Pickathon 2011: Lost (and Found) in the Woods Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley, OR

It’s Sunday afternoon, the third and final day of Pickathon 2011, and I’m staring at the old dancing hippie with the outie bellybutton. His rubbery skin, his shockingly lithe movements, his manicured white beard – it’s terrifying but weirdly alluring and I can’t look away.

It’s Sunday night and I’m overhearing a Pendarvis Farm resident explain to a performer what it’s like after the festival, when the crowds disperse and the music stops. Earnestly, he compares it to post-partum depression. “There are like 5,000 people here,” he says. “Then, all of the sudden, there are five.”

It’s Thursday, the day before the festival, and I’m pondering what Pickathon might be like. Perhaps unfairly, I’ve already stereotyped. (Hordes of dancing hippies, I imagine.) The folkish, rootsy lineup looks great, but it’s packaged with some red-flag buzz words (“Camping, hiking and a sustainability ethic”) that suggest a faint bouquet of moral superiority, that weird, cringeworthy mix of egoist libertarianism and mobbish progressivism that runs off the slopes of Mt. Hood and snakes its way into Portland’s water supply. But I will try to keep an open mind.

It’s Friday afternoon and I spy a stoic Bill Callahan backstage wearing shades and a very stylish H&M blazer. I have not yet had enough beers to compliment him on his fashion sense or to inquire what it’s like to date Chan Marshall.

It’s Sunday afternoon and Vetiver are way more straightforward than I was led to believe. Freak folk? More like normal folk. Amiright? They’re harmlessly pleasant, though, and they close with Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song,” an all-time fave of mine. It makes me want to take a dip but alas, there’s no swimmin’ hole to be found.

It’s Saturday afternoon and Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter are looking very out of place on the sunny Mountain View stage. “We usually play in the dark,” admits guitarist Phil Wandscher, whose wavy locks and aviator shades draw a distinct resemblance to Russell Hammond, who isn’t a real person. Sykes looks like a young Joan Didion and sings like a sedated Grace Slick, and she and Wandscher exude a cool energy that the rest of the band can’t quite match.

It’s Sunday morning and twee Michigan trio Breathe Owl Breathe are in the middle of their main stage set; it’s been dubbed a “childrens performance” and it’s living up to the billing. Kids are devouring the songs, mostly love stories about dragons and princesses and frogs, but the revelation is how eagerly the adults in the crowd are getting down.

It’s Friday morning and my companion and I have just hiked the better part of a mile into the forest to find a semi-private campsite. We’ve set up our borrowed tent and are lying face up, peering out the mesh top at the spectacular arching tree cover. The air is cool, clean, perfect; to my surprise, I can feel some ingrained hang-ups starting to melt away.

It’s Saturday night and Damien Jurado is wearing a tattered, rainbow-colored poncho that’s comically incompatible with the perma-frown on his face. “This is my new year,” he explains. “When I at least start to look happy.” His band, assembled especially for the weekend, is loud and surprisingly rocking, and at points even Jurado looks like he’s having some fun.

It’s Friday evening and we’re watching Bill Callahan perform. I’ve been waiting 10 years to see him play and now I’m sitting on a hay bale in the middle of the woods as he and his band run through a smattering of newer cuts interspersed with old favorites (“River Guard,” “Our Anniversary”). Callahan’s a silver fox, and his stage banter is as obliquely bare as his lyrics. “Do you guys live in the woods?” he asks with nary a grin (in fact, he doesn’t smile once). As Callahan and his excellent band deliver a blistering version of “America!” I feel like the breath’s been knocked out of me. “I wish I was deep in America tonight,” he sings, and, taking stock of our surroundings, I believe that even old Bill must feel like he’s gotten his wish.

It’s Friday morning and we’re witnessing an octogenarian from Mississippi shred some serious Delta blues. L.C. Ulmer has traveled across the country to play a mid-sized music festival in the woods. As he explains, he last visited the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s while working as a lumber man. Sidestage, a small but enraptured group of musicians absorbs every move Ulmer makes, every joyous and sorrowful note he sings.

It’s Saturday evening and I’m finding myself increasingly and unexpectedly in awe of the dichotomous way Pickathon is run. Eco-friendly and easygoing. Unyielding and unfettered. It is nothing like I expected, more than I could have hoped for.

I’s Sunday afternoon and I’m loving every minute of Wye Oak’s bruising set. Jenn Wasner is a born rock star and Andy Stack’s the best one-handed drummer in all the woods; aside from Black Mountain, whose set later in the day proves disappointingly generic, the Baltimore duo is the loudest, most pummeling thing I’ve heard all weekend.

It’s mid-day Saturday and fellow B-more crazies Future Islands are causing trouble. “We know we’re a bit of an anomaly here,” says singer Samuel T. Herring with a grin, “and we kinda like that.” As Herring stomps around sticking his hand down his throat, I marvel at the chasm that’s suddenly opened up around me. Children run for cover as a blissed-out group of mostly young women dance like it’s the end of the world. As changes of pace go, this one is brilliant, a damn doozy.

It’s Saturday morning and a lucky handful of folks are witnessing perhaps the weekend’s most compelling performance courtesy Strand of Oaks, whose warm guitar and powerful voice are wowing those piled into the Galaxy Barn. Between songs, Timothy Showalter jokes about his melancholic music (“it’s like a ska band up here”) and expresses love towards his two brothers, who have driven cross-country with him for the weekend. He sings a song written from the perspective of Dan Aykroyd – “it’s about killing John Belushi’s drug dealer” – and I see some folks start to tear up. This is massive stuff.

It’s Sunday afternoon and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are injecting some oomph into the proceedings. Their energy is contagious, but as I gaze past them at Mt. Hood with its once-smug snow caps, I feel supremely calm.

It’s Sunday night and everyone is exhausted but thank all the gods for Mavis Staples. She is a deity, a living legend, and she’s blessed us with her presence. This is the the sound of the celestial come to earth, the thunderous culmination of a long and glorious weekend. Staples rolls through gospel classics and songs from her new record; her set is life-affirming. No Jeff Tweedy, but who needs him anyhow?

It’s Saturday night and Callahan is closing down the main stage with a replica of his Woods Stage performance from the previous evening. This time he’s a little looser, dressed down in an olive pullover and, yes, a pair of acid-washed jeans. He even cracks a half-smile as he intones sagely, “This is the best air I have ever breathed.” I investigate by taking in a lungful; I think he may be right.

It’s Monday morning and we’ve just packed up our tent and are heading down the soft slope of the Quail Trail. I can’t quite explain it but I am sad to be leaving. I keep thinking of those words, “from 5,000 to five,” and as I walk into the clearing there is a small part of me that wants to stay behind, lost in the woods, until next August rolls around.

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