Much like the artists that play there, Oregon’s Pickathon Festival is the underground hero of the music festival scene. It has a devoted following from both attendees and musicians, yet manages to keep a low-key presence among the bigger festivals. Spread out over the 80 acres of Pendarvis Farm outside of Portland, Pickathon features six distinct stages, artists who play multiple sets during the weekend, a relaxed atmosphere and an unmatched sustainability angle. Now in its 13th year, the indie roots festival, which is “commonly referred to as the best festival experience in the country” aims to keep the good vibes going with their initial 2011 lineup.
Mavis Staples, Bill Callahan, Califone, Lee Fields & The Expressions and Fruit Bats are some of the bigger acts playing during the August 5th-7th weekend. Other notable acts include Damien Jurado, Vetiver, Laura Veirs, The Sadies, Richard Swift, The Builders and The Butchers, Danny Barnes, Sonny & The Sunsets, Elliott Brood, Truckstop Darlin’, Rock Plaza Central, Buffalo Killers, Whitey Morgan & The 78’s, Ages and Ages, Charlie Parr, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Pokey LaFarge, and Ted Jones and The Tarheel Boys, with an additional 10 to 15 more bands being added in the coming months.
“We are the slow food music festival,” describes Pickathon’s co-founder Zale Schoenborn. “We want people to come and immerse themselves. We could be at five times the amount of people but we are going to stay super small on purpose.”
Staying small allows for the gregarious family-like atmosphere which benefits both the festival-goers and the artists.
“We get feedback from people that we are their favorite weekend of the year,” Schoenborn continues. “We call the festival the year’s greatest music party. There’s very little hassle. Like security barriers – there are basically none. There is nothing separating you from the artists. The artists are almost always out in the audience, totally jaw on the floor watching the other artists. It’s kind of a weird description, but it’s basically the Disneyland for music lovers. There are six very distinct stages that have really unique vibes, and you feel like you’re on a different planet when you’re at each of them.”
The more manageable size also helps for the festival to enforce their sustainability and environmental angle. From being completely plastic free (even beer cups), to having solar-powered stages and lights, Pickathon is leading the way among festivals.
“We don’t charge for water,” notes Schoenburn. “We don’t have any plastic on the premises. There are 10s of thousands of dollars we are losing by doing things like that. It just makes sense to us but we are definitely the lone cowboys on the festival scene. “
But what Pickathon is best known for is the type of artists they attract. Though they started out as a small outfit that specialized in traditional music, they’ve grown to have a diverse and varied music lineup.
“It’s really about supporting artists in this really unique niche in the music festival world,” says Schoenborn. “It’s been really great to us because there’s no one really doing what we are doing. Mixing the more hardcore traditional music with the type of music you wouldn’t see at a bluegrass festival. I always thought, ‘Why would I want to go to three days of the same music?’ I want to be challenged and have an interesting mix going on here. So as a festival, that was a totally new idea.”
This year, Schoenborn is excited to have some really unique acts on the bill, such as Lee Fields& the Expressions. “We haven’t had a serious, hardcore soul band such as Lee Fields ever, especially on that level, and he’s one of the freaking legends of this universe,” he admits. “One of the common features of all the artists featured at Pickathon is that they are really strong singers. So obviously we are honored to have Mavis Staples play. I also love Damien Jurardo, Richard Swift, Califone. There’s a great young band out of Ohio that I’m very excited about called the Buffalo Killers. They are a three-piece classic rock out of the 70’s in a Black Keys meets Black Sabbath way. ”
The hardest choice for Schoenborn is trying to work in the artists who have requested to play the festival again and again. “All artists want to return and it’s a hard choice to make,” he explains. “They all want to come back and though we are major, we are not one of the major festivals, yet they try and make space in their schedules to play. We are super appreciative but we don’t have bands coming back every year as a matter of keeping the music in cycle of what’s being released this year and supporting a wider ring of artists and making it so that when they come back, people are really excited to see them.”
Caset Laforet of the Toronto-based “death country” band Elliot Brood is one of those repeaters and is delighted to be playing Pickathon for the second year in a row.
“It’s one the best ones we’ve played in North America,” says Laforet. “How it’s set up, how it’s run, their environmental stance –we’re really lucky to come back.”
Just as it draws in festival-goers, the relaxed vibe and innovative staging options is what keeps the artists like Elliott Brood in full support of Pickathon.
“It makes it much more of an intimate experience when people can actually see the bands and talk to them,” Schoenborn says. “We stayed at a hotel offsite but we still spent most nights just hanging out at the festival and meeting different people. You’re all standing in the same food line-ups and watching the same shows together. It’s amazing for artists.”
The festival has already sold-out of its pre-sale tickets, but remaining tickets, as well as the rest of the line-up, can be found on their website at www.pickathon.com.