Outlaw Country, Saharan Folk, and Cosmic Sorcery: Into the Woods for Pickathon 2018

The Happy Valley music festival once again stands out during festival season by embracing its natural surroundings and simply enlisting musicians who fit the scene.

Twenty years in, the most interesting performances of Pickathon—in Happy Valley, Oregon—come from the bands outside of the norm, bands many have neither seen nor heard without doing some significant exploring. And through this kind of curation, the festival has established its reputation for atmosphere and environment—and for having a hand on the pulse of what’s not only bubbling up in this country, but worldwide. Thus, Pickathon is a festival surprisingly rich in moments of musical magic. So much so that an expectation for mind-blowing, intimate and emotionally staggering performances is the norm.

Initially, this year’s festival somehow felt different. Yes, there were great moments in the first day and a quarter (Thursday’s performances are evening-only), such as DakhaBrakha’s set in the Woods, which was a truly original blend of styles. They created a cinematic mélange of organic beats, surreal soul, and hip-hop flow. Oh, they also dressed in traditional Ukranian Cossack garb. Revel In Dimes and Rasheed Jamal were fire in the Galaxy Barn. Tinariwen transported the Main Stage with their Malian desert drones. Other standouts were Circuit des Yeux on the Treeline Stage, or Japanese psych rockers Kikagaku Moyo on the Starlight Stage, or Italian punks Bee Bee Sea in the Galaxy Barn. And that was just the first two days.

Tinariwen

So, is it greedy to expect more? Probably. But something felt slightly off. The persistent magic hadn’t happened yet—that overload of repeated peak moments that is the hallmark of Pickathon.

But by the next day, something changed.

Saturday was stunning on every level. Colter Wall in the Woods is as close to true outlaw country as one can get these days. His voice is impossibly low and his songs hearken back to the prime of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Mickey Newbury. Accompanied by pedal steel, harmonica, bass, and a tattooed drummer with a vest that read Nashville Dirtbags, Wall’s band, like his dusty Wranglers, are the real deal.

On the Main stage, the NYC wunderkinds Sunflower Bean displayed a surprising command of the stage for a trio of twenty-two-year-olds. Singer/bassist Julia Cumming’s ability to step confidently into the role of frontperson elevates the band above the froth of others who have drawn from the well of late-’70s glam before them, and, while, she occasionally walks the line between contrived posing and rock star projecting, the band’s energy and enthusiasm push it fully into the realm of the latter. Singer/guitarist Nick Kivlen is equally confident onstage, sporting pajamas and slippers while sliding through a range of styles—dirty glam-rock riffage, dreamy psych, and droney no-wave.

Sunflower Bean

Daniel Norgren in the Woods was another in a string of Saturday revelations. Norgren’s US debut was at Pickathon last year, so they brought him back for an encore. His performance of soulful folk made the moment feel like a religious experience, where both artist and audience were touched by a spirit, which hovered over the performer, crowd, and within the woods. The Swedish singer/songwriter himself was clearly touched, proclaiming from the stage, “This is like a chapel of love—I’ve never experienced something like it before.” 

At the Treeline Stage, Wand ripped through a set of LA psych-rock filled with guitar freakouts and math-rock rhythms. At times they ventured into the realms of Pink Floyd’s ’70s art rock opuses and, at others, indulgent guitar jams. This was followed, on the same stage, by The Blind Boys of Alabama, which is a pretty good illustration of the kind of variety one experiences at Pickathon. This seventy-year-old gospel act is comprised of seasoned pros, but they clearly get caught up in the spirit themselves. It was apparent when the spirit took over a soloist as his body quivered and he shook his arms like an ecstatic child between cadenzas of faith and praise.

Wand

Broken Social Scene’s sophisticated orchestral electro-pop in the Woods was simultaneously soothing and electric. The collective of mom-and-dad-aged musicians was nearly too big for the intimacy of the setting, but they managed to pull off their feat of musical chairs, switching instruments and trading lead vocals while also remarking that this was the most beautiful venue they’d ever played.

In the Galaxy Barn, Tucson’s Orkestra Mendoza ignited the room with electric cumbia replete with brass horns and Morricone-style guitar riffs to accentuate the Latin American grooves. Texas troubadour Paul Cauthen followed with a set of classic country landing squarely between Johnny Cash and Elvis with his barrel-chested baritone. Sam Phillips would be proud. And to close out the night, Jen Cloher, accompanied by Courtney Barnett on guitar, melted the room with dirty drones and anthemic choruses.

Lonnie Holley’s set in the Galaxy Barn Sunday afternoon was a spiritual experience—an unexpected journey out of the sun and heat into a realm that was outside of our space-time continuum. Seated at a keyboard, wearing overalls with a stick of wood in his back pocket, his hands and wrists adorned in rings and bracelets of turquoise, beads and silver, Holley, accompanied by trombone and drums, cast a spell using hypnotic grooves, spoken-word soul, and otherworldly blues. Each song was epic, slowly bubbling up to crescendo in energy and spirit. It was hard not to feel like we were all in another universe during this set of cosmic sorcery.

Jen Cloher and Courtney Barnett

As with every year, once Pickathon is over, it feels as though a good friend has just left town. But we’re left with the faith that they’ll come back again next summer. Here’s to at least another twenty years of the musical magic of Happy Valley.


Key Takeaways:

Most Likely to Succeed: Sunflower Bean — Hit all the right notes, musically, style-wise, and in performance. Primed for bigger stages.

Most Unexpected: Dakha Brakha — A cinematic mélange of organic beats, surreal soul, and hip-hop flow. Oh, they also dress in traditional Ukranian Cossack garb.

Best Stage: The Woods — Every band that plays there remarks that it’s the most incredible venue they’ve ever played. It brings out the best.

Most Inspiringly Weird: Circuit des Yeux — Like Diamanda Galas’ stoner niece playing psych folk.

Most in Line With the Origins of the Festival: The Danny Barnes Trio — The banjo wizard and former Bad Liver led an acoustic trio through a set of bluegrass.

Most Country: Colter Wall and Paul Cauthen — These guys should tour together.

Most Otherworldly: Lonnie Holey. A man clearly in touch with the universe who may just be here for a while, but whose spirit and presence is timeless. FL

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