by Christopher Altenburg
Just after the sun went down, The War On Drugs set up on an immaculately handcrafted dome-covered stage constructed of arching, intertwining branches and resembling some form of Endorian gazebo. Down a trail lit by giant, hanging, circus-like, lanterns, penetrating the forested territory allocated for camping on the 80-acre Pendarvis Family farm, The Woods Stage rests in a clearing equipped with row after ascending row of hay bales draped in burlap, which operate as makeshift stadium seating for the festival crowd. I’ve caught Adam Granduciel’s Philadelphia ensemble live at least 3 times in as many years, and they only continue to improve, both in their versatility, swooping up the crowd in swells of uninhibited tangential explorations; as well as in the frontman’s confident stage demeanor, as he cracks wise at the audience. Midway through what was easily one of the most impressive sets of the weekend, Granduciel took a quick moment to comment on the festival itself—a festival that the group had performed at only 2 years prior. It was only the first official night of Pickathon—there’s an early bird entrance available on Thursday with additional performances—but he summed up the annual event admirably with the simple, yet sincere, statement that, out of the multitude of different festivals that his troupe has played over the years, Pickathon stands out as the one that they would actually attend themselves.
After claiming our camping spot, day one had begun with us meandering down to the main festival area to catch an energized set by Love As Laughter on the Fir Meadows Stage. Described as both a Brooklyn trio and Rolling Stone “Breakout Artists,” the project has actually been around since the mid-nineties, when frontman, Sam Jayne took on the moniker as an outlet for his solo work, after the demise of his brief but influential Olympia, Wa post-hardcore outfit, Lync. In fact, Jayne even performed on Beck’s classic 1994 release, One Foot In The Grave (K Records).
Pickathon’s tendency to incorporate overlooked and lesser-known artists into its curatorial process is one of the aspects that I admire about the festival, and its unique setup involving a pair of side-by-side main stages—The Mountanview Stage, being the other one—encourages attendees to discover something that they, most likely, would not otherwise. One stage quietly sound checks, so that the performers are ready to go when the act on the adjacent one has finished. This eliminates wait time and the audience need only turn their attention from one direction to the other to catch the next scheduled performer.
For the remainder of the daylight hours, we mostly posted up at The Woods Stage, until Granduciel and company closed it down for the night.
First came highly lauded, 64-year-old multi-media outsider artist, Lonnie Holley. With his left hand and wrist virtually covered in bracelets and rings, Holley sat behind a Nord Electro 2 tapping away and improvising on the keys. Vocally, his trademark stream of consciousness delivery saw him “pulling from the well of yonder,” as he summoned up bird whistles and crooned about such cautionary subject matter as being enslaved in a world of terabytes and “married to a satellite.” His lyrics also touched on some details regarding him overcoming the obstacle of being diagnosed as “brain dead” and unable to continue functioning, at some point in his life (because of an illness in his youth, perhaps?). He also informed us—again in freestyle song form–that a grain of sand is much more than that and encouraged us to verify for ourselves it on Wikipedia, if we didn’t believe him, instead of calling him a liar. Pretty wild shit for an afternoon set, while sitting on a hay bale with my lady like a Sadie Hawkins photo, but that’s sort of my jam and it definitely adds color and dimension to the lineup.
Along with being a member of the The New Pornographers, Canada’s Dan Bejar has been performing with his Destroyer project for the better part of 2 decades. Having minimal knowledge of either catalog, his solo set was enjoyable enough, but offered little more for me. He played an unreleased song titled, “The Light Travels Down The Catwalk,” noting that it was “about the devil,” before moving forward with, “Here’s another song about the devil.” Good enough for me. He would later play another set at the brand new, smaller Tree Line Stage, a 7th stage added to the festival this year and positioned toward the campground entrance at the bottom of the trail.
While briefly abandoning the woods to get some food in the main area, we quickly dipped into the nearby Lucky Barn to see Steve Gunn, who, like Granduciel, is a former member of, Pickathon 2013 performers, Kurt Vile and the Violators. The barn has limited seating and spills out through an open door onto a porch-like area in front. It’s a perfect venue for an acoustic guitar virtuoso like Gunn, influenced by such predecessors as John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and Sandy Bull. This year, organizers added a Q&A element to the shows in the barn and even had a large screen thoughtfully mounted to an outside wall, which streamed the performances to festival goers relaxing in the grass.
Not unlike Destroyer, I was mostly unfamiliar with The Donkeys’ work, but the country and Pavement-tinged San Diego indie-rock quartet, traded vocals and threw down a raucous set that was immediately engaging, despite me being without any frame of reference. From the moment that they began playing, the crowd leapt to their feet, swarming the front of The Woods Stage, where they remained throughout the following War On Drugs set.
Late night found us catching Foxygen in the Galaxy Barn, which typically plays host to the rowdier acts, is packed to the gills, and is hot as all get-out. I’ve been on the fence about these guys for a while, unable to decipher if they are anything more than a derivative 60s rip-off act. But if the faux-psychedelia of their video for the 13th Floor Elevator-ish title track to last year’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic was all but the nail in the coffin for me (is it merely a parody?), this show was like shoving the goddamn coffin off the stand. There’s plenty of vitriolic music critic-type shit that I could spew about this concert, but the closest thing that I could equate it to was seeing Lana Del Rey for the first time on SNL… only worse. My fiancé, Kim simply described it as “embarrassing.”
These kids are still young, but have already endured their share of drama and controversy during their short careers. I’ve heard their concerts described as everything from amazing to absolute shit shows—they were scheduled to appear at Pickathon last year, but canceled due to frontman, Sam France breaking his leg, after falling from a monitor early into another gig. In a recent interview, group co-founder/multi-instrumentalist, Jonathan Rado, confessed that they were merely kids thrust into the limelight unprepared, and stated that they were now, refocusing on the basic foundation of he and France recording music together as a duo. Somehow, this resulted in a 9-piece band, which includes a trio of background singers that looked and sounded more like random friends of theirs than trained professionals. Worst of all, it’s resulted in completely removing France from any instrumental duties on stage, leaving him too much freedom to strut around with his gaunt shirtless frame, aggressively exploring his overly contrived Mick Jagger imitation. In the rare moments that he would catch his voice, the backing vocalists would drop the ball. At one point, Sam admitted, “It was a rough start, but we’re going now. We’re going.” But they weren’t. As I walked out of the barn, past a bonfire, and down the steps to the nearby beer garden/courtyard—all equipped with screens projecting the debacle—I spoke with fellow attendees about how “forced” it all seemed and heard “huge fan[s] of the album” express their own disappointments. France tried to salvage things in the most uncomfortable manner, reaching for Morrison-style “controversy” by inserting a crude remark about raping his own mother. Bringing attention to the barn location, he inquired about where the animals were, before asking the crowd if they, in fact, were the animals themselves. “Are you Rock ‘n’ Roll animals?”
You’ll find similar reviews of this set, I’m sure—the impression seemed fairly widespread—but, the worst part is that Foxygen might come across as arrogant douchebags, which, honestly, has little, if anything, to do with the music that they create. On Sunday, I ran into Jonathan Rado, whom I actually found to be incredibly modest and couldn’t have been nicer. In mentioning Friday’s set, he said, “That was a disaster,” assuring that their next set, later that day, “would be good.” Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, it was wrought with even further technical issues and bumbling. It’s easy to trash these guys as a whole, and it’s true that I didn’t photograph them, because they looked like underdressed children with too much makeup—nineties Calvin Klein basement ads vibes—but in briefly exploring their recorded material since, I’ve noticed that the most interesting thing about it is their innate ability to construct compositions that quickly diverge, shifting their sound at will. Giving them the benefit of the doubt; if the sound was fucked—which it definitely seemed to be—then, it’s hard to imagine their more involved tracks not coming across as anything but unrepairable chaos live. If it’s justifiable to dislike someone’s work strictly because your impression is that they’re assholes, then it should be equally as justifiable to give them another shot, once you’ve discovered the opposite to be true. I like you Rado. My suggestion is to abandon the wounded theatrics and focus on the skill set that you guys clearly possess to steer this ship in the direction that it has the potential of going.
Following Foxygen with a 1am set was the brown horse of the festival, Nashville 6-piece, Diarrhea Planet. Last year it was Parquet Courts winning over the crowd from the barn, but this year…? These guys. Beyond the name, all you need to know is that they have 4 guitars and a track called “Ghost With A Boner.” The Galaxy Barn set resulted in riled-up folks from the audience hanging from the rafters, Eddie Vedder “Alive” style. Their subsequent performance, which I missed, involved one of their members climbing on top of The Woods Stage while playing. Keep in mind that most people in attendance had never even heard of these future titans of rock, but were still losing their minds over their infectious live show, anyway. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing someone mentioning Diarrhea Planet, or asking if you caught one of their sets throughout the entire weekend. Plus, if you can manage to sell as many tank tops with the word “Diarrhea” printed on them, as these guys did, you’re doing something right.
Day two began perfectly, with living legend, Jonathan Richman performing a feel-good set in the sun of the Mt. View Stage, just after noon. Accompanied by longtime drummer/collaborator, Tommy Larkins, the sincerity and appreciation poured from the troubadour as he sprinkled the odd Modern Lovers track into his solo material, occasionally setting his acoustic down to shake a maraca or dance wildly in the vein of a hand-drumming Andy Kaufman.
Mikal Cronin comes from the same San Francisco garage rock scene that birthed acts like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, and White Fence—all previous Pickathon performers. I interviewed Mikal last year, for Ghettoblaster #35, but have only ever managed to catch him live as a member of Ty Segall’s band. Personally, I find his unique blend of garage pop to be just as strong, and his high energy live set more than lived up to my expectations. Cronin has located a perfect balance between sweet catchy melodies and onslaughts of unwieldy guitar fuzz, for a sound that, undoubtedly, earned him plenty of new fans over the weekend. Watching from backstage were fellow collaborators/Ty Segall Band members, Emily Rose Epstein and Charlie Moothart, as well as Ty, himself, and Kyle “King Tuff” Thomas.
The following day, as Parquet Courts was tearing through an impressive set on The Woods Stage, I discovered Cronin standing in the crowd with Segall and King Tuff—both of whom were on the Pickathon lineup last year. Along with informing me that he is currently working on a follow-up to his critically acclaimed sophomore release from last year, MCII, Mikal told me of his intentions to return to the festival next year, whether he’s scheduled to perform at it, or not. This is a common theme, as I saw a number of past Pickathon acts-turned-attendees roaming the grounds, including Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba, as well as Marty Marquis and Erik Menteer of Blitzen Trapper. [BT drummer, Brian Adrian Koch took on duties as a stage MC].
Due to multi-instrumentalist, Kevin Morby moving to Los Angeles and embarking on a solo career, Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere are the only two members of WOODS remaining from when I first saw them open for Dungen in 2009. Fortunately, they are the core of the Brooklyn-based operation anyway. I loved everything that they released up through At Echo Lake (2010), but stopped paying much attention after their following effort. This was a mistake; WOODS actually sound better than ever. Word on the street is that the latest album is supposed to be hot shit, but all that I know, or care about, is that they’re still busting out great hooks and their ability to venture into tripped-out noise explorations and mutate sound have only magnified. During their set in the blistering Galaxy Barn, I was convinced that they had found the perfect venue for their act, only to have the exact same impression when they played The Woods Stage the following day. The truth is that they are extremely adaptable and they sound great anywhere.
24-year-old, New York-based Canadian export, Mac DeMarco plays a screwy blend of jangly indie-pop and neo-AM Gold that he refers to as “jizz jazz,” and the kids love it; although, when I told him that my own kid—almost 3 years of age—was also feeling his work, he didn’t seem quite sure how to take that information. Mac’s persona—an odd, self-assured/comforting mixture of crude transient uncle and seasoned lounge act, who’s “been there”—accents what can easily transition from soothing to unruly live act. Relocating for a better angle mid-set, I ran into Erik Menteer with a mutual friend that I haven’t seen in about a decade, effectively causing me to miss DeMarco crowd surfing to the end of the sizable crowd, and then back to the stage again (also known as concert photography gold).
Those with only a peripheral knowledge of X, might find it odd to hear that the pioneering Los Angeles punk band was playing an acoustic set in the Oregon woods, but while they themselves referred to it as the “weirdest” X show that we would ever witness, this presentation actually makes a good deal of sense. Bassist/vocalist, John Doe was said to have trained Exene Cervenka to sing by practicing old Hank Williams tunes, and drummer, DJ Bonebrake—who broke out his vibraphone for this show–had a background in orchestra and big band music, before ever joining the group. In fact, those three are also members of the country/folk/rockabilly project, The Knitters. Guitar wizard, Billy Zoom is a multi-faceted musician, responsible for some of the rockabilly undertones in the band’s material. Much of this was chronicled in the 1986 documentary, X: The Unheard music, which even features a moment with Zoom on clarinet. For this show, he busted out his saxophone, with a guitar pick stuck to his forehead. X‘s stripped-down delivery highlighted the depth of their musicality, while demonstrating how they have become such a tremendous influence on a variety of artists from varying genres, and why they are widely considered to be much more than just simply “a punk band.”
I conducted an in-person interview with Marco Benevento a number of years ago and have been seeing the experimental jazz pianist/organist live for over a decade no, whether solo, with his original duo, as part of groups like Garage A Trois, or accompanying artists like Bobby Previte. And while he was one of the festival standouts last year, I found this year’s late night set disappointing. I understand that he’s “evolving” and “experimenting,” but I just want to see him tear into his instrumental effected-piano jams and circuit bent toys; I can’t get into the new vocal-driven numbers. To make matters worse, when he played “Limbs Of A Pine”— the electro-hippie cut, that I blame for encouraging this new wave of songwriting—a obnoxiously pogoing women screamed out, “This is the best song of all time!!!” into my ear, and a handful of glowsticks hit Kim in the back of the head, before lifelessly falling to the floor–a misguided attempt at a Phish-inspired “glow stick war.”
The final day involved the ethereal, otherworldly croons of Angel Olsen; another terrific set by WOODS; an impressive display of uniquely affecting, mind-bogglingly technical folk compositions by festival veterans, The Barr Brothers; and sonic post-punk steamroller, Parquet Courts. The only act to be scheduled for only one singular performance over the weekend, Parquet Courts have the remarkable ability to harness and control the energy of the environment, from their very first note, onward.
Warpaint is like what I imagine the hokey fictionalized all-female rock bands in films like the 1988 Justine Bateman/Julia Roberts vehicle, Satisfaction, must have been trying, yet failing miserably, to portray: four incredibly talented musicians, with strong individual identities, coming together to create a sound that’s not only fully engrossing, but unique unto themselves. It’s rare to find a group with such balance, where each member melds in such a manner that they carry equal weight, pushing layers of liquefied woven sound in any given direction as a unit. They understand sonics. Since my first exposure to them, via the slow-motion grooves of their “Disco//Very” video, I’ve been half-convinced that these women were sirens, beckoning me with mesmerizing tranquil harmonies, only to discard my broken torso among the crashing tide. The pummeling, unbridled, improvised outro by their crack rhythm-section, made up of Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass) and drummer Stella Mozgawa, confirmed it. These ladies venture into some dark shark-infested waters when they want to.
Located by the food vendors, the open platform of The Starlight Stage goes live after the main-stages shut down for the night. Mac DeMarco played his second set of songs “about cooking meth” and “smoking cigs,” there, while chugging beer from a Rubbermaid pitcher and handing out pizza slices to the crowd. To insure a fitting sendoff for guitarist, Peter Sagar’s last show with the band, they ended with an unorthodox medley consisting of Rammstein, “Taking Care of ‘Bidness’,” The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (with Staind lyrics), and Tool, before Sagar leapt onto the audience, while rapping “Break Stuff”—the Limp Bizkit song credited with inciting the Woodstock ’99 riot. They finished off with a dedication to Angel Olsen, performing Shaggy’s forgettable rendition of Juice Newton’s “Angel Of The Morning.”
Pickathon has begun employing deejays in the beer garden to fill out the 40-minute gaps between sets at the Galaxy Barn. As we wandered over there, I instantly noticed festival founder, Zale Shoenborne. After meeting Zale last year, he showed interest in my opinion, asking for my input on what bands they should book this year. Off of the list that I sent him, 4 of the artists—Cronin, The War on Drugs, Demarco, and Olsen—actually performed. This level of desire to receive feedback is expressed equally across the board, from artists to festival attendees. When I told him that it makes one feel like they could actually have an effect on the outcome, he insisted, “You do.” While standing by the porta-potties, early Sunday morning, Shoenborne came waltzing up and enthused about witnessing his own son–a 10-year-old, I believe–genuinely connecting to a live show for the first time, during People Under The Stairs the night before. His family was in the campground, just like the rest of us. Now, with a huge grin across his face, he was getting down to classic soul-funk jams with his wife, just before 8-piece Latin-funk ensemble, Brown Sabbath tore the roof off the joint with their spot-on renditions of Ozzy-era Sabbath tunes. That’s how you both run and close out a festival, the right way.
I’ve already addressed plenty about the child-friendly environment, rejection of corporate interference, free filtered water, and groundbreaking sustainability efforts adopted by Pickathon, both in last year’s review and my preview for this one, but the feeling generated at this event—one where your voice and experiences are genuinely valued–cannot be overstated. If there is any self-awareness at other festivals, perhaps it’s the form that Skynet acquires, where the machine has overpowered the humans; the accepted fate being that the well’s been poisoned and there is no reversing time for a bygone era. Pickathon is not perfect—I did miss the Korean BBQ fusion burrito truck this year, and additional efforts could probably be made to cool down the Galaxy Barn—but it’s that recognition that keeps them consistently moving forward and improving. In its 16th year, you still don’t really hear people complaining about how the festival “used to be,” or of the valuable aspects which have been sacrificed for growth and a dedication to profits. More so, you hear about the positive adjustments that have been made, year after year, in benefit of the people who attend it. The fear that Pickathon might not be the same next year, is definitely a valid one, but that’s only because the organizers are constantly reevaluating and searching for ways to improve it. Their dedication to environmental sustainability extends far beyond recycling efforts and solar panels on the Galaxy Barn roof; there’s an intense focus on retaining the integrity of the environment that they’ve fostered with Pickathon–an environment that many of those who migrate to consider a brief utopia that they are able to experience outside of their everyday lives, one highly-anticipated weekend a year.
Lying in my tent, I heard Nickel Creek refer to Pickathon as their “favorite festival in the entire world,” and Shakey Graves actually credits it with positively adjusting both his outlook on his craft and the trajectory of his entire career. Exene Cervenka likened the 3-day event to “having a baby,” in that you can’t really explain it, you just have to experience it. But perhaps, my buddy, Mike Ping described his first Pickathon experience most poetically when he professed, “I’m so full of feelings… It’s like… my heart needs to poop.” He wasn’t alone; I can assure that plenty of others must have felt the exact same way. Diahrrea Planet… indeed.