The first time you hear about Pickathon, a three day festival outside Portland, Oregon, you’ll think you’ve heard this one before. “Camping in the woods and catching a bunch of neo-bluegrass bands noodle on stage? Count me out!” But how wrong you’ll be! Pickathon is one of the most daringly innovative, uncompromisingly bold festivals in the US, and a lot of people are starting to catch on. Enough that even with ticket prices raised almost a hundred dollars this year to keep numbers down, there were still thousands of people ambling over the hilly woodsides and sun-baked farmland of the festival. The key to Pickathon is the festival organizers’ belief that every kind of roots music can live together. At Pickathon, avant-garde hip-hop artists rub shoulders backstage with Zydeco accordionists, backwoods bluegrass masters discover ear-blasting rock-n-roll gods while roaming from stage to stage, urban hipsters shout the lyrics to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried“ while dancing in the woods, thousands of kids swarm all over a hillside square dancing together and creating storms of dust with their feet, and creative people of every kind interact and inspire each other. Writers, videographers, photographers, chefs, jammers, DJs, visual artists and all kinds come together front stage and back stage, encouraged by the festival organizers to create wondrous things. Just look at some of the video sessions coming out of Pickathon, or the photos. Check out the impossible looking canvas designs flying over the festival grounds, roped to trees all over, providing shade and trippy designs in the sky. At Pickathon, anything seems possible.
That’s thanks to the vision of Zale Schoenborn and the festival organizers. I interviewed them for No Depression a little while ago, and Zale confessed that his sole interest in booking is to present artists he loves (or has recently fallen in love with). He’s turned down big names as easily as he’s booked complete unknowns, and every year a new group or two breaks out at Pickathon, delivering a raging performance that electrifies the festival and propels them to national fame. Last year those groups were Lake Street Dive and The Barr Brothers. This year? Well, read the blogs and listen to the buzz to find out. But here are my personal highlights from Pickathon 2013:
• Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys
This one’s on me; I should have known who Brad Folk is. His earlier band, Open Road, is LEGIT bluegrass. Just absolutely perfect picking and playing. Now Brad’s struck out on his own with his new group, Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys, and he has a whole new lease on life. He was a totally engaging performer, lighting up the main stage with new original songs from his forthcoming album. But the real highlight was the workshop he gave in the Workshop Barn late in the evening of the last day. Everyone there was exhausted, but he had limitless energy, and when faced with real questions about the state of bluegrass today he brought up some powerful points. Why argue so much about what’s traditional in bluegrass? This is an invented music, created by a master innovator, and developed further by great musicians over many years. Brad made the much needed point that all the time we spend arguing over tradition vs. innovation should have been spent just making great music. Let the music speak for itself. Brad got two standing ovations for the interview and earned my respect as the new spiritual guru of Pickathon. Dude’s got his head screwed on right.
I also got an advance copy of his upcoming album as Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys and I can’t wait to spread the word about this one. Brad uses bluegrass traditions as a springboard for his intensely charismatic singing and beautifully crafted songwriting. “Trains Don’t Lie” is a great example, while the bluegrass roots burble along, Brad (his voice eerily reminding me of Cat Stevens) tackles the serious subject of urban decay and the loss of a connection to our rural routes. Introducing the song in the workshop he talked about living in the rough neighborhood of East Nashville where “fireworks” go off all the time. This is roots music with a serious side, cloaked in the comfort of traditions, but fortified to get you through the cold winter of reality. This is music built to last, son.
• Andrew Bird
Of course Andrew Bird was going to be a highlight of Pickathon. This deeply experimental, widely searching, ever-questing artist has a huge knowledge of folk and roots music, though he’s usually labeled under indie rock these days. His last album, 2012’s Hands of Glory, was a beautiful combination of underground country gems, traditional songs, and new songs from Bird’s pen. I missed his set on The Woods stage, which was supposed to have been amazing. This magical stage is indeed lost in the woods, shrouded by tree bowers, and one of the coolest parts of Pickathon. Instead, I caught his mainstage set. He was performing with Tift Merritt and the whole set had a decidedly folk theme to it. His whistling was a highlight (turns out a few people I was with seemed to think he had robots or something whistling on his albums, but in concert it’s clear that he’s every bit the champion whistler he’s supposed to be), but the real highlight was his electrifying focus on the songs. Swaying, dancing, eyes closed, blissed out, he channeled the electricity of the stage lights into a performance that seemed to float on air. His music was totally stripped back, the studio complexity that he loves so much on his recorded albums gone, and nothing was left but the song and his voice. When he hit the mysterious, eerie, and haunting Handsome Family song, “When That Helicopter Comes,” my jaw was about on the ground. I don’t get this song, I don’t understand what’s happening in it, but I can’t think of a better song to convey the horror of modern global warfare. It was an intensely powerful moment and made me an Andrew Bird fan for life. It also made me buy his album, and I’m one of those cheap-ass music reviewers that’s always asking for press copies. His set was so powerful that I didn’t even try to get a picture. There was something upsetting about breaking the moment by taking out my phone. That’s old-school performing at its best, folks.
It’s not Pickathon so no Tift Merritt in this video, but here’s a quick look at the song:
• Cedric Watson & Bijou Créole
I know Cedric well, and though I only caught one set at Pickathon, word was buzzing about this young interpreter of Louisiana Creole music. Late night at the Galaxy Barn, Cedric made his bones with a blasted-out set of dance music that had a mass of sweaty bodies dancing, and performers like avant hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces grooving hard from the side-stage. It was the kind of performance that cut across genres and divisions and plunged its hand into the primal part of us that holds the dance, pulling something forth that jaded people like myself frequently forget is still there. Cedric’s about my favorite Creole artist from Louisiana, mainly because he’s actually put the time into the tradition. He’s not only learned from the best older performers, and done so with a lot of respect and humility, but he’s actively pushing the tradition in new directions. Or more accurately, he’s diving deeper into the tradition than anyone before, looking for the vanished historical paths that led the Creole people from Africa originally to the Caribbean and then to Louisiana. He’s learning Dominican merengue from an old master in New York City (The Dominican Republic, or Saint-Domingue as it was called at the time, was the main jumping off place that brought the Acadians to Louisiana). The music he’s making now, with his brand-new album La Troubadour Créole, is Zydeco, or Louisiana Creole music, but so infused with Caribbean sounds and flavors and African inspirations, that’s it’s starting to become something else. His music is exciting and vital and unwilling to compromise to match the tastes of outsiders. You need to hear this music.
• The Cactus Blossoms
Not to be a hipster and be all “I heard about them first,” but I’ve been on The Cactus Blossoms since they dropped their first album (thanks to early support from Sammy of Foghorn Stringband). This band based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, makes pitch-perfect Western swing. Based around the singing and songwriter of two brothers, Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, The Cactus Blossoms seem as retro as they come, but they’re not out to recreate the sound as much as channel it. Their newest album, which just dropped, is a live album from their residency at St. Paul, Minnesota’s The Turf Club and it’s about the perfect introduction to what they do. They cover songs from the classic days, when Western swing was looking everywhere (Texas fiddling, Louis Armstrong big-band jazz, Hollywood singing cowboys) but back to Nashville for inspiration. You’ll hear covers from Bob Wills (duh), Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Rodgers, and others, and there’s a strong early country vibe here as well. But I just keep coming back to that jumpin’ rhythm that’s the legacy I recognize from Western swing, plus the slight tinge of Morricone desert-dust that you can hear on this album, and that’s where my “Western music” genre label’s coming from. Whatever the genre though, these boys can SING! They’ve got that beautiful, laser-precise vocal harmony style that’s the genetic hallmark of brother duets like the Blue Sky Boys or The Delmore Brothers. It’s eerie to see kids this young channeling the old soul of American country music, but they’re taking this music and making it sound as fresh as a Facebook update and a lot more interesting.
• I Draw Slow:
I’ve been sleeping on I Draw Slow too, and that’s my bad. Don’t make it yours! This Americana outfit from Dublin, Ireland, are not only great musicians and a great band, but somewhat magical songwriters. Led by brother-sister team Dave and Louise Holden (Dave writes the melodies and Louise writes the songs), I Draw Slow craft beautifully handmade songs with hooks so sweet and subtle and well built that you’ll be humming them for days afterwards. For real. I’m still humming their most popular song, “Goldmine” and loving it about three weeks after first hearing it. That’s a testament to the music being made here, and a sign that you should jump on this bandwagon while there’s still time. I Draw Slow inevitably get compared to Irish traditional artists and music, but they’re humble folks who love American old-time and roots music, and it was great to see them at Pickathon getting kudos from some of the bands that first inspired them. They’re tight, professional, pro songwriters who wrap their music in the nostalgia of rural America but know that there’s a modern heart beating in the core of the songs. What’s not to like?
I can’t think of a more perfect performer for Pickathon than Shinyribs (aka Kevin Russell of The Gourds). A charter member of the Keep Austin Weird movement, Russell’s been plying his bizarre mix of country, rock, and obscure old folk music for a while now. With his solo project, Shinyribs, the spotlight’s fully on him, and brother does he put on a fun show. Dancing like a crazed hillbilly, shaking his ass, screaming to the heavens like a mad preacher, and leading the audience in a madcap ukulele dance party, a Shinyribs concert is an EVENT, son. I got to interview Kevin backstage after the set and he was a blast to hang out with. He told me all about the Texas skunk-ape (Bigfoot), who seems to be a kind of totem animal for him, and broke down the geography of Texas music. Dude knows this music inside and out, and his mashups of a thousand different roots music genres into one soul-drenched, testifying performance is just a wondrous thing to behold. The new album, Gulf Coast Museum, sounds like a Lomax recording performed by Sam Cooke, or a doo-wop band trapped in a Texas honky-tonk. No one’s making music like Shinyribs today, and though some may feel that ain’t a bad thing, my thought is that we could use a lot more amazing weirdos like this!
• Other Highlights:
-Old-school mountain singer Ginny Hawker tearing up while singing a song by Hazel Dickens.
-Jason Romero of Pharis & Jason Romero joining in with Foghorn Stringband for a thousand-strong square dance (with twerking!).
-Old-school Funk/Soul/Gospel activists The Relatives practically causing a mosh pit at the front of the stage, and bringing down some serious James Brown performance theatrics.
-Shakey Graves twin suitcase drums (one kick, one tambourine) and sweaty dancehall theatrics which were quite shocking to see in a solo act.
-Starting my morning with “The Reggie” from Pine State Biscuits (fried chicken, biscuit, cheese, gravy) and the sweet sounds of Feist’s early am soundcheck.
-Dale Watson’s 30+ foot tour bus and his impossibly self-assured set in The Woods. Dude’s a God of Twang!
Learn more about Pickathon and add it to your 2014 festival calendar at pickathon.com