Pickathon 2013 passes the “taste test.”

The Happy Valley roots-rock festival makes a special effort to accommodate artists, children, and campers. Photos by Dara Bedick and A. Adams.

What’s the big deal about Pickathon?

“I’ve been taste-testing festivals all over the country,” said Leslie Feist, pausing during an intimate Saturday evening set on Pickathon’s Woods Stage. “…and let me tell you guys: THIS! This is what they’re all trying to BE.”


Folk singer Feist had kind words for Pickathon after toughing out an impossible setup last summer at Sasquatch.

I’d last seen the sensitive singer-songwriter getting an apparent raw deal at Sasquatch 2012, where despite holding the same marquee clout as fellow folkster Bon Iver, she played a 3pm slot to his headlining midnight show. He got dramatic lighting effects and a hill-full of worshipful pilgrims; she got inconsistent soundboard levels, blinding sunshine, and a milling crowd of half-interested day-drunks.

It’s a nefarious pattern for many festivals—but not Pickathon—to give more prime night spots to men than women. As a result, mellow male acts who command the evening stage are exalted as gurus guiding a vision quest, while equally subdued female acts’ afternoon spots lend them about as much clout as aunties hosting midday tea. For her fateful set at Sasquatch, Feist ducked under a floppy sun hat and toughed out the inevitable anticlimax…probably praying to the fest gods for a better show next summer. Now, thanks to Pickathon, she sat in a luminous nest of twigs at twilight, her voice and guitar cradled by perfectly-honed levels as a hushed, reverent audience hung on her every tone. THIS.

Feist was just one of many experts who spent last weekend singing Pickathon’s praises. Bridgetown Comedy Festival founder Andy Wood, who emceed at the Mountain View stage, gushed, “I’m constantly amazed at how Pickathon just manages to get everything so right. This is how a festival is supposed to be. I love this place.”

Theo Craig, Rontoms booker and member of new David Fimbres project Mascaras, admitted that Pickathon has completely transformed the way he sees rock shows. “You can make events that surprise people. You can create a momentary culture.” At last summer’s fest, he recalls being handed a washboard and invited to jump into a jam. Ever since, he’s been more relaxed about trying new instruments and improvising. “Things that seem too technically complex, if you kinda forget about yourself, they’re still hard but not impossible to do.” In the relaxed atmosphere of Pickathon’s backstage, where press and musicians mingle calmly over shared refreshments, he noted “it doesn’t feel like there are rules—but there are, and they’re simple: Be discreet, and don’t be a dick.”

Fair enough.

Someone thought of the children.


Curious rugrats try out the communally-available hammocks.

When I first interviewed founder Zale Schoenborn in 2010, he mentioned how new-found fatherhood had inspired him to keep the fest kid-friendly. Three years later, boy howdy, children abound, hopping around the forest chirping and singing like chickadees—and each morning, campsites awake to children’s voices. “I dreamt I was feeding a herd of hungry cats,” confessed photographer Dara Bedick of the mewing racket. I, meanwhile, awoke to a modified ABBA  serenade: “Mama mia, I’ve got diarrhea! Scritch scratch, and I’ve got a bum rash!”

Cat Doorman

At Pickathon, kids get their own special rock shows. Here, Cat Doorman regales the Galaxy Barn with funky covers and subtly idealistic originals.

Kids under 12 get into Pickathon free, and acts like the Cardboard Songsters and Cat Doorman play especially for them. Kids even have a morning jam session in a barn. Parenthood—more often kept separate from rock fans’ and performers’ endeavors—is embraced here as part of the fun. On Sunday, a musician in a southwestern dress sat on a hay bale, breastfeeding her baby. Aaron Beam, better known as a hard-rock bassist in Red Fang, looked after his young son while his wife drummed with Cat Doorman (pictured below), whose front-woman Julianna Bright (a mother herself who also plays with The Golden Bears) entertained with party classic “Funky Town,” then a covertly conscious original:

“I know a kid named Sid…he’s dancin’ like his shoes are gonna sneeze…. I know a kid named Evvy, and her moods are really heavy…” In a few words, Bright got a lot done here, gender-equalizing all “kids” and empowering each with an individual identity. “You know you’re not too young, and you’re not too small” she encouraged,  building up to an impish parental twist: “…to wash the dishes!”

Proving that fatherhood is a lifelong condition, rock-and-roll elder statesman Howe Gelb invited his grown-up daughter Patsy Gelb to join him for a few tunes. (Patsy was in good company, as Gelb’s other special guest was folk legend Victoria Williams.) The scene also recalled a past Pickathon concert from Alela Diane, who was also joined by her father Tom Menig onstage. Pickathon hasn’t just made it easy for parents to keep rocking; they’ve effectively gotten the jump on grooming a new generation of musicians and fans.

Facilities: Can’t rock out without ’em.

Last week my neighborhood barista, fresh from What The Festival, said something funny: “It was mostly dubstep, which I’m not into. But it was such a blast!” Interesting. If she didn’t care for the MUSIC offered by the fairly new music festival, how could she have possibly had fun? The pool, she said. The people. The shade structures. Atmosphere.

Her findings about WTF echoed my own from last summer: despite only a smattering of great live music, a gorgeous natural setting supported by great amenities had managed to make the campground a nice place to be. Meanwhile, I’d found the Sasquatch 2012 so dirty and disorienting that it was hard to even enjoy the stellar bill featuring Beck, M. Ward, and the aforementioned Feist. Friends have since reported that Sasquatch 2013 showed marked facilities improvements, albeit with a higher ticket price. Pickathon, too, has raised prices this year. As Operations Manager Ronnie Beoicourt explained to ArtsWatch this spring, it was that or increase capacity—and loyal fans voted overwhelmingly (90%) for the former.

A group of cleanup volunteers avoided taking their job TOO seriously by wearing spandex animal costumes.

Some facilities staff avoid taking their job TOO seriously by sporting spandex animal costumes.

In addition to its comprehensive eco-efforts, Pickathon continues to uphold a high facilities standard with unique, hand-decorated stages, high-fi sound equipment, and technicians that do the music justice. But don’t underestimate the impact of free water and accessible whole-food cuisine, prevalent shade structures (better secured this year than last, when the sky was frequently falling), comfortable campsites, and oft-serviced toilets and trash.  Even the worry of getting lost is mostly relieved by navigable forest paths demarcated by color-coded Christmas lights. If you’ve ever tried to tough out a camping trip without them perks, you know these seeming perks are a god-send.

So, are a fest’s facilities as important as its bands? Hard to say. But since music appreciation is higher up the hierarchy of needs than a square meal and pot to p-ss in, it’s safe to assume the basics are imperative, and that extra levels of physical ease just make the music sound sweeter.

Stay tuned for more about the music of Pickathon…

A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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