Pickathon. A Pickathon past.Photo: Tim PoundstoneLast weekend I found myself with an old friend in the beer garden at Pickathon, a music festival in Happy Valley, Ore. He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, which looked a bit like a joint, as hand-rolled cigarettes tend to. A fellow with a bushy mustache and a Pickathon t-shirt ambled over, squinted at us, and asked, “Is that weed? I’m only asking ’cause there are lots of kids around, so we’re asking people to medicate in the woods.”

And that was the extent of my interaction with officialdom at Pickathon.

Over three days of camping with my family and some college friends, I never saw a cop. I never saw a uniform. I never saw anyone fighting, misbehaving, or getting hassled. There was only the friendly, self-regulating crowd and T-shirted volunteers carrying supplies around. I’ve been to more than my share of concerts, music festivals, and hippie gatherings over the years, and this one came the closest I’ve ever witnessed to getting everything exactly right. There were 44 artists altogether, enough that there was always something to see, but never too much. Over 3,300 people attended — up almost a thousand from last year — but it never felt chaotic, confused, or crowded, even by the main stage. It was nice to hang out, nice to hike around, nice to check out bands … just sunny, mellow, and happy every which way you turned.

Smoothie bike!Griffin makes himself a smoothie on the smoothie bike.The campgrounds, sprawled across about 40 acres of Pendarvis Farm, were wooded, shady, well-marked, and clean. There was fresh water available (I never saw a plastic water bottle) and food was served from around 20 of Portland’s best food carts. (Highlight: breakfast from Pine State Biscuits, by unanimous acclaim the most transcendent biscuit any of us had ever tasted.)

The kids had a blast. There were constant activities for them, everything from circus training to magic-wand making to archery with foam-tipped arrows. They wandered around the campgrounds, made friends, got filthy, and experienced a kind of feral freedom that they never, ever get living in the city.

It was also the cleanest festival I’ve ever been to. A great deal of that had to do with an innovative system around dishes and cups. You could bring your own, and there were sinks to wash them, but the nifty thing was the token system. At the beginning you could buy a token for $10. At any food vendor, you handed in the token for a bamboo dish and fork. When you were done you went to a special booth and traded in your dirty dishes for your token; the dishes were then washed and reused. Similarly with cups: you had to buy a metal cup at the beginning and reuse it throughout. So there were no disposable dishes! We were mildly worried about it at first — it sounded complicated — but the execution was sooo smooth. It was absolutely no trouble and a huge aesthetic benefit. I hope all festivals and events pick this up.

There was tons of other sustainability stuff as well, including a solar-powered phone-recharging station, solar-powered LED lights marking the trails, biodiesel generators powering the stages, composting, and bike, shuttle, and carpool transportation options to and from the site. More than that, it just felt and looked pristine.

dirty feetOur post-Pickathon “who’s got the dirtiest feet?” contest.Anyway, I can’t say enough good things about Pickathon. It was obviously something special; I can’t count the number of bands who paused playing just to gush about how wonderful it was, how right it felt. I hope it doesn’t get too popular and too big.

But let’s talk about the music! Several artists were just as good as I expected, including the Fruit Bats, Wye Oak, and Damien Jurado. But there were some nice surprises too.

One of my favorites was out at the Woods Stage, a breathtakingly gorgeous area out in the middle of the campground, surrounded by lush deciduous forest, with hay bales for seats. By sheer luck I happened to catch Canadian trio Elliott Brood there and they killed it. I’ve already downloaded their past albums and am officially geeked for the new one in September. Here’s “Without Again,” from 2008′s Mountain Meadows:


Another pleasant surprise happened in the Galaxy Barn, a nice little room where you could go for the hot, sweaty, crowded club-show feel. It happened that the band playing before the one I came for was The Sadies, another Canadian outfit. (I guess Canada rocked Pickathon this year.) They’ve been around for over a decade. Sometimes they play backing band for Neko Case but on their own do a sort of surf-punk/rockabilly/country thing that I don’t typically go for. Holy sh*t, though, they were smokin’ — some of the best guitar work I’ve seen in years. Here’s “Another Year Again” from last year’s Darker Circles:


And finally there’s the band I came to the Galaxy Barn to see: Black Mountain. I’ve blogged them before (twice), so it was no surprise that they were good, but it was somewhat surprising that from my vantage point in the front row they melted my freaking face off with awesomeness. Truly, go see this band live. This is one my old favorites that they played, called “Druganaut.”


My one regret is that we had to leave on Sunday before we could see Lightning Dust (which shares members with Black Mountain) on the gorgeous, dreamy Starlight Stage, a little platform by the food area that got underway after hours.

I was going to make a bunch of deep points about how this ties into great places and whatnot, but hell, it’s Friday, so just enjoy the music.