The first thing to catch your eye when you enter Pickathon is the brilliant-white tensile canopy bobbing overhead in the breeze, cut into Fibonacci-esque whorls like a digital cloud. Second is the thousands of smiling revelers relaxing underneath it, followed by the music they’re enjoying on one of two side-by-side stages. Eventually you notice the stainless steel cups, caribinered to belt loops, backpacks and shoulder bags, one per every person at the festival. Filled with beer or cider or something softer, this cup is your first purchase at Pickathon and it stays with you all three days of the festival.
The cup is a symbol of Pickathon in several ways. If you attended last weekend's incarnation, which took place once again on a farm 25 miles outside Portland, then laser-etched on the outside of the cup are the words "Pickathon 15th Anniversary" and a cute cartoon beaver, this year’s mascot. So it’s a souvenir. More importantly, the cup—manufactured by Chico, CA company Klean Kanteen—is a part of Pickathon’s zero-waste initiative. Every time you buy a locally crafted beer or cider or soft drink at Pickathon, you use this cup. Klean Kanteen provides free fresh water and rinsing stations. When you buy food from one of a dozen or so vendors—mostly Portland food trucks and restaurants—you use a reusable plate and spork that you pay a deposit on and return at the end of the festival. The Klean Kanteen people say that festivals across the US have picked up on Pickathon's model and now dozens are striving for a similar no-waste policy.
What seems like a hippie-pacifying talking point actually speaks to the big picture at the Northwest’s most finely curated music festival: When it comes to the bands, the production, the venue, the overall experience, there is no waste at Pickathon.
With a 5,000-person capacity, the festival is sizable enough to accommodate a full cadre of attendees and acts but small enough to feel insulated, comfortable, manageable, laid-back. Where other festivals are exhausting, Pickathon is energizing. There are as many families with children as college-age partiers; I’d guess the average age is 35. Corporate sponsorship is either invisible or nonexistent. Very little fencing, common-sense crowd control and easygoing security add up to the kind of production where you feel like a guest rather than a target market.
The name Pickathon conjures images of dusty-footed hayseeds puffing a jug and stroking a washboard, which describes the festival’s humble, genre-heeding origins but hardly its current, inclusive aesthetic. It also keeps away the meatheads and burnouts on a summer-break search for Mollypalooza. Perhaps the name is what's saved Pickathon from becoming like pretty much every other major festival across the US, a generic clearning house for the same touring bands playing from title-sponsor stages the size of a parking lot a quarter-mile away.
This year, you could easily see a weekend’s worth of rustic music if that’s what you were after, both real-deal traditional acts (Dale Watson, Ginny Hawker) and young bucks carrying on old traditions (the Cactus Blossoms, Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole, Shaky Graves, Vieux Farke Toure). You could also avoid that stuff and rock out with three of the best young garage-rock/psych bands on the circuit—Kurt Vile & the Violators, King Tuff and Ty Segall. Or you could split the difference and dip into what Pickathon likes to refer to as indie-roots music, modern bands that nod to Americana via indie rock: Yellowbirds, Sharon Van Etten, the Felice Brothers, Old Light. Don’t forget mass-appeal/high quality headliners Feist, Andrew Bird and Divine Fits. And also Shabazz Palaces playing on a stage that resembled a rave in Sherwood Forest (?!?!).
If you were smart, though, you saw whatever was in front of you at any given moment. Articulating this argument is difficult, because of course it’s all a matter of taste, but every band I saw this weekend was very good at what they do, and the unifying thread was passion for music. Artifice and pretense—typically confused for "stage presence" at bigger festivals—was nonexistent. Each band played at least twice throughout the weekend and sometimes as many as four times. Some played under a canopy of stars well after midnight (Kurt Vile on the Starlight Stage was like a dream), others in a ramshackle barn in early afternoon, still others at a pop-up stage in the middle of the woods that opened after 3 AM. To paraphrase one musician I spoke to, most festivals pack bands in and out before they even know where they are. They get a single 40-minute chance to blow minds then they're gone. Pickathon allows artists to settle in, relax and contribute deeply over the course of several days. Musicians like this sort of care and involvement, which makes for caring, involved performances.
Of course a lot of my exuberance for this festival comes down to age, to which I say thank you to Pickathon for providing a festival perfectly attuned to someone like me, a music lover with almost 25 years of festival-going under my belt (anyone else remember the first Lollapalooza tour?). I'm fine leaving Fencefest and Sprawlaroo to the festival n00bs. After a lifetime of seeing music in almost every conceivable setting, Pickathon is my new ideal—not too big, not too small, everything you need, nothing you don't.