August 10th, 2011 | by LocalCut Music | Posted In: Live Cuts

Dear Pickathon 2011 Diary (with Photos!)

     
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Pickathon
Credits: Photos by Vivian Johnson. Text by Casey Jarman and Matt Singer.











I've heard people talk about Burning Man—about it being life-changing and consciousness-altering and a testament to the power of community—like it's a religious experience. Then I see the photos: Naked hippies wandering the desert next to 20-foot-high paper mache jesters and neon green tee-pees. And I think "no, I'm definitely too straight and cynical for all that."

But then again Pickathon always seemed, from a distance, to be the same sort of affair. Bluegrass bands and dancing folks letting it all hang out until the wee-small hours on a farm—an actual farm with horses and barns—always seemed a little too close to my hippie parents' kind of fun to light a fire beneath me. There are forts and psychedelic backdrops and stages built out of branches and musky late-night barn parties, after all. But Pickathon is a community experience. There's no reason that something this big—six stages on 80 acres, all crawling with dirt-faced kids, flowery dress women and bearded, pearl button shirt-wearing men—and run primarily by volunteers should work as well as Pickathon does. For whatever reason—the idyllic setting, the largely laid back style of music, the prohibitive ticket price—Pickathon attracts a crowd of really nice people who don't do what festival people are supposed to do: They don't puke all over the place and cut in line and take so much MDMA that they have to be carried out on a stretcher. It has that community spirit that Burning Man types talk about, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

This year's Pickathon festival sold out of weekend passes by Friday afternoon—and, I would assume from taking a look at the crowd, sold out most of its day tickets as well—but it still felt pretty comfortable. I saw two angry people all weekend: One who thought the sound sucked at Black Mountain's Galaxy Barn show and one who was angry to be asked to leave Mavis Staples' Q&A session because of capacity issues. Everyone else was smiling—sometimes wide, giddy, cannabis-inspired smiles and more often smiles of pure joy to be away from their jobs and enjoying great music in the middle of a forest. Almost without exception, bands—many of whom camp out at Pendarvis farm themselves (Califone erected a sign that said "Psychic Readings: Call Califone" near their tent)—commented on the festival. "I don't know if you know how special this really is," one frontman mused. Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner was similarly taken aback. "We just flew in from Lollapalooza, which was great, but totally high-stress," she told the crowd. "And as soon as we got here it was like 'hey, relax—do you want a kombucha?' This is amazing."

I don't get out much. I don't go camping or swimming or hiking like most of my increasingly health-conscious friends. And I have certainly used words like "hippie" and phrases like "pachtuli-soaked, granola-eating, vegan dreadhead/deadhead zombies" (god, that's really rude) from time to time to describe said friends. I say these things mostly out of fear. I think participation in society, no matter how flawed a society it is, is important and I don't intend to "drop out" any time soon. But spending three days in the woods, watching great bands (roots and otherwise) and being among positive, laid-back, normal people (some of whom danced like gypsies, sure) indeed made me feel "closer to nature" without making me feel like I was running away from society. I know it was only a few days, but my first full weekend at Pickathon was special. The fact that I could have that experience so close to my own city is a blessing I won't soon forget. Thanks, Pickathon. CASEY JARMAN.

SLIDESHOW by VIVIAN JOHNSON

TEN MEMORABLE MOMENTS FROM PICKATHON 2011, by CASEY JARMAN and MATT SINGER

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Bill Callahan at the Woods Stage, 7:30 pm Friday

I have given Bill Callahan's new record exactly one listen, and while I knew the singer-songwriter was a great talent, I didn't necessarily expect him to draw me in as wholly as he did. Though I could barely see Callahan through the mass of bodies and trees encircling this gorgeous stage, I did have a clear shot at Portland drummer Neal Morgan, who is nothing short of a beast on his small kit. Callahan's whole trio (acoustic and electric guitars plus drums) was perfectly in-sync, and they had the crowd eating out of their hands. When Callahan played "America" off his new album, Apocalypse, the giddy-up pace woke us up out of a temporary hazy singer-songwriter stupor. When he uttered the relatively nonsensical string of countries and words in the fourth verse "Afghanistan/Vietnam/Iran/Native American," the crowd let out little cheers. I'm still not sure why. Apparently they were just hungry for some politics. CASEY JARMAN.

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Grupo Fantasma at the Mountain View Stage, 8:45 pm Friday

I guess what was really special about this was walking to the end of a skinny little path after seeing Bill Callahan—who played an extra-long set as the sun was setting—and coming to a well-lit open field while Austin's Grupo Fantasma blared its funky, Cuban jazz-inspired sounds to a huge gathering of people in lawn chairs (nearly all of whom, by set's end, were up and dancing). I stood at the side of the stage and chatted with Laura Gibson a bit, but both of us got sucked back into the music. And when the band finished, the crowd literally would not let them go. The response was absolutely one of the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers I've ever heard. The band looked thrilled, as well. CASEY JARMAN.

LC Ulmer in the Workshop Barn, 12:30 pm Saturday

Somewhere in the midst of Delta bluesman LC Ulmer's amazing, long-winded story about courting 13 women at the same time (apparently they found out about one another, and had pocketknives and razors at the ready when they confronted young LC), the girl sitting next to me leaned over and said "I'm in love with him." "I know, right?" I replied. "I want him to be my grampa!" Ulmer transfixed a barn full of curios fans with his stories (another one focused on his year's running an auto shop: "You've got to live by your own hands," he said earnestly. "Can't live by another man's hands"), but it was his incredible picking and haunting voice that sealed our love affair with the 82-year-old singer. At various points Ulmer played the guitar behind his head and participated in what looked like a limbo challenge with himself, shaking the dust off his aging joints to the crowd's delight. This guy isn't just legit, he's a teacher and a treasure. His songs spoke for themselves, but when he spoke, everyone listened. CASEY JARMAN.

Fruit Bats at the Woods Stage, 3 pm Saturday

Now an “all-Portland band” thanks to the addition of musician-about-Stumptown Dave Depper on keyboards, Eric D. Johnson's Fruit Bats and its neo-classic rock drew a huge mid-afternoon crowd to the Woods Stage. I'll be honest: This was a highlight mostly for being the only performance I managed to catch at the stage, which is literally shrouded in wilderness and an absolutely gorgeous place to witness a show. Not that the Bats' sunny hooks and spindly guitar work (especially when Lewi Longmire was on stage) wasn't great, but I was mostly distracted by the sea of terribly off-beat hippie dancing occurring directly at the front of the stage, the first of the weekend that I witnessed en masse—the band should be commended for not losing its rhythm. And then it threw out packages of its own branded incense. These dudes sure know their audience. MATTHEW SINGER.

Future Islands at the Meadows Stage, 5:15 pm Saturday

This was my first Pickathon, but I can easily say Future Islands is the least Pickathon-y band in the festival's history. For starters, the only thing it picked was a bass. All the other music came courtesy of a synthesizer and programmed beats. But the band captivated even the confused folkies, thanks almost totally to Samuel Herring's bizarre stage presence. Dressed in all white, the singer pounded his chest and smacked the ground with his fist while crooning in the voice of a disturbed New Romantic. They probably killed inside the Galaxy Barn late Sunday night, but here, they were mostly a curious oddity, and perhaps an indication that Pickathon's roots might be on the verge of becoming more distant from the festival as it gets bigger and more crowded—but after hearing a lot of similar bands for two days, the oddity was welcome. MATTHEW SINGER.

Califone at the Mountain View Stage, 6 pm Saturday

After delaying the start of its scheduled 1 a.m. set on Friday night by 40 minutes and then proceeding to noodle through an improvised soundtrack for some shitty art film, Chicago's Califone had a lot of making up to do for those of us who waited up late for them and weren't on any mind-altering substances. And, well, it pretty much made for all of it during its mid-afternoon main stage performance on Saturday, working through a beautiful set of its atmospheric, subtly textured experimental folk—which, ironically, would've sounded great underneath the stars at 2 a.m. As someone drawn to Pickathon mostly on the strength of the participating bands that exist outside the folk world, it was great to hear a band that exists on its edges doing such a mesmerizing job of subverting it completely. MATTHEW SINGER.

Lee Fields & the Expressions at the Mountain View Stage, 7:45 pm Saturday

It might be a stretch to call Lee Fields a legend. His '70s singles are well known among hardcore funkateers, but the general public only really got to know Fields in the last few years with the recent retro-soul revival. Of course, none of that really mattered when he took the stage here, because the guy performed like a legend. Backed by a tight band of younger musicians, Fields came in and grabbed the festival by the throat, pacing the stage, flirting with the ladies (particularly on “Ladies”) and commanding the attention of the entire field. He has the rasp of James Brown but none of the manic gestures. Instead, Fields exuded a smooth combination of R&B croon and funky grittiness. My favorite set of the weekend. MATTHEW SINGER.

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Elliott Brood at the Fir Meadows Stage, 9 pm Saturday

I've gotta say, I didn't really get Elliott Brood's set. But with a handful of friends, I was glued to my seat just in front of the Fir Meadows stage (aka the Beer Garden stage), watching two shadowy figures make out on a crane platform far above the tents. Because we were hypnotized by this brazen PDA, we didn't bother to reconfigure ourselves. Then we found out, the hard way, that Elliott Brood has a fucking posse. Within minutes of the Canadian trio's set beginning, my small crew and I were surrounded by enthusiastic fans. We too were impressed by Casey Laforet's skills (he plays the bass with his feet while singing and playing guitar), but that's about where the excitement stopped. Long, jammy, painfully upbeat two-chord songs with repetitive choruses did little for me, and literally nothing for my friends, who sat expressionless there just in front of the stage. Halfway though, one of the members of my party cracked. "I've got to get out of here," he said. "No! Don't do it! They'll eat you alive," I pleaded. But it was too late, he pushed and bumped and squeezed through an army of Elliott Brood devotees. Then there were four. And as the set heated up, we looked around to find we were the only four people seated, surrounded on all sides by dancing maniacs. "Act enthusiastic," I whispered to my friend Matt. "It's the only chance we have. It's like being surrounded by zombies—you just have to act like a zombie and you can fool them." We clapped and swayed, but it was no use. "I wanna see everyone jumping around for this one," Lafolet pleaded with the crowd. I turned left to see another friend frozen in fear, shaking her head vigorously. Then I looked behind me. Ten women—all of them blonde with far-away looks in their eyes and giant white teeth—were motioning excitedly at me to get up out of my seat and smiling. I cracked, letting out a whelp as I folded up my plastic chair to the chagrin of my seated companions. "Now you've done it," one grumbled. We stood up just as the band chose a representative to canvas the crowd with pie tins and plastic spoons, literally the worst noisemakers in the history of noisemakers—instruments so vile that only sadistic five-year-olds get enjoyment from banging them together. But alas, the crowd was at Elliott Brood's mercy, like blood-soaked devil-brides from some '70s horror flick. So we danced, hesitantly and awkwardly, as the mob surrounded us. No one heard our screams. CASEY JARMAN.

Mavis Staples at the Workshop Barn, 3:30 pm Sunday

Hours before alighting the Mountain View Stage, Mavis Staples graced a much more intimate venue: the Workshop Barn, a wooden shed that can fit about 100 people inside, and not very comfortably. She didn't actually perform—a fact Pickathon's organizers probably should've announced beforehand, since so many people crammed onto the patio around the barn to see her that part of it collapsed—instead sitting down for an hour-long interview with KEXP's Greg Vandy. It was almost as much of a honor to hear her speak as it was to listen to her sing. Dressed in a hot-pink “Washington, D.C.” shirt adorned with neon faux-paint splatters, she hardly resembled the American music icon that later brought down the entire festival, but in retracing just a few steps of the incredible life she's led, she confirmed her status as a national treasure. She choked up recalling the Civil Rights movement, which she helped soundtrack. She displayed a great sense of humor recalling conversations with everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Jeff Tweedy to Elvis Presley. She laughed nervously while addressing the rumor that she and Bob Dylan had a romantic dalliance—in love with her from the moment he heard his first Staples Singer record as a pre-pubescent kid, Dylan asked for her hand in marriage...more than once, apparently. Even the crowd Q&A—a segment that usually embarrasses everyone—produced some great stuff. She talked about her relationship with her idol Mahalia Jackson, which began when she was a child and culminated with them sharing a microphone two years before Jackson's death. And she expressed her love for Adele, who she first heard while at the dentist's office. By the way, Adele, Mavis Staples said it would be an honor for her to ever do a song with you. You may now explode. MATTHEW SINGER.

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Mavis Staples at the Mountain View Stage, 8:45 pm Sunday

Against all odds, I too was present for the Mavis staples Q&A (hell, I cried at the Mavis Staples Q&A—as did Mavis), and it only made me more pumped for the legendary singer's evening set—which would be my last of the festival. And in describing what it felt like, I must first admit that there was a time in my life when I wouldn't have enjoyed this. I didn't want to be another white face in a sea of white faces living out their fantasies of swaying and sweating in a black church (without, of course, having to go to the trouble of being black). But now I'm sort of ashamed for feeling ashamed. Shame isn't a great starting point for mutual understanding or self-discovery. It's a waste of time to apologize for the people around us (even if they let out a few hammy "amens" every now and again) and it's an even bigger waste to apologize for loving the things we love, or for being who we are. These ideas were stirring in my head after Staples' talk. Asked what song she would perform in front of children, she said "Respect Yourself," explaining that her father ("Pops" Staples) always said if you don't respect yourself, who's going to respect you? Now, I've been hearing phrases like that my whole life, but when I heard it from Mavis, a woman who toured with Martin Luther King, Jr. and—under her father's musical and stylistic guidance—helped soundtrack the civil rights movement, I realize just how much that sentiment means for the disenfranchised and how much it should mean to the privileged, as well. If you treat people shitty, you're disrespecting yourself. You're not living up to the ideals you should live up to. And when you fail to empathize with people, you disrespect yourself—you're not being a whole human being unless you try and understand the world around you. And even though I still think there's a fine line between empathizing and acting—a line I'd contend that those lily-faced folks who let the spirit move them a little too vocally might occasionally cross—they are there because the music moves them. And I was there to feel the music move me.

Mavis Staples' music did move me, and while the spirituals and pop numbers (including the Band's "The Weight," the clear crowd favorite and the song that elicited the biggest smiles from Mavis and her band) were fun, I was surprised to be most moved by the song that did the least to reach out and shake me. The Jeff Tweedy-penned "You Are Not Alone," from Staples' latest album of the same name, was deeply moving and a little surreal. You can hear Tweedy's voice coming through the back end of that song; Mavis channels his sadness and heartbreak as she connects it with her own. And, as emo as it sounds, that sadness is what we all have in common. Not everyone gets to experience a lot of joy, but from time to time, when the lights go out, even the most comfortable among us gets that hollow feeling. Even the true believers get that. I take solace in it, anyway. Mavis made me smile and clap and laugh (she kept saying "Pendarvis! Yes indeed! Pickathon! Pendarvis!"), but that little twisting chorus of Tweedy's tune ("A broken home, a broken heart/ Isolated and afraid/ Open up this is a raid/ I wanna get it through to you/ You're not alone") is the thing that squeezed me the tightest and will serve as my lasting memory of seeing the great Ms. Staples in person. CASEY JARMAN.

 
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