We went to Portland to see intimate sets from the likes of Broken Social Scene, Sunflower Bean + Ezra Furman in stunning surrounds
Steven Kline
23:30 10th August 2018

A scream cuts through the gentle Oregon night, 3,500 voices strong. It emanates from Mt Hood, out there at the heart of Pendarvis Farm fifteen miles south of Portland where, just yesterday, fascists with guns marched through the town centre with police protection. And it is led by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, rousing the rare sound of liberal redemption.

“We’ve got all this politics and all this noise,” he tells the crowd, “do this for all the people who hurt you and you hurt, everything you have, let it go, you don’t need it, let it go.”

And so ‘Ibi Dreams Of Pavements (A Better Day)’ is torn apart by a rending howl, the pent-up roar of Pickathon, the little festival that could. For twenty years, this purposefully small annual gathering has converged on Pendarvis to limit its emissions, hemp up its children and gently rock out to the newest folk, country and indie rock sounds. How gently? As Sunflower Bean take to the main Mt Hood stage before sundown on Saturday, there are deckchairs drawn up feet from the stage, beneath kite-like awnings stretching the length of the arena.

With the sound system set to ‘birdsong’ and more baby headphones than devil horns on view, they rock politely through ‘Burn It’ and ‘Come On’, indulge in some loungier, Fleetwood Mac-ier second album material like ‘Twentytwo’ and ‘I Was A Fool’ and throw in a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ as if to acknowledge the pastoral chill vibes of their surroundings. Towards the end of the set they summon up some intense glam-psych-blues storms and start shouting into plastic toy phones, but they know which way their Pickathon is pickled. Within 24 hours they’re playing to the Portland Mayor and a couple of dozen other diners feasting on gourmet pork fajitas and cocktails at a South American street-food Curation Dinner, special dining clubs held in a hidden grotto behind Mt Hood. “This is the first time I’ve eaten a full meal mid-set,” says singer Julia Cumming.

Pickathon certainly has the feel of an upmarket, artsy picnic. Tiny by UK festival standards – it’s maybe the size of a Standon Calling, or half a Green Man – it focusses on intimate, characterful performances. Out in the woods, where campers pitch in thickets and gulleys beneath the dense canopy strumming Magnetic Fields and Decemberists tunes, Philly’s Sheer Mag fire out righteous roadhouse rock that quivers the hammocks strung up around the nest-like Wood Stage, giving afternoon snoozers flashbacks to Detroit ’04. At the Treeline Stage, an arena lined with Incan iconography and centred around a huge woodland sculpture of stripped pine, Vermont’s Sam Amidon performs banjo frenzies about how the trees at night “take the shape of people you’re trying to forget”, Bee Bee Sea pile into Thee Oh Sees speed fuzz that sounds like rock’n’roll being thrown down a very deep well and LA psych rockers Wand delve into noir rock, mathletic itchiness, crazed jazz thrashes and Floydian bliss-outs that are fascinating and baffling in equal measure. An Interpol-slick guitarist spins ghostly wails from his guitar, sunburst pop riffs fire up and dissolve before turning into an actual song; intriguing stuff, but even Wire wouldn’t give it more than fifteen minutes.

Which is one of several quibbles with Pickathon. Virtually every slot is an hour, no matter how new and material-short the band – as great as they are, nobody wants an hour of Sheer Mag one album in. The festival’s ultra-green mentality is a central tenet of its identity, but when a site-wide ban on paper means that you can’t get a drink of water in an uncharacteristic Oregon heatwave unless you buy a very unbiodegradable metal cup for $6, you wonder how much is principle and how much profit. And sound levels rarely allow for any band to pack much punch. Take Ezra Furman, who takes to the rustic, wooden-beamed Galaxy Barn with barely half his band sound-checked and lumped with a PA with all the technical clout of the average chicken shack. It’s hardly the ideal scenario for someone trying to reinvent modern music from the circuitboard up, to have to do it with the same sort of set-up as the fucking Blues Brothers.

With the sound a wreckage already, Furman and his white-clad backing band wisely chooses to favour his ruined retro rock’n’roll tunes rather than recreate many of the more tech-heavy wonders of his latest, sonically fervid ‘Transangelic Exodus’ album. So the gnarled ‘50s prom rock of ‘I Wanna Destroy Myself’ scratches out, all messed up Meatloaf riffs and shattered sax solos, and the Velvets balladry of ‘Haunted Head’ parps along gorgeously, like a Grease shake-shop lament with a monster hangover. This lo-fi, the sax pop of ‘I Lost My Innocence’ (“to a boy named Vincent”, in case you were wondering) and retro rattler ‘Marachino-Red Dress $8.99 At Goodwill’ meld seamlessly with crackly doo-wop “from the Obama era” such as 2015’s ‘Lousy Connection’. As the show warms up Furman carries off ‘Transangelic…’’s sultry, Mercury Rev-esque ‘Psalm 151’ and ominous voodoo rattle ‘No Place’ and even attempts a cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Tonight, Tonight’, not a song that fares well on a PA system made largely of straw but Ezra spins it into gold. Hail, hail rock’n’roll’s transangelic alchemist.

Pickathon 2018 belongs to Broken Social Scene though, Canada’s The National-in-waiting and the epitome of this inclusive, progressive weekend. After all, they’re a sprawling community of a modern art band, both edgy and genteel at once, playing protest songs called ‘Protest Song’ “for what happened in Portland yesterday” in their boho Neutral Milk Arcade For Cutie way. And they own the closing Mt Hood slot with passion and wit, Drew joking with the crowd that he’d recorded an entire album on somebody’s iPhone while drunk on wine with Shakey Graves and conducting a shifting revue of grand Canadian alt-rock. They finish with a stampeding ‘Meet Me In The Basement’, as visceral as Sebadoh’s ‘Flame’ and a fittingly unifying close to Pickathon’s twentieth year. Scream on, dreamers.

Photo: Bill Purcell