Shakey Graves' Coming Out Party

Local songwriter learned to play live at Pickathon

Shakey Graves at SXSW's Americana Music Association showcase at Gatsby's, May 14
Shakey Graves at SXSW's Americana Music Association showcase at Gatsby's, May 14
photo by Jana Birchum

Something changed for Shakey Graves last year at Pickathon, the annual music festival held on a working farm just outside of Portland, Ore. You could sense it watching him on a small side stage near the camping grounds, working the crowd – and himself – to a sweaty fervor, with high-lonesome murder ballads and wayfaring charm.

“It was definitely a seminal moment in learning how I want to play my music live,” recalled Alejando Rose-Garcia, the local songwriter behind Shakey Graves.

“I had been in a hard-working mode based on the first few tours I had done. I had gotten into a rhythm that was sorta survival based. It was my bar routine, just jolting people into paying attention … The environment of Pickathon is kind of a rare gift in that you get to play so many different actual physical environments, and the people who are watching you will really go with you wherever you want to take them. And the way it’s set up, all of the other artists are watching each other play, even if they don’t mean to.

“That combination of factors really made me snap out of something. I had all of these other songs I wanted to pull out, and I felt comfortable making up words to songs that weren’t even finished. I realized I needed to rethink my approach and allow myself to have the sort of shows I had at Pickathon anywhere, because I’m the person in charge at the end of the day.”

That’s the sort of effect Pickathon has on people. It’s the best mid-sized festival outside of Austin city limits, with an emphasis on sustainability and a lineup that’s curated not by Pollstar stats or Billboard charts but through the sharing of favorite records by a small committee of individuals. This year’s edition, taking place Friday through Sunday, features Nickel Creek, X, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the War on Drugs, the Men, and no less than three projects from local wizard Adrian Quesada (Spanish Gold, Brownout, Brown Sabbath) and Possessed by Paul James.

What’s truly remarkable about Pickathon, though, is the set-up, with bands playing multiple days and on completely different stages. One is set in the middle of the woods; another takes place in a barn. Come midnight, there’s a center stage that’s best experienced laying flat on your back, staring at the evening sky.

For Shakey Graves, whose debut album, And The War Came arrives Oct. 7 on Nashville’s Dualtone Records, that first breakout Pickathon performance set into motion a domino chain of events that established him in the Pacific Northwest: an even bigger crowd at his set the next day, an appearance in the Pixies’ music video for “Andro Queen,” and sold out back-to-back shows at Mississippi Studios, Portland’s premier indie venue.

“The community aspect of it, where you’re responsible for your own stuff and with your tin cup on belt loop, it’s kinda relieving,” reflects Rose-Garcia on his return to the festival. “It puts everyone – the artists and the audience – kinda on the same boat. It’s a very immersive environment.”

Does that mean you can expect Shakey Graves appearing around the campfires come late Friday?

“You’re damn right I’m camping.”

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