Pickathon 2009: This One’s in the Key of Folk

As originally published here over at Stranger Dance.

Justin Townes Earle + crowd, Pickathon 2009

The unique value of the setting became clear as the sun descended behind the hills. The sky turned a gentle pink, and Alela Diane‘s crystalline voice and plucks on her guitar wafted across a mellow crowd. The previous day of heat and sweat was now within a lullaby, shifting slowly into dusk. The 2009 Pickathon Festival was suddenly in a category all its own, offering something uniquely tranquil in the face of chaotic contemporaries.

Stranger Dance was fortunate enough to cover the Pickathon Festival in its eleventh year of existence; photos and review after the jump.

[All photos by David Elkins. Click each photo to enlarge. More photos can be viewed here.]

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Music festivals are not just a method in making money and showcasing talent, both classic and new. They provide experience and escape, discovery and inspiration. The modern-day indie festival, however, will often come with another bag of tricks: intense weather conditions, huge crowds, jaded mentalities, inebriated masses.

In this respect, Pickathon 2009 was an incredible breath of fresh air. Taking place on Pendarvis Farm just 30 minutes outside of Portland, OR, the three-day experience provided all of the music festival virtue with none of the pretension.

A stroll underneath the striking white mast installation (see photos) unveiled a lovely display: families, hipsters, and less-extreme hippie types roaming on common ground, soaking in the beautiful Oregon hills and the lovely musical ambiance. No one was passed out, burned out, drugged out; no one was drunk, disorderly, or belligerent. No one was too cool or above anyone else, and instead were there to simply enjoy the provided setting. There was no discussion of Justin Townes Earle and how he may truly compare to his influences, or the integrity of Dr. Dog’s early albums versus their most recent, all with the obligatory unimpressed sneer. In fact, the only offense of the entire weekend was unsightly body odor, especially at the smaller, enclosed barn stage. However, you really can’t blame people for that when the outdoor temperature hovers consistently up and around 90 degrees. (I’m sure we didn’t exactly smell like roses either).

Both the festival workers and attendees were of the nicest ilk you’ll encounter at any similar event, allowing for anyone and everyone to truly relax and enjoy each other and the festival itself. In fact, with the addition of weekend camping, Pickathon certainly channeled the feel of a mass camping trip, full of community and nature and overall appreciation for yourself, your peers, and your setting.

And with that, you have the music. Pickathon’s heart is reserved for folk music – some of the more classic finger-pickin’ variety, some leaning towards rustic indie rock.

The standout performances of the weekend came from Thao with the Get Down Stay Down and Justin Townes Earle. Where Thao was vibrant and energetic, Earle was subtle and razor-sharp; however, both revealed true artistry and immense talent. Thao Nguyen (with her Get Down Stay Down) took her jaunty alterna-folk and made it explode in a live setting (both on the outdoor stage and the indoor barn), converting everyone in her presence into a newly-captivated fan. Justin Townes Earle demonstrated similar showmanship in a more classic vein, articulately addressing the audience between beautiful, country-standard “Mama’s Eyes” melodies and introducing all his songs with statements such as “this one’s in the key of D.” Not forgetting his youth, however, he also made sure to note that “y’all’s reefer is stronger than ours.”

Every other full set that we managed to catch – in between $4 pints of Deschutes brews and huge portions of similarly cheap, delicious, locally-produced plates of food – was lovely and engaging, and aptly chosen for the Pickathon setting. The Woods stage, literally nestled in the middle of the woods and surrounded by greenery, featured Breathe Owl Breathe and SF locals Vetiver – lush and graceful vs. keenly-woven folk, respectively. These distinctly talented bands felt almost hidden from the public, playing to an audience invited exclusively to appreciate such a unique setting. Additionally, Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers played the barn stage, showcasing wonderfully soulful alt-country. Samantha is a very energetic and infectious performer, also busting out her electricity for some guest spots during Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s sets.

The two main stages featured the likes of Alela Diane, Horse Feathers, and Dr. Dog. Alela and Horse Feathers took to the sublimely beautiful (Alela with pastoral tranquility, Horse Feathers with hushed vocals against a violin/cello/banjo/guitar backdrop), whereas Dr. Dog’s bluesy, Beatles-inspired pop got the dusty, tired audience off their festival blankets and dancing in front of the stage. Guitarist Scott McMicken played a few new solo tunes, showing off solid songwriting skills and asking the audience the following: “Are we madly in love, or are we madly insane?”

For the Pickathon crowd, it didn’t matter. All we could do was soak in our surroundings and hope that Pickathon continues to succeed and grow, but not to the point where it could lose its signature sense of oasis and community. We have Coachella for shirtless bros and every hip band on the planet; we have Pickathon for down-home folk and remarkable beauty.

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