PORTLAND — Even as music festivals across the country struggle to stand out in an ever-crowded field, Portland’s beloved Pickathon has been doing things a little differently for more than 20 years.
While Pickathon — which, this year, took place Aug. 1-4 — is rooted in roots music, banjos and mandolins are hardly mandatory. Its branches have long extended into myriad other genres, ranging this year from doom metal bludgeoneers Yob to Mereba’s soothing R&B. The ahead-of-the-curve boutique festival is nestled in a woodsy hillside in suburban Portland, its unique and elaborate stages built into a landscape more intimate than an expansive dusty field. Tickets — which were capped at 3,500 — weren’t cheap at $325, roughly $100 more than Bumbershoot and Capitol Hill Block Party and with fewer mainstream stars.
“On its surface, [it’s] not a great business model, because it’s not cheap,” says founder Zale Schoenborn. “It’s an experience and makes choices that, from the typical festival model, undermines the profitability.”
He’s right about the experience part. Based on our visit to Pickathon this year, here are six reasons why it’s not your typical music festival.
‘Fantasy island’ stages
The twisted funk intro to Grateful Dead classic “Estimated Prophet” sent the crowd, dispersed throughout a knotty-wooded hill, dancing (with varying degrees of grace) between the trees. Jam king Phil Lesh and his Terrapin Family Band were in full swing Friday, reinterpreting cuts from Lesh’s Dead canon while huddled on the branch-weaving Woods stage, which felt like a rocker fairy’s alcove in a Neverland forest. (At least one joint-ripping dad seemed to channel his inner Peter Pan.) “Pickathon … feels like you’re walking around this fantasy island and everything has a completely different vibe and you kind of lose track that you’re even at the same festival,” Schoenborn boasts. After seeing Black Belt Eagle Scout (who plays THING festival later this month) give a serenade/Q&A in an intimate barn and high-wattage psych-rock thunderers JJUUJJUU obliterate another woodsy stage made by Portland State University architecture students using borrowed apple crates, he’s not wrong. The closest thing to a “normal” festival stage was the main Mt. Hood setup, where sly and surfy soul-funk trio Khruangbin (also set to play THING) sauntered around its patches of forest floor decor Friday. Still, the primary bowl area was covered by a stunning “tension fabric structure” canopy resembling a 600-foot by 600-foot paper snowflake that took three weeks and 12 miles of rope to set up, offering some shade during the day and becoming a light-reflecting spectacle at night.
With most artists playing multiple sets and stages throughout the weekend, there was little pressure to work yourself into a stage-hopping frenzy to catch everyone on your list. So those who missed Tyler Childers’ (who plays the Paramount Theatre Oct. 25) smoldering, hard-livin’ country ditties that had a herd of trucker hats going wild on Friday could catch him the following night on the Woods stage. It’s a smart workaround for the inevitable hard decisions that come with overlapping set times, at least at most festivals.
It’s a knife in every eco-friendly heart every time a vendor dumps an overpriced plastic water bottle into a plastic cup. That doesn’t happen at Pickathon, where single-use dishware has been eliminated for years. Instead, they sell reusable camp cups ($6) and a token-based dish system ($10) where fans exchange their wood coin for a clean take-home souvenir plate or a $5 refund. Bringing your own is also encouraged, with washing stations for those who’d rather save the cash. Plus, the festival is mostly powered by clean diesel fuel — not to mention the solar-powered phone charging station and Galaxy Barn stage — aiming to reduce its carbon footprint.
Festivals sprucing up their food options with chefed-up offerings is the new standard. But with captive audiences there’s risk of those allegedly “elevated” bites coming with elevated prices. At Pickathon, fans sipped $6 PNW craft brews (cheaper than many Seattle clubs) while scarfing spicy chicken sandwiches from Portland’s raved-about Thai restaurant Pok Pok ($9) on the lawn while Turkish psych-folk troupe Altin Gün (whose first U.S. tour hits the Crocodile Aug. 5) dazzled with a harmonious blend of tropical synths, hypnotic polyrhythms and baglama (a Turkish lute) riffs. Pickathon’s separate-ticket Curation series paired artists and local chefs for collaborative meals-and-a-show. Beyond food, a community sunscreen station, run on donations, helped keep the burn at bay, whereas other fests would gladly sell you that desperation bottle with a hefty markup.
Instead of festi bros hawking hat pins (or more illicit contraband) among the crowd, entrepreneurial kids set up along the wooded path between stages selling comics and Pokemon cards. Gaggles of toddlers ran in circles beside a snoozing grey-hair as jazz drummer Makaya McCraven (who plays THING festival this month) coolly rocked the Mt. Hood stage. With a fair amount of programming for the wee ones (kids under 12 are free), families were out in force among the BabyBjörn-speckled crowd. Even as unruly Swedish post-punks Viagra Boys stoked a Saturday afternoon mosh on the earthen dance floor between the mossy Woods stage trees — with husky-voiced frontman Sebastian Murphy scream-crooning abstract lyrics about sports and shrimp sandwiches — a diaper-clad micro-person absorbed the surreal experience with amazement or complete indifference safely on the hillside. Pickathon is easily the coolest festival you can bring your dad and your daughter to.
Shining without megastars
If it’s big names (and bigger crowds) you’re after, larger West Coast festivals like San Francisco’s comparably priced Outside Lands (featuring Paul Simon, Childish Gambino, Twenty One Pilots) might be more your speed. Pickathon sidesteps the headliner rat race, largely favoring intriguing up-and-comers like experimental synth-pop artist and Polaris Music Prize winner Lido Pimienta; buzzy singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin; and Miya Folick, whose arresting voice climbed as high as the Woods stage trees on Saturday. Still, there was some collective indie star power at work when the Richard Swift Hex Band performed a touching tribute set of the late Northwest musician and producer’s music with Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, indie-pop faves Lucius, soul-rocker Nathaniel Rateliff and others handling vocals. Rateliff’s and Eric Johnson of Fruit Bats’ tender and soulful voices lifted the closing romp through Swift’s “Lady Luck” to joyous heights, making for one of the weekend’s most memorable sets.