Scott McMicken, singer and lead guitarist of Philadelphia-based rock band Dr. Dog, never really liked playing music festivals.
And he’s had ample opportunity to form an opinion—Dr. Dog is a veteran of some of the country’s biggest fests, including Bonnaroo and Coachella. But that was before McMicken played Pickathon in 2009.“Pickathon is definitely my favorite festival,” said McMicken, whose band is headlining this year’s event alongside Neko Case. “Pickathon was a real game changer for me.”
The relatively small 4,000-person festival, which takes place Aug. 3 through 5 in the bucolic Portland suburb of Happy Valley, is different from other Northwest events when it comes to the experience for bands.
Instead of coddling artists with big-screen TVs and ample parking for tour buses, each act is encouraged to camp out, mingle in the bohemian backstage area and enjoy the music.
True, Pickathon is no Bonnaroo – you won’t find Kanye West or Radiohead headlining this event – but the music is arguably just as good as any Sasquatch. The catch is, most people only know a couple of the artists out of the 50 or so acts appearing over the weekend, making the festival a place to “hear it first.”
“We look at the music like a fine art,” said Pickathon co-founder and organizer Zale Schoenborn. “We curate the music with 50 to 60 friends. We really dive into each [genre] in the music scene and we think about what hardcore fans would get excited about. The theory is that even if you’re not into that music, you’ll get it.”
Schoenborn isn’t just talking about indie or rock music, either. Last year, outlaw country act Whitey Morgan and the 78s blew the crowd away, as did the then-virtually-unknown blues singer Charlie Parr.
Pickathon has hand-picked bands who now top best-of lists, including Bonnie Prince Billy, Langhorn Slim, Breathe Owl Breathe, Fruit Bats, Joy Kills Sorrow and the Wood Brothers.
This year, a more diverse—and arguably more unknown—group of artists is being showcased.
Schoenborn cites North African band Bombino, New Orleans-based Hot 8 Brass Band, and San Francisco psychedelic act Thee oh Sees as up-and-coming bands to watch. And the Toronto-based songwriter Doug Paisley is set to be this year’s Charley Parr, with a huge voice, sweeping melodies and heartbreaking lyrics.
“Most festival promoters start with [audience] draw,” said Schoenborn, referring to the generic festival model of booking the most popular bands. “A good number of our artists draw a blank for a huge section of people. We have these really obscure folks that people are going to love but they have no idea.”
Pickathon isn’t only innovative in its eclectic music lineup.
The organizers also forego festival standards of expensive beer, bland food and paper products. Instead, you’ll find gourmet food carts, Northwest-brewed ales and nearly zero waste.
“This year, we are going to remove all compostable cups, straws and cup holders,” said Schoenborn. He is hoping the crowd embraces buying reusable steel cups, or bringing their own, instead of using the reusable, compostable dishes that debuted at last year’s festival. “We’re moving toward having no single-use items,” he said.
The stages, too, are unlike what festival-goers are typically used to. The six venues at the festival include the Woods Stage, encircled by a canopy of trees, the Western-themed Galaxy Barn and the hundred-person-capacity Workshop Barn.
The festival organizers have capped this year’s growth at 10 percent, nearly guaranteeing a sellout. Instead of hawking more tickets, Schoenborn and his collaborators are instead focusing on tweaking the festival’s layout and adding new gathering spaces.
“[Pickathon] is ridiculously overdesigned and thought out” he said. “Almost every venue is getting some kind of major stylistic and flow improvement.”
All of these thoughtful touches add up to one of the most unique festival experiences for bands, audience members and organizers alike.
“The music is consistently awesome,” says McMicken. “Every time I go there I end up with a new handful of bands that I love,” said McMicken. “I’d go even if I wasn’t playing. It just feels good to be there.”
Aug. 3 to 5