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Pickathon 2013: Music Minutes

By A.L. Adams
August 9, 2013
Featured, Music

It would be impossible for one writer to “cover” all the music of Pickathon. It would also be unnecessary, as the fest does its own fabulous job of documentation, videoing and webcasting much of the event as it happens. If you check the schedule now, you can still pull up several saved Livestreams that will put you right in the action, or you can visit one of many gorgeous slide shows and make your own decisions about which sights and sounds you love. Maybe that’s why my impulse was to write about amenities first, as they’re less subjective and more (ahem) accessible. Still, since I did attend a slew of shows and scribble copious notes into an old-fashioned paper notebook, hopefully the following festival minutes will provide at least a few unique insights that would otherwise be lost in the forest. Here goes…

I’d climbed the steep hills of Coyote Run, set up my tent, and stolen a little sleep when I was awakened  by the distant sounds of the perfect dream accompanists:

Pure Bathing Culture

An undeniable Portland buzz band, PBC is at the forefront of what the kids call “chillwave,” but I call “reviving my long-lost love of The Sundays.” It’s high female vocals and glidey wafts of guitar. It’s harmonies in pleasing major thirds and fourths. At times, it approaches almost smug levels of exuberance…but these are offset by a humanizing tremor in the lead vox, and enough syncopations/complications to chop up the otherwise crystalline waters.

The Cactus Blossoms

The Cactus Blossoms

Every time PBC paused, The Cactus Blossoms’ bluegrass would break through from the other stage. A squeal of fiddle, a flurry of strummin,’ and twangy male harmonies bending and stretching like a fork pullin’ pork. This is the quintessential roots rock upon which Pickathon was founded…and though their tastemaking extends beyond it, bluegrass remains a key component of the fest. “My Grass is Blue,” read one Pickathon patron’s t-shirt. Another casually cleaned his teeth with a piece of hay.

Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole

Coming downhill from the woods to the plain, a loudening bustle of Cajun zydeco quickened my steps to the main stage. Unexpectedly, I noticed a sax in the mix, blending so adeptly with the accordion tones that you’d never know it was there. “Merci beau coups!” exclaimed Watson, confessing it was his first time at the fest. Though Pickathon’s bread and butter is bluegrass, it’s developed a pretty great ear for New Orleans musicians, too—most notably last year’s Hot 8 Brass Band.

Breathe Owl Breathe

Breathe Owl Breathe was one of the most playful, performative acts, mixing it up with instrument switching and poetic monologues.

Michigan’s Breathe Owl Breathe, introduced by the emcee as “forest nymph type people,” performed a playful, interactive set, mixing it up with instrument switching, audience involvement, and poetic monologues. Lead singer Micah Middaugh used dual mics, one regular and one scratchy like a radio. He also held fern fronds over his face to create an impromptu Green Man mask, while telling a story about a dragon and a princess that bloomed into a sing-and-clap-along number. Breathe Owl Breathe’s Andréa Moreno-Beals offers lovely, almost operatic, vocals and varied accompaniment as a classical counterpoint to Middaugh’s more conversational, folky stylings. B.O.B. continues to represent the best features of mid-last-decade lo-fi: homespun arrangements of surprising intricacy and unpredictability, literary lyrics, seamless transitions between classically beautiful and earnestly bare-bones.

The Relatives

The Relatives, formed in Dallas in 1970 and revived in 2009, kick it old-school with choreographed dancing, matching lavender suits, and occasional exclamations of "Ow!" and "Good God!"

Formed in Dallas in 1970 and revived in 2009, these soul brothers kicked it old-school with choreographed dancing, matching lavender suits, and occasional exclamations of “Ow!” and “Good God!” reminiscent of James Dean. Their funked-up version of “This Little Light of Mine” was one of at least two performed at the fest, as Cat Doorman also referenced the gospel anthem of individuality in her set. Leaning into slow jam “Your Love is Real To Me,” they were the consummate singers and showmen, demonstrating that at Pickathon, as long as you keep playing it right, your style of music never gets old.

Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside

"I don't know how well I'm going to be able to play after all the free beers," joked Portland rockabilly powerhouse Sallie Ford before her set with band The Sound Outside. Who was she kidding? Nailed it.

Backstage before her set, Portland rockabilly powerhouse Sallie Ford joked about “glamping,” and “how well I’m going to be able to play after all these free beers.” Who was she kidding? Nailed it. A full touring schedule and a continued upward trajectory of acclaim have obviously made Ford more at home onstage than she was even a year ago. Bold sexuality is a continued hallmark in lyrics like “take my eyes, take my lips, take my thighs, take my hips…”

Drummer Ford Tennis also explained the group’s luridly fascinating new video, where a glamorous vintage pinup woman wrestles an obese cross-dressing man.  “We handed creative control over completely. We said ‘just don’t make us be in it.'”

Andrew Bird

Bird is kinda known for being—depending who you ask—gorgeously or disturbingly perfect. He’s got the cleanest whistle, the smoothest voice, the most elegant strokes of violin and the most precise rhythmic timing. He sings lyrics that would otherwise be published on a page, and left alone with a looping pedal, he can create a symphony. This is what I longed to see on the Woods Stage. What I heard instead was a fuller band, infused with a fair amount of honkytonk flair. That’s usually fine in its own right, and I’m sure this kind of jam sesh helps the tortuously intellectual Mr. Bird make musical friends and blow off steam…but it didn’t play up his unique strengths. Later on, I either heard or hallucinated repeated refrains of Bird’s looping pedal echoing in the distance…hopefully he eventually reverted to the old mode.

Ty Segall

When Blitzen Trapper’s Brian Koch (also of Manos: The Hands of Fate) introduced Ty Segall, he pushed his admiration to the point of irreverent absurdity, telling the Christian “Footprints” story with a new final twist: “Christ, why is there only one set of footprints?” “Because that’s when I left you to watch Ty Segall play.” For my money, it was a slight over-sell; Segall delightfully disoriented with surprisingly atonal chord progressions, cavelike sustain, and explosions of toms—but his vocals pit-fell into a few tropes: a nasal tenor timbre, rhyming “crazy” and “daisy,” and affecting a puzzling English accent for a Californian even while singing “don’t forget where you come from.”

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

The distinctly non-roots rocker curried crowd favor early in her set by playing through when her sound cut out completely, not flinching when it burst back on mid-song. The New Jersey rocker also gave a shout-out to Portland’s Blitzen Trapper (perhaps the most omnipresent non-playing band on site besides Typhoon) for lending her a guitar, and thanked bandmate Heather Broderick for sitting in with her. Mysteriously feminine and menacing with black bangs falling over her face, she sustained a warm, reedy alto tone through a fog of sonic fullness. “Tell me I’m right, tell me I’m funny, even when I’m not,” she commanded. From where I sat, pretty sure the audience was ready to comply. This was her last gig of the year, and hence “bittersweet.”

Sturgill Simpson

This cowboy was the first choice of my Kentuckian beermaker friend, who arranged her shift break from Hopworks Urban Brewery to check him out. When I told her he sounded like Randy Travis, she practically spat, “Waylon Jennings!” When I said his lyrics were unintelligible, she replied, “I’m hearing every word.” From booze-addled waltzes to barn-blazin’ bluegrass, he contended “they’re all for the ladies” while a well-preserved woman in a purple dress and gray pigtails booty-shook near the front of the crowd. “This next song is called ‘Life’s Not Fair, and People are Mean,'” he announced. “Except not here! This is pretty bitchin’!”

Related Pickathon 2013 Titles: Pickathon prep delayed to save birds >> | Pickathon Passes the “taste test” >>

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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