THE 19TH PICKATHON: Creating a unicorn
Even as its popularity and reputation continue to grow far beyond the confines of the Pacific Northwest, the annual summer music festival in Happy Valley that is Pickathon remains something of an enigma.
Those who fondly recall its humble beginnings as a KBOO radio fundraiser featuring local bluegrass and folk musicians wonder how it came to spotlighting artists like Feist and Mavis Staples, while the uninitiated from the alternative-rock crowd ponder why Dinosaur Jr. is playing a "bluegrass" festival in the Portland 'burbs.
Zale Schoenborn, who co-founded Pickathon in 1999, is well aware of the contradictions within the banjo contest-evoking name and the dizzyingly diverse genres and styles the mid-summer event showcases. In fact, he's come to reinterpret the now iconic brand name to better reflect the creative curation behind it.
"Now I focus on the 'pick,' as in picking the music," he explains, citing the 2011 Pickathon appearance of synth-pop act Future Islands as a notable turning point. "It did honestly change a lot ... There was an assumption that Pickathon is a certain type of festival, or (now) it's just too eclectic for some folks."
Like it or not, that eclecticism will be in full force the weekend of Aug. 3-6. More than 60 acts representing a cornucopia of sounds traditional, cutting-edge and all points in between will converge on Pendarvis Farm just outside Portland for the 19th annual Pickathon festival.
The scenic, semi-wooded site features six stages, acres of space for camping, locally based food and drink vendors, and a full slate of activities geared toward children and teens, along with art and interactive-technology installments. Some better-known highlights of this year's lineup include British psych-pop master Robyn Hitchcock, quirky Boston-bred alt-folk godfather Jonathan Richman, the Texas-fueled country-rock of Drive-By Truckers, classic-style soul from Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaries, explosive and eclectic rocker Ty Segall and post-punk guitar god J Mascis. Mascis will perform both solo and with his groundbreaking trio Dinosaur Jr., which helped ignite the alternative-rock explosion of the early 1990s.
Although Schoenborn is hesitant to single out anyone among "all 60 of my favorite artists this year," he admits highly anticipating some acts: A-WA, an Israeli-based trio of sisters, who are making their U.S. debut at Pickathon; Washington, D.C., punk-rock band Priests; Wyoming-bred neo honky-tonk singer/songwriter Luke Bell; and Pinegrove, a New Jersey-based sextet hailed for its blend of indie rock, country and pop ingredients.
"I think they're gonna blow up as a band," Schoenborn says. "Many of these artists I expect quickly to go to the next venue level."
Schoenborn is confident that the unconventional, yet well-received choices in recent years — Grammy winning alt-country singer Sturgill Simpson among them — have become Pickathon's calling card.
"It's gone from, 'I don't know any of these bands, so I'm not going,' to 'Because I don't know any of these bands, it's gonna be my Best of the Year list,'" he says. "You can't make it happen until you do it over some years. People just don't invest until there's word of mouth."
So who, exactly, makes these crucial choices each year? Schoenborn admits the formula is democracy in action, based on a broad swath of music aficionados.
"Our process for picking music has been refined. We're open sourcing (digitally surveying) as many people (as we can find) all over the world," he says. "We say, 'Give me five to 20 examples of the best music you know who have an album coming out this or next year — who stand out in their genre — and you tell us why.
"We pool all these things together," he continues. "Certain artists boil to the top. We definitely don't lean on a model of what people are drawing or selling."
Art and Zen
As much as Schoenborn, who plays mandolin and works in digital technology, focuses on quality sounds, he sees Pickathon as an immersive, multi-media-fueled feast for the senses. To complement dynamic elements like the Treeline Stage, which Portland State University students redesign each year, the event is escalating its visual impact.
"We have a series of art installations we're doing this year that spread out across the (site)," he says. "It's a mixture of interactive light and sound created by artist teams. In a couple of years, who knows, it might be known as a great art installation collection."
A commitment to comfort remains at the forefront for Schoenborn, the festival's organizing team and the virtual army of volunteers who devote a chunk of their summer to create a temporary ideal village.
"Everything on site feels like it's changed a little bit," he says. "We're adding a new Wellness Zone refuge over by the showers. It will be a place to kind of get your wits about you, hang out in a hammock."
The most eager campers, many of whom pay an extra $85 for "early entry," arrive on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 3. Schoenborn says swaths of prime real estate are off-limits to the set-up crews to accommodate paying customers.
"Last year, and again this year, we pretty much cordoned off huge sections that nobody could set up on (before Thursday," he explains. "It's heavily constrained, so that when Thursday arrives, we basically have huge tracts."
A dry-erase board features a map of camping areas that's constantly updated to reflect availability.
"There's a bunch of firemen who run this crew. They're pretty serious," Schoenborn says. "It's part of the fun: Let's make it better."
Of course, all the bells, whistles and attention to detail don't come cheap. While Schoenborn is aware the weekend adult pass ($310) is prohibitive for some, he believes the option of single-day tickets ($125) and Pickathon's commitment to authentic quality over corporate quantity makes it worth it for most patrons.
"There's an inherently irrational business model at the core of Pickathon," he admits with a chuckle.
Anytime you try to be the best weekend of the year as a goal, you create a bad business model on the festival side.
"The choices we make — having too few (patrons) on site, free water, building elaborate spaces — are unheard of," he adds. "But those are the things that make the best weekend — and make us the unicorn in a world of music festivals."