Concert Festival Heartstrings

Magic Is Real: Pickathon 2014

By: Asher Alexander

I love Pickathon. That’s probably the biggest understatement I could possibly write. In truth, there aren’t adequate words in English, or any other language, that can describe my affection for and connection to the magic that transpires on Pendarvis Farm each year on the first full weekend of August. There is also no amount too large of flowery praise and superlatives I could heap upon this festival that would ever in a million years even come close to hyperbole. I know it sounds fantastic, but Pickathon is very special, it’s more than a festival. From the line-up, which is always so diverse and exciting that you look forward to the artists you’ve never heard before as much as the groups you already know and love, to a setting that always seems to produce true musical transcendence at a higher level than anywhere else I’ve ever experienced live music. And finally, to the amazing friends, with whom I get to share some of the best times I’ve ever had — Pickathon is absolutely one of a kind.

One of the many features that sets Pickathon apart from every other festival is the camping. When most folks picture camping at a festival, images of harsh sun-bleached fields covered with tents and vehicles packed in like sardines, full of wasted teenagers making all manner of noise at all hours of the night, usually comes to mind. Every year at Pickathon campers turn beautiful acres of shaded, hilly woods into a tent filled Brigadoon for just a weekend. Don’t get me wrong, my friends and I, and many other folks, stay up late and party each night, but the camping area remains the most chill and respectful festival camping situation I’ve ever seen. When the music is over at Pickathon, people aren’t herded out of the concert fields and back to their tents. The farm is pretty much turned over to everyone and the entirety of the festival grounds are ours to roam and play in all night long.

Some of my all time favorite Pickathon moments have happened out amongst the trees, tents and revelers after the music has officially ended. Three years ago I threw an impromptu pizza party at 3 or 4 AM for all my friends and everyone who still gathered in the field by the main stage. Last year Marco Benevento played a surprise set at the Pumphouse that began around 2 AM and ended sometime just before sunrise. So many memorable late nights/early mornings have been spent singing old John Prine songs and having generally the best time ever while sitting under the breathing fabric ceiling by the main stage or at a campsite deep in the woods. Last year my good friend Gregg and I insisted on serenading everyone who was still assembled at the Brew Crew Camp at about 8 AM Monday morning with “Goodnight Irene.” It was finally time to turn in and to our shock, none of the remaining pickers knew the tune — isn’t “Goodnight Irene” the first song everybody learns?

This year, there was certainly no shortage of late night/early morning magic. Personally, my late nights at Pickathon usually follow the same formula each year: 2-4-6-8. That is, I stay up until about 2 AM on Thursday, 4 AM on Friday, 6 AM on Saturday and 8 AM on Sunday. This isn’t intentional, but it always seems to work out that way. I head to the farm early on Thursday to get a good spot for my VW camper van. The same spot along the tree line where I’ve camped for the last 3 years.  The trees keep my van shaded until about 10:30 AM, so no matter how late I stay up, I’m always able to get some sleep. My van has become essential to my Pickathon experience. I love camping and I love festivals, but I’m way too old and too much of a light sleeper to get any quality rest in a tent. And I’m not the only one. The car camping area is always full of VW’s. So much so that it looks like it could be a Westy cruise-in. I think we should all have van club jackets covered in patches for all the rallies or festivals we’ve been to.

Another pretty obvious reason for going in early on Thursday–who wouldn’t want to tack another day of fun onto what is always the highlight of the year and annual “Best Weekend Ever.” This year I saw more folks out early on Thursday than I’d ever seen. I spent Thursday night chillin’ with my good friends from Brew Dr. Kombucha. They are one of the vendors at the festival and over the years they’ve become some of my favorite members of my Pickathon family. Not only do they make a killer beverage but they are some of the greatest all around dudes ever. It’s  an honor and a privilege to get to hang out with them each year. They always have a large group camp site that’s a perfect place to chill late night, stop by while traveling from the Woods stage to the main stage or if I need a place to beat the heat during the day between sets.

Friday night’s post music adventures were mellow by necessity. I’m 35. I probably haven’t been in a mosh pit in 20 years. But when Diarrhea Planet whipped the occupants of the Galaxy Barn into a frenzy, my friends and I made sure we were right in the thick of it. It was absolutely bonkers! After leaving the sauna of the Barn, dripping with sweat and the sweat of everyone else inside we were exhausted and needed quite a while to cool down, even in the 2 AM air. All the late night called for after that was some easy strolling through the gently lit paths of the woods. My friend Angela and I just moseyed from jam session to jam session. People were picking on the hay bales by the Woods Stage, in their campsites and in one case right in the middle of a path deep in the woods. Someone (or possibly a bear) in a tent no more than a foot away from the players and assembled listeners obliviously kept time with the music, with possibly the loudest snoring I’ve ever heard. They certainly didn’t need the comforts of a camper van to get a good night’s sleep.

The last set in the Galaxy Barn each night usually sets the tone for the rest of the evening. Saturday night’s Marco Benevento fueled dance party was no exception. After years of hearing me preach about the wonders of Pickathon, a bunch of old friends of mine finally came out for the day. Possibly just to shut me up. But after seeing them all bouncing around the Barn as Marco played a cockeyed, spaced out version of “Jump Into the Fire” by Harry Nilsson, I was sure that they “got it” and had their very first taste of Pickathon late night fun. Afterwards we all went to relax at my van. It’s not just a place to sleep, but also makes a pretty good mobile living room. Once all of those day trippers headed home, my fellow weekend warriors and I knew what the next stop on the evenings journey needed to be: The Pumphouse.

The Pumphouse is Pickathon’s best-worst kept secret. A small structure, big enough for a band to play inside, nestled in a clearing encircled by christmas lights and outfitted with some comfy couches and usually a keg or 2. It’s not on any maps and what goes on there isn’t advertised. You just have to know someone who knows where it is or have the good fortune to stumble upon it yourself. During the day, bands play special sessions for KEXP Live & Breathing. You usually need a backstage wristband to get in. But at night the rules get a little looser and it becomes the hub of Pickathon late night activity.

Once we arrived at the Pumphouse Saturday night things were already in full swing. There was plenty of music being made. A fellow and I traded sad country songs by Gram Parsons, Townes and George Jones, but I have an awful memory and all the lyrics to every song I’ve ever known are just a jumble in my brain. It turned out that neither of us could remember more than a verse or two and the choruses of the tunes we wanted to sing. I ran into plenty of friends and made plenty of new ones. Whiskey was consumed. There was a lot of talk about what everyone had seen that day and who they were excited to see next. It was a fantastic party. It just happened to be in the middle of the woods.

The night grew longer and we could see the morning light come creeping through the trees. A group of friends and I resolved to stroll back to camp. While everyone else was distracted by some pickers on the path, I grabbed a gal that I had been hanging out with that evening and said “Follow me. You’re gonna want to see this!” I lead us down a path to the edge of the trees. Once we broke through the tree line we were treated to the most beautiful sunrise I think either of us had ever seen. We laid down at the top of the hill by the main stage and watched the dim morning rays, growing brighter and stronger by the minute, all filtered through the crisscross patterns of the fabric diamonds that hung in the sky. It was Sunday morning. So, to complete the picture perfect scene, I dialed up “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground on my phone (what did people do before Spotify?!). As we listened to Lou Reed’s mellow baritone and marveled at the unfolding dawn we knew we were witnessing a special moment of Pickathon magic.

I always think that Saturday nights shenanigans might be hard to top. But one of the things I’ve learned is to never doubt Pickathon’s ability to raise its own bar. Sunday being the final night, everybody always steps their game up, eager to wring the last drops of fun out of an already epic weekend. Sunday night at the Pumphouse was probably the ultimate highlight, at least for everyone who was there. For me, the scene truly symbolized what Pickathon is all about. Mac Demarco and the guys in his band were leading everyone in a late night sing along of 90’s radio jams like Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” Weezer’s “Sweater Song” and “Waterfalls” by T.L.C. And it really felt like everyone. There was Shakey Graves, his drummer, the guys from Parquet Courts, the gals from Warpaint, and everyone, and me. All hanging out together, singing together, laughing together. The lines between performer, volunteer and attendee were completely blurred. I think that’s one of the main thing that the folks behind Pickathon are going for. The scene Sunday night at the Pumphouse was proof that they’re succeeding probably beyond their wildest dreams.

As Sunday night melted into Monday morning we finally parted ways with the last few folks gathered at the Pumphouse. It was time to head back to camp, then back to sleep and finally, sadly back to the real world. But Pickathon wasn’t quite done with us yet. We made one last visit to Brew Camp, where there is always a raging Sunday night party. We stopped to chat with some of the last few stragglers who were still awake at a time when many folks were just waking up. Then at 7:30 in the morning something happened that sounds so fantastical I might not believe it were I not there myself or anywhere other than Pickathon. Sherry Pendarvis, owner of the farm, founder of the feast, came riding by on a white horse thanking everybody for coming. Now I am positive that sort of thing doesn’t happen at any other festival.

You don’t have to stay up socializing and reveling all night like I do to have a good time at Pickathon. I know plenty of folks who turn in when the music ends each night and still have the best weekend ever. There is no right or wrong way to experience Pickathon. As long as you’re there with an open heart and mind, the music, community, vibe and spirit will eventually burrow it’s way deep in your soul and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll learn what my friends and I know–I know magic is real because I’ve been to Pickathon.

(Photography by Asher Alexander)

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