The Dead's Phil Lesh adds jam to Pickathon recipe
If you go
What: 21st annual Pickathon music and art festival
When: Thursday, Aug. 1-Sunday, Aug. 4
Where: Pendarvis Farm, 16581 S.E. Hagen Road, Happy Valley
Tickets: $325, weekend adult; $165 teen; free for children 12 and younger; day tickets $130 Friday and Sunday, and $160, Saturday
After 20 years as an evolving musical and experiential extravaganza, Pickathon is known for many things.
Providing a showcase for "jam bands" — energetic ensembles whose songs serve as launching pads for meandering improvisation and frenzied, loose-limbed dancing — is not especially among them.
But when a 1960s-rooted godfather of the jam movement — in this case, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead — expresses interest in performing at your annual festival, the malleability of the "indie roots"-oriented event is put to the test.
"It was as simple as him wanting to do something original," Pickathon's Zale Schoenborn said of Lesh, bassist and founding member of the Grateful Dead. "Phil was asking his management to look for special things to do outside of the normal fair circuit — to headline a festival here and there.
"He's pushing for things interesting to him," Schoenborn added.
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band — one of two currently touring bands comprising surviving Grateful Dead members — will perform at Pickathon at Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley on Thursday, Aug. 1, and Friday, Aug. 2.
They will be among more than 60 performers from all over the world taking over six stages around the pastoral hills of the farm, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Portland.
Schoenborn, Pickathon founder and executive director, sees Lesh's involvement as a unique opportunity to reinforce Pickathon's reputation for authenticity while showcasing the best of veteran performers as well as up-and-coming musical acts.
"If we're going to do something in the vein of the Dead," he said, "it should involve somebody FROM the Dead. That makes it totally awesome."
As in recent years at the four-day festival, if Lesh and a handful of other names are the only ones you've heard of, that means Pickathon is doing its job.
"As usual, it's about trusting that process — the best music across different genres should win," Schoenborn said. "Being the Elvis of your music scene is important in knowing that by finding those people, regardless of their draw, you're gonna end up with something special."
Of the 64 acts scheduled this year, Schoenborn counts no more than four artists returning from previous Pickathons — North Carolina's Mandolin Orange and Portland-based Fruit Bats among them.
Running through his extensive mental Rolodex of performing artists, Schoenborn describes Tyler Childers as a combination of Sturgill Simpson and the Avett Brothers.
"His emotional intensity and presence cuts across all demographics — in songwriting as well as voice, which cracks and sizzles," he said of Childers. "He's such a powerful human being — 26 years old. He's gonna be fun to see."
Schoenborn also singles out Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues legend the late Mississippi-bred R.L. Burnside.
"He's an incredible musician," Schoenborn said of Cedric, a singer, songwriter, drummer and multi-instrumentalist born in Memphis. While some still get thrown off by the Pickathon name — the festival has grown extensively since its beginning as low-key string-music-oriented fundraiser for independent radio station KBOO — it still finds room for actual pickin' and grinnin' among the envelope-pushing performers.
"Po Ramblin' Boys, if you're into bluegrass, there's nothing better," Schoenborn said. "Anytime you see those guys it's just incredible."
Among revisiting artists, he describes the Mandolin Orange duo as "continually pushing the bar farther and farther for themselves. ... They're always putting out new material, so it's easy to put 'em back on the program."
Although most performers are eager to come back, Pickathon's main focus is on discovery and exposing the best of what's out there this year.
"The passion that drives us is a sense of discovery," he said. "We really dig what's going on out there. We put in the homework (and seek out who are) the real developing stars, give access to those people and bring 'em to the world."
Pickathon, of course, is about more than live musicians on stages. Food, spoken word performance, art, yoga and wellness offerings, and various workshops also will grace the meticulously designed and decked out Pendarvis Farm.
The Galaxy Barn area, which becomes ground zero for music and camaraderie as Pickathon shifts into late-night mode, has been completely redesigned into Galaxia Mysterioso.
"It presents a microcosm of the work we're doing," Schoenborn observed. "Inside the barn is where you go see the mysterioso attractions. The whole stage has been redesigned ... the whole scene will transform."
With larger preparations nearing completion stage, Schoenborn and his crews are anticipating a four-day event that provides a tasty mix of familiarity and fresh stimuli.
"It's our 21st year, and we feel really strong about it," he said. "Anyone attending this year should walk away saying 'Wow, that's the best Pickathon ever!' It's a good feeling."
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