It’s the kind of thing you’re told all the time: “you just have to go there, do it, see it.” But it’s true: describing the experience of attending Pickathon is kind of like writing about music itself. Too much is lost in translation. That the festival remains a hidden gem in the Northwest seems both a loss to the greater community of music fans and a boon to those already in the know. It’s easy to be torn: though you’d almost love to keep it all for yourself, once you’ve gone for yourself, you’ll want all of your friends to enjoy it as much as you do.
Though barely a mile or two down the road from downtown suburban Happy Valley, Oregon, the festival’s home, the Pendarvis Farm, feels like it might be the most remote spot on earth. Following a road that might just as easily lead to a new housing development as a hay field, concertgoers arrive at a grass covered lot across the street from a farmhouse, unordinary if it weren’t for the arial sculptures soaring overhead. Like a weave of sails, the canopy and surrounding fabric structures, courtesy of local designers Guildworks, transform the farm into a sort of futuristic circus, though less gaudy and more breathtaking than anything you can imagine. Beneath the canopy lies an open hillside meadow angling down toward a pair of small stages side by side. Behind them, the undulating fabric walls echo the mountains in the distance, visible only on the clearest of days. Surrounding the field, local private vendors set up shop, serving food and drinks, supplementing festival wear, offering massages and Kombucha. And there’s plenty of free water.
By itself, the hillside would be an idyllic space for a mini festival, but it’s just a small part of this unique location. Hidden from view are the surrounding acres of woods radiating out a third of a mile around and cut through with nearly four miles of lighted paths connecting innumerable campsites. All manner of tents and temporary shelters are scattered throughout the trees and among them small communities arise. Walking through the woods at night is like traveling within a hive. Everywhere, artwork made from sticks and found objects appear like shrines. Here a café and there bar, also grown from wood, serves passersby on their way to and from the meadow or one of the open jam “glades” or the festival’s shining jewel, the Woods Stage. A winding trail leads from an open field campsite deep into the woods and arrives at not so much a clearing but a spaced lined with hay bales that form a rustic amphitheater -- at its locus, a stage with an arched dome of sticks, a spider web or, depending on how and when you look at it, a nest for some of the most intimate sessions you’re likely to see. On the other side of the meadow, a working horse stable divides an outdoor food court from the Galaxy Barn, a more conventional indoor stage area particularly ideal for the louder and sweatier sets; the Pendarvis farmhouse itself; and the Workshop Barn, a seated room perfect for conducting artist Q&A sessions or acoustic sets.
It’s all a lot to take in and you might even be satisfied merely to walk the festival grounds for a day if it were’t for all of the incredible music going on around you. Pickathon’s roots may be in roots music, but the curators today have a broader vision for the festival and have invited among those easily accepted by connoisseurs of folk and twang like Caleb Klauder Country Band, Dale Watson, Tift Merritt, and Ginny Hawker a louder crowd of garage and indie rocks acts like Divine Fits, Parquet Courts, Sharon Van Etten, King Tuff, Ty Segall and Shabazz Palaces. The best part: each band plays at least twice and never in the same location. If there’s a band you want to see, chances are you’ll see them more than once and each time will be something new.
Gathered here is a quick field guide for would-be Pickathoners, with plenty of terrific photos by Kristina Moravec, from this year to entice newbies and enchant the already initiated. If words don’t convince you, hopefully these images will:
The Mt. View and Fir Meadows Stages:
The two “main stages” sit side by side -- the Mt. View, to your left, and the Fir Meadows, to your right. If you were to never leave the serenely beautiful hillside beneath the intricate canopy above, you’d still have your fill of incredible performances as they alternate with one band after another throughout each day. Unlike at other festivals where only the biggest acts perform on the biggest stages, most bands at Pickathon get a turn here. The idea is that you seem them on the “big stage” and then you see them again somewhere more intimate... except even the main stages here are intimate. At night, the canopy is aglow, and on Friday night in particularly, hundreds of revelers come out and kick up the dust for the the annual Friday Night Squaredance Fever.
Not even the mainstage headliners get to close the night, as at Pickathon the party always just moves somewhere else. At the top of the meadow sits the Starlight Stage, where under its own canopy artists perform even more intimate sets after the kids have gone to sleep.
The Woods Stage:
You won’t find another concert viewing experience like this. Words cannot do it justice...
The Galaxy Barn:
You can stomp your boots, swing your partner, or crowd surf in this cozy spot. Late nights here get loud and sweaty. This is where you want to see your favorite garage bands.
The Workshop Barn:
Instruction, education and elucidation... all condoned here in the sit-down space where hosts interview artists, budding musicians learn about methodology, and fans meet their idols.
Fittingly for a farm and a wooded space, new locations grow each year. Once a great spot to relax while sipping a coffee or beer, the Pickathon Café is now a great spot to hear music also, where three acts per day performed on a small nested stage. During the most popular sets, fans spilled out and surrounded the entire café.
The Bunny Glade:
The KEXP crew took over one of the wooded clearings, the mysteriously named Bunny Glade, to record exclusive sessions with many of the bands. Look for videos to come soon!
Everywhere there is music and art. The family friendly programming keeps kids and parents entertained each day, and new paths lead to new discoveries. The festival prides itself on sustainability, utilizing renewable energy and providing a painless system of single use dishware while offering free water, environmentally friendly outdoor showers, and ample recycling and composting locations. Food is affordable and provided only by private local business. Shuttles run regularly to take those not camping to nearby hotels. And the staff is full of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet. If you don’t have a good time, they will take it personally!
If you’re now convinced to make the journey next year, you’re in luck, as a very limited number of discounted Pickathon 2014 weekend tickets are going on sale starting today, Wednesday, August 21st at 9am PST (more info). The lineup won’t be announced until early next year, but you can expect an incredible time no matter what.