“You get me some peach vodka and Sprite and I’m ready to rock and roll, baby.” I’m in a Lyft on my way to Pickathon and my driver, Chris, is catching me up on the good life. “Everybody around here smokes pot and I mean everyone. We eat, sleep, drink and grow it. And I’ll tell you what, I love an afternoon staying in drinking my peach vodka and smoking up. That, for me, is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.” Same, I guess. I feign surprise when she tells me her girlfriend plays in a Janis Joplin cover band and we spend the rest of the ride talking about the asteroid belt of other flavored vodkas that orbit the gravitational Peach. Pickathon have invited me out to buy the ticket and take the ride, so to speak, and as her Ford Fusion pulls up to the front gates I feel like I’m off to a great start.
As a bit of backstory, Pickathon has been around in one form or another for 20 years, making it older than most famous YouTubers and a reminder of a time before dog memes, Rick and Morty sauce riots and Trumpian tweet storms battered our emotional dwellings within an inch of collapse. After surviving the various cultural twists and turns that the cable modem has brought with it, Pickathon finds itself in the rare air of longevity and, in the process, has strengthened into one of the most unique and compelling festivals in the continental U.S., which is why I’m so excited finally to be there. Well, that and the Alex Cameron sets on the bill.
The first person I meet is my long-time Internet friend Terry Groves, one of the producers of Pickathon. He has some vague Lt. Dan vibes, which is to say I instantly feel comfortable with the idea of smoking Black and Milds with him and starting a shrimping company together, and he starts talking a mile a minute as he gives me a tour of the perimeter which, in this heat and my jeans, feels infinite. I see the artist campgrounds where folks like Big Thief and Wolf People and world-famous tram operator Roy Molloy will be camping for the festival. I see a life-sized replica elephant in a thicket beside the path. I see the grottos of the general public campsites stretching down the hillside like a wonderful Bohemian Eden, complete with banners, color-coded lights to help you find your tent in the dark and enough hammocks to meet the needs of every pirate ship in historical memory. Much like looking closely at an ant hill mid-celebration, the more attention I pay, the more I’m aware that the woods here are teeming with meaningful and literal joy. And the festival hasn’t even started yet.
There are, approximately, 75,000 stages at Pickathon, though 6 main ones, and each has a schedule that is outrageously good. As I get a walkthrough of the myriad nooks and crannies of the grounds and see, for instance, a tiny overhang under a tree where I will later see Jesse Ebaugh from Heartless Bastards play stupidly good Moonshine Blues at 3 a.m., I ask Terry if he’s trying to kill me. He grins and says “of course I am, man.” Pickathon, after all, is not the sort of festival you’re meant to digest in any complete way in any given year. The scope is too big and the quality is too consistent not to miss something. Which is why as I start to meet a few of the guests who have already showed up I’m not surprised that so many of them have been coming for 3 or 5 or 10 years straight. I hear stories of people who met here and got married. Stories of entire families who come together every year. Stories of unconnected campsite neighbors who now demand to camp together. Stories of kids now in college who grew up coming here. Stories of people drinking through the night with their favorite musicians. Stories that I can’t repeat here but are thoroughly incredible.
My time there over the next 5 days was emotionally and relationally huge. I have never cried or laughed or eaten or connected so much at a festival in my life and I honestly can’t remember a time before or since that I have felt so genuinely alive. As you know, there are moments and people that fall perfectly in step with where you are in a given season of your life, and it felt almost impossible that so many of them converged there in such a short period of time. It was profound, and what follows are a few portraits from the weekend.
Big Thief at the Treeline Stage
No band has taken over my life this year the way Big Thief has, and their album Capacity is crushing. It’s hard for me to even talk about the song “Mary” let alone the whole record and I cannot recommend it to you enough. I couldn’t recommend it enough to some friends at Pickathon either, apparently, and I’m not confident that I shut up about them the whole weekend. When I met them backstage, I was too shy to say anything other than “Hello, I’m a huge fan” to Adrienne and thankfully her bandmates Buck and Max were feeling chatty and rescued me from a deeply silent and fidgety moment on my part. They played a set at Mt. Hood, the main stage, and one at the Treeline Stage, where the video above was filmed. During both, the crowds were as big as they were quiet. It was an arresting place to be, and Big Thief’s music felt like badly needed medicine we were all taking together. I knew as soon as I dove into this album back in June that it was going to be an alcove for me, and after seeing them at Pickathon I came away full of that deep, sweet heartbreak that helps you breathe in the midst of a great personal darkness. I’ve loved them for some time now, but never more than I did during this performance.
Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy Blowin’ Somethin’ Sweet at the Galaxy Barn
It’s no secret at this point if you follow my Twitter feed that I love Alex Cameron’s last two records more than a thousand pounds of cigarettes, and the fact that I made this deeply stupid and only-funny-to-me picture in Photoshop the other day of his saxophonist and business partner Roy Molloy and I and our Head of Operations David Barnes hanging out speaks to the clarity of my fandom. I love their music so much and they make me laugh more than any other band by far. Molloy recently tweeted, “If ya think the masculinity written about on Forced Witness exists in some weird ‘irony’ world you might be livin in a bit of a bubble” and it felt like a perfect companion to their onstage demeanor. 2017 has been an exhausting year, and the need to balance our outcries against the darkest sections of our collective humanity while protecting our personal one is more obvious than ever. Cameron’s ability to walk that line in his music is brilliant and drinking cheap beer and smoking cigarettes while listening to his set in the Galaxy Barn was a high point of my entire year.
Dungen at the Starlight Stage
Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 animated full length feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed was the first of its kind when it was originally released and, naturally, I had never heard of it before Pickathon. I’ll even admit that when I first heard that Dungen was performing an original score they’d written for it while showing the movie late one night, I gave the biggest eye roll ever. It sounded on paper like the most stone-ground oats thing ever to happen at a music festival. But, as I have been many other times, I was incredibly and unequivocally wrong. The performance was stunning, and I’ve thought about it on a weekly basis ever since. I spent some time on my porch thinking about why, and I’m still not entirely sure. On the one hand, Dungen were brilliant and the music alone had a haunting quality to it not unlike some of Jonny Greenwood’s work for Paul Thomas Anderson films. On the other hand, the film itself was moving and the amount of work it must have taken to make it felt staggering. The truest thing I can manage to say, though, is that sometimes when you are in the middle of a heart wrenching divorce and you are sitting in a dark field while you watch a cut-out Prince Achmed move heaven and earth to save someone he loves and succeed at it you are left crying and the music becomes a part of you and you will go back to that night in your mind when things get dim. You will sit down calmly on your porch and light a cigarette and count the birds flying by and remind yourself that you cannot save someone. The evening will hold you gently and the moon will begin to show and peace will remind you of the simple things it is.
There were many more moments like these I could write about but this article would quickly drift into thesis-length and I’m going to spare you. What’s more important is that you have the opportunity to experience Pickathon for yourself, or rather that you let Pickathon experience you. All sorts of companies and brands spend millions of dollars every year telling us that they’re part of our family, and we’re part of theirs, and for the most part it’s bullshit. A great deal of life, sadly, is people manufacturing authenticity in an attempt to get into our wallets. But Pickathon is, and always will be, a place that feels to me more like a family gathering than a festival. Terry and I now talk monthly about music and life, and I know there will be a small crowd of people for me to catch up with this year when I go back. Which doesn’t even touch on the music, and the food and outdoor social area where you can dance to red dirt country records at 1 a.m. I’ll never really be able to say enough about Pickathon, but I can at least say the important thing about it: Pickathon is why we love music and music festivals in the first place. It’s a place where you fall in love with music over and over again, and one where you find yourself again too. Laughing uncontrollably late at night while Alex Cameron croons next door about the pains of not being pure at heart while someone talks to you about the importance of Steve Ripley and your buddy bums a cigarette from you and the sadness, for a few hours, does not get in.