This Week in the Mercury


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

This Year's Pickathon Was One of the Best

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Wed, Aug 7, 2013 at 12:09 PM

It's taken me a couple days since Pickathon to put my brain back together, and this year's was one of the very best since I started going in 2008. Every year the organizers make slight tweaks and changes—mostly improvements, sometimes not—but this year I thought everything was humming along at its very best, from the expanded beer garden (you could carry a beer from the main stage to the barn area this year for the first time), to the stage setup (a collection of tied-together sails that was staggeringly beautiful), to the food selection, to the diverse bill of music, which featured plenty of high-dial rock 'n' roll. There's way, way too much to cover, so I'll just mention some of the many highlights and try not to get too gushy:

Old Light in the barn on Friday. What could have been a polite afternoon rock show turned into a gonzo psych-shred bonanza. There was a clear red Mylar guitar in the shape of an X. There was guitarist Garth Klippert sauntering out into the crowd, towering over them and brandishing his guitar, looking something like The Motherland Calls. There were alternate tunings. There were two drummers. There was psychotic disco. It was weird and wild and heavy and loose.

Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird in the woods. Sharing a mic with Tift Merritt, Bird played a stripped-down, bluegrass-inflected set with emphasis on strumming and vocal harmonies. Surrounded by nighttime trees pumping out fresh oxygen over the crowd, it was clean and natural and captivating.

King Tuff and JD McPherson in the barn on Friday night. Stylistically, these two couldn't be more different, one pumping out soda-pop glam jams and the other strutting through natty, '50s-style rock 'n' roll. Playing consecutive sets, they each ruled the sweat lodge in their own unique style. King Tuff's riffs felt like they were exploding through the walls; he and bassist Magic Jake looked positively delighted with every note. JD McPherson, meanwhile, was a (relative) paragon of restraint, walking a tightrope of boogie-woogie and blues, then letting the band swing out when the situation demanded it. It was a time machine back to an era of well-dressed men and swishing skirts—there wasn't a foot in the place not tapping.

Yellowbirds' twin sets on the main stage and the barn. Their hazy, tangled-guitar, low-simmer rock felt warm like the sun, bridging the gap between folk storytelling and psychedelic soaring—both of which were perfectly at home at Pickathon.

The Relatives
The Relatives
The Relatives on the main stage on Saturday. Holy shit. I missed their set in the barn, but the five of them working a big crowd with gospel funk and pure showmanship was electric and ecstatic. With Marco Benevento sitting in on organ, their crowd participation factor was off the charts.

The Cactus Blossoms, in heat of the sun at the new Pickathon Café stage, and in the even more heated Workshop Barn the following afternoon. Playing classic country and old-time music, their delicate sound was assured, stately, and stunning, topped off by the intertwined harmonies of brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. They were one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend.

Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten, in the woods and the main stage. Her woods set was plagued by a couple early technical problems, but her careful, trembling songs arced skyward under the canopy of trees. Her main stage set on Sunday was palpably emotional, as it was her final performance of the year with her three-piece band, which included Portland's Heather Woods Broderick.

Lake Street Dive in the barn, playing immaculate, professional, jazzy pop. Lead singer Rachel Price is a world-class vocalist—like, Aretha level—and the rest of the band is just as good. Watching them work a hot crowd was a marvel. My favorite part: the three devoted teenage fangirls in the front row (one of them was wearing a Rent shirt) simultaneously losing their shit and carefully studying the band's every move with wide eyes.

Divine Fits
Divine Fits closed down the main stage on Saturday with a sleek, pounding set of angular pop. Their tight-lipped rock-star showmanship rivaled only the Relatives', and their fiery set had all the subtlety of a locomotive. It's been commented before how well Spoon's Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs' Dan Boeckner work together, but it makes perfect sense in the live setting. This is no one-off supergroup or ego-driven double-down of efforts. Divine Fits is its own living thing, and that thing puts on a damn good rock concert. Their closing set in the barn Sunday night was nearly as good, but this is one of those uncommon bands that thrives in a bigger venue.

Parquet Courts in the barn at 2 am—a punk rock pajama party. I don't remember too much about this except wheeeeeeeeee!! I caught some of their main stage set the following day, and it was righteous.

Shabazz Palaces in the woods. I saw part of their barn set, which was apparently besieged by sound difficulties, but their set in the woods was moony and interstellar. I'm not the first one to liken Pickathon's Woods Stage to Endor, but that's what it was like, and the weird, nebulae-spanning sound of Shabazz in that setting felt like stumbling across a ritual taking place on a strange, distant planet.

Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile and the Violators on the tiny Starlight Stage, playing drawn out, meandering jams through the midnight hour. It seemed like they only played three songs (it was probably more like six), as they turned each one into hurricane-sized swells that ebbed and flowed and went from deafening to whispered and back again. When the band amped up for each tempestuous peak, the volume became a physical assault. It was great.

Lady in the barn. "It's hotter than a juke joint up in here!" said Nicole Wray, an immense violet braid dangling across her back. And it was—after three days of hot crowds being crammed in their, the barn was positively roasting. It didn't stop Lady from kicking out sexy, heartfelt soul.

A couple other quick notes: I didn't see anything bad all weekend, but I didn't quite get the buzz around Shakey Graves, which for many was the breakout star of the weekend. Plucking and mumbling updated white-guy blues while stomping on a drum pedal that beat upon a suitcase, it felt a little like the theme-park version of old, spindly, troubadour folk. Clearly I was in the minority, though, as his name spread around Pendarvis Farm like wildfire as something to see. Perhaps in any other setting, without the serious competition for my attention, it would have clicked. And Feist's headlining set on Sunday evening was fine, but was relatively sterile compared to the dusty passion and urgency that characterized so many other Pickathon performances. Perhaps at that stage, after three days of being wild in the woods, it was necessary to be in her well-guided, Joan Baez-like hands. She sounded great, for sure. But her songs felt a little too mellow, and her fancy LED stage setup was the definition of superfluous.

Oh, some other great things: White Fence, one of whom wore makeup and played a Steinberger guitar. Ty Segall doing his new acoustic thing, which still rocks pretty heavy. It was sorta like the "bustle in your hedgerow" section of "Stairway." Breathe Owl Breathe, spinning their weird, camp-counselor magic as always. And on and on. It was an incredible, wonderful weekend—Pickathon never fails to deliver.

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