpse paint. Excited as I was to see them play, half the fun was wondering how the regular Pickathon attendees would respond to this batch of long-haired, heavily tattooed rockers.

Again, to their credit, the folks wearing the wristbands are a much more open-minded crew than any outsiders might realize. So, while there wasn’t an overflowing crowd to see either of their sets, the fresh-faced folks that did stick around ate every up every last blastbeat and screaming guitar solo.

It surely helped that this group isn’t made up of young upstarts but metal lifers. Singer Mike Scheidt is the leader of doom trio YOB, guitarist John Cobbett and bassist Sigrid Schiele are both members of the long-running project Hammers of Misfortune, and drummer Aesop Dekker was, until recently, a member of Agalloch. This music is deeply important to them, and they play with that same sense of history and urgency.

Their two performances over the weekend were two sides of the same coin that so many Pickathon artists have flipped. Their early evening Treeline Stage set was blisteringly precise and exacting, cutting through the warm air like a flaming arrow. Their Galaxy Barn set stuck to a similar set list but threatened to go off the rails at any second. Or maybe that was just because Scheidt’s attempt to stand on a stage monitor went awry and sent him tumbling to the ground.

If there was an added bonus to watching VHÖL lay waste to the assembled Pickathon audience, it was in seeing how many young kids and teens were there to absorb the assault. On both days, it was the younger folk that started the mosh pit and banged their heads with the most force. At least a half-dozen metal bands are about to get started in the wake of VHÖL’s sets. Look for them when they play Pickathon in another six years or so.

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Pickathon 2016.

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Gallery

Photographer: Colin McLaughlin

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