Pickathon has a special place in the hearts of Oregonians. Since 1998, Pickathon has occupied a large lot of forestry and farm land in Happy Valley, Ore., where six stages, massive art installations and thousands of attendees flock to bask in the experience of a somewhat diverse musical spread and camping in the wilderness. As the festival grows in popularity, Pickathon has had to adjust its inner mechanical workings to accommodate the larger scope of attendance and demand. The process of growth, along with some nastily hot weather, have created some issues during the first phases of this year’s fest, but as time goes on kinks are worked out, and patrons grow more and more drunk to notice.
Part of what makes for the fun atmosphere of Pickathon is the weather. Since the festival usually takes place mid to late summer, temperatures are usually ideal compared to the greater Portland area’s glum and overly romanticized grey skies. Summers up here are typically temperate, but Pickathon’s first day of this year happened to be at near record breaking highs. Those that were (un)fortunate enough to arrive on Thursday were burdened with the task of setting up their individual shops and the stages were endured to extreme conditions, with temperatures well above 100 degrees. Quite a few patrons and volunteers succumbed to dehydration and heat exhaustion, making it a delirious feat to enjoy the festival’s first sets.
Friday was slightly cooler, but only by a handful of degrees. Issues with losing power, water shut offs and a general lack of communication and organization were unwanted difficulties.
Regardless, Friday’s artist talent continued unfettered. Robyn Hitchcock, the British singer-songwriter particularly known for his devoted time with The Soft Boys, took to the Mt. Hood Stage in the broadest of daylight. Dressed in a color paisley button up and brightly colored teal slacks, Hitchcock joked about the musician days of lore in-between his entirely acoustic set. He began with his ode to drunken mishaps, a ditty titled “I Pray When I’m Drunk.” Families sprawled out on blankets and the little crowd closest to the stage laughed as Hitchcock quipped on older musician’s tendencies towards drunken sexual deviance, as he led into an apparent and often confusion between his songs and those of The Beatles.
“This isn’t a song by The Beatles, but it is very British,” Hitchcock jokes as he goes into his solo version of the Soft Boys song “I Got the Hots For You.” He describes his role in his past life with the band, and as a person in general, saying “I was just another selfish hippie” before he begins the intro lines of “Saturday Groovers.” He’s relentless in his self deprecation regarding the whiny white man artists he often gets confused with. “I’d be happy to sign old REM posters or early Decemberists tapes if you’ve got ‘em.” The crowd cracks up.
Hitchcock rolled through a few other tracks like “I Want to Tell You About What I Want,” one of his older tracks with The Venus 3 called “Olé! Tarantula” and “I’m Only You,” but his closing track solidified one of the most fitting comparisons yet. He ended with “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” which sounded quite close to many of the songs Jonathan Richman performs.
It made for an almost too-smooth transition into Richman’s set over on the Woods Stage. Almost every fan of the Modern Lovers and Richman’s solo work are well aware of his penchant for onstage strangeness, which is likely why the audience was in the standing position for the entirety of his set. He kicked things off with “That Summer Feeling,” immediately going into the weird, shamanic dance moves he’s known for. A purposefully lost look dominates his facial expressions as he goes into “Outside O’Duffy’s,” where a jam session extended the song and had everyone in the crowd moving.
Richman’s songs vary on the eclectic scale, but enthralled the crowd nonetheless. He gave praise to the sun and the “life that it brings,” which was kind of poignant granted the state of the day. At times, it was a bit hard to understand exactly what he was saying, and a lot of the performance kind of seemed like it was one big song, but once he got to his most familiar and favorited closing tracks, the whole performance came more together. His first closer was “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” which, while a popular hit, was an interesting choice for a place like the Portland metropolitan area where there’s heightened sensitivity to fodder on marginalized communities. He made a point of mentioning he meant no ill will in his singing of the song or intention of the song in general, more so stating it’s about the comfort of being around that scene. His other finishing song, “No One Was Like Vermeer” celebrated the art of creativity, in a way that excited the audience almost more than the idea of dancing in a lesbian bar.
To go from Jonathan Richman to Lucy Dacus on the Woods Stage was a welcomed transition. The female/female-identifying power at Pickathon is real, but Dacus’ sound was welcomed in a more darks sense, for comparison. Her output fashions itself as a combination of Emily Jane White and Chelsea Wolfe, with the pop sensibility of Angel Olsen. Together, these elements combine to produce a strangely upbeat brooding production. The audience occupied their haystacks patiently; an unsure air dominating most of the crowd as to what to expect from her. She started with “Strange Torpedo,” a song lyrically describing the typical interaction between millennial couple dynamics. Much of the crowd were of an older sense lacking in relation to the song’s content, but those late 20’s and under preened in its relevance. She mentioned her love for Portland but how she’s only played the locale once, so even in her moody context there was a level of excitement that she at least vocally expressed. From there she led into “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” and “Time Figure,” a reverb driven mixture between garage and emotional folk.
Dacus’ deprecation is at its utmost expression with “Map On A Wall.” She sings, in the most appropriate manner for the aesthetic of the deep forest location of the Woods Stage and the typical problems part of the millennial audience oft faces: “Oh, please / don’t make fun of me / with my crooked smile and my crowded teeth / or my pigeon feet / or my knobby knees. Well, I got more problems than not / But I feel fine / and I made up my mind to live happily / feeling beautiful beneath the trees above a ground that’s solid at the core.”
Her song “Direct Address” takes this emotional sentiment even further, with a line “Honesty is just a kiss on the lips.” That lyric drove home with anyone in the audience, and it was written all over the expressions on their faces.
Romance, or a lack there of, was a common theme of the day. Big Thief’s set, on the intriguing Treeline Stage built by Portland State University architecture students, started with a nod of appreciation to the tallest members of the audience standing in the back – the trees. After this the band leads into “Real Love,” a slightly fast ballad about what it is to experience real love.
The audience watching Big Thief was large, but not fairly engaged in the set. Their evening time slot was at the crux of sun drunken daze and alcohol drunken fatigue, so it makes sense that the energy level was fairly low.
William Tyler’s following set didn’t do very much in the ways of energy either. Americana and country have been the predominate genres of the festival, but William Tyler mixes a bit of instrumental post-rock reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky. Tyler has typically played with Megafaun as his backing band, and the combination of their instrumental expression with the flashing neon yellow lights definitely created an atmosphere. Many of the songs Tyler played didn’t have lyrics, but he did mention how one of the songs was about how he sees UFOs all the time. One of the songs with lyrics, “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me),” was one of the last ones he played, and was a nice one to go out on.
Tyler’s brand of “Americana” was different than Deer Tick’s, who have a more traditional approach to the genre. “The Bump” was their kick off, illuminated by blue, green and sepia lights. The crowd was comprised of almost entirely diehard Deer Tickers, who knew the lyrics to almost all the songs they played like “Main Street” and “Spend the Night,” when they incorporating the horn section to “Summer Breeze” by Seals & Croft.
Charles Bradley and Alex Cameron’s sets were some of the most packed, to the point of anxiety triggering. Bradley played the Woods Stage, where the massive amounts of people in watching created high levels of anxiety in many. One attendee even got carried out on a stretcher from knocking her head in the excitement. Alex Cameron’s set was much more sedative, and many either extremely loved it or hated it greatly. He sounded like a mix between Coldplay and Arcade Fire, bumbling through between track fodder not making much sense. It ended the night strangely, especially as a drunk attendee got on the mic screaming “America, fuck yeah!”
It’s guaranteed that the heat and the booze will only make patrons even more rowdy as the weekend goes on.