Midnight Pickathon

Out in the woods of Portland, Ore., lives a music festival

Bombino at Pickathon's Pendarvis Farm
Bombino at Pickathon's Pendarvis Farm
photo by Austin Powell

The Woods stage at Pickathon appeared almost like a mirage last weekend. After a quarter-mile hike into the forested area near Portland, Ore., an evergreen trail gave way to a small natural amphitheater, a canopy of trees shading the midsummer heat and a Hopworks stand serving microbrew on tap.

There on the gnarly, wooden stage stood Bombino, a Tuareg guitarist from Agadez, Niger. Dressed for the Sahara, the fourpiece entranced with nomadic desert-blues for the better part of an hour. The band’s sublime frequencies bear the same revolutionary streak as contemporaries Tinariwen, but Bombino (born Goumar Almoctar) bobs and weaves as a guitarist, floating and stinging with sharp arpeggios. It’s a divine, electric hypnotism, entrancing in its resilience.

That was the most surreal scene I encountered this past weekend at Pickathon, an annual three-day music festival at Pendarvis Farm, headlined this year by Neko Case, Blitzen Trapper, and Dr. Dog. The 5,000-capacity event, now in its 14th year, offers Portland’s counter to Old Settler’s Music Festival. Both reside just outside city limits, offer on-site camping, and merge folk traditionalists with modern indie rock and beyond.

What separates Pickathon is its scheduling and set-up. The roughly 50 acts play multiple times on different stages, like a musical version of Groundhog Day. Cass McCombs faded gently into early Sunday morning on the Starlight stage, a completely open set-up in the middle of the festival grounds, only to perform later that day in the Galaxy Barn, a small indoor stage with two white horses out back.

Pickathon’s also the most environmentally conscientious festival in the country, with plentiful transportation options, a dishware system, and no single-use cups or bottles. Then again, nobody picks music destinations based on composting options. It’s about discovery. And even for such a small bill, there was plenty of discovery to be had, from the swinging rockabilly of North London family band Kitty, Daisy & Lewis to the confessional catharsis of Portland’s Typhoon (think Quiet Company but three times the size).

Other highlights included Thee Oh Sees’ roving funhouse and guitar-psych rave-ups; the brazen and bruised country of Phosphorescent, with Austin’s Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel; and the War on Drugs’ needlepoint kraütrock, with closer “A Needle in Your Eye #16” from 2006’s Wagonwheel Blues set straight for the heart of the mid-afternoon sun.

And then there was White Denim.

The Austin powerhouse ripped through all of the hyper prog-soul on latest album D minus only “Street Joy” with the intensity, velocity, and expert precision of synchronized skydivers. All four – guitarist/vocalist James Petralli, drummer Josh Block, bassist Steve Terebecki, and guitarist Austin Jenkins – locked in motion for a series of medleys that hit on the essential jams (“Shake Shake Shake”), teased new material in the segues, and included what sounded like a late-Sixties superfunk remix of “Regina Holding Hands.”

White Denim delivered the absolute epitome of a midnight ramble.

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