It took me two showers to wash off the dirt from Portland-area roots music festival Pickathon last weekend, but I'm still basking in the glow of new music discoveries. When I hear the term "roots music," I tend to think of banjo-based rock from a bunch of white dudes wearing porkpie hats. While this festival, which happens each summer at Pendarvis farm, had its fair share of those bands, the buzz from most of the folks I talked to in the moment was very much about the bands with women as leading or key roles. While three days straight of 45-minute-ish sets can blend together, there were some really memorable standouts... and a few surprises.
(Above: Sherry Pendarvis, owner of Pendarvis farm, makes an appearance)
You should know that I'm biased when it comes to Neko Case. Her voice is like a train, and that is a very good thing to me. Case is very much her own unique flavor, but to me it's like if Corin Tucker and Bjork's voices had a dreamier, slightly "country" baby. She collaborates with some top-notch musicians and this show was no exception—Case called on support from some of her New Pornographers bandmates. I caught her on the Woods Stage, a hobbit-hole of a place hollowed out amidst the campsites in the forested area of the festival, on Saturday night. With powerful songs about having a love affair with a force of nature like "Middle Cyclone," to reinventing old favorites like Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," it was a pretty magical place to hear her, and she seemed to feel the same way about the setting as she dished out love to the crowd (it was, unfortunately, absolutely packed so I barely caught a glimpse of her). Lights hung from and projected onto the canopy added to the mood. I did not, however, expect her to be quite as much of a ham. Someone commented to me that there's no better backdrop for bad (read: awesome) puns and comedy than bluegrass, and there was a bit of that vibe to the show as she riffed with bandmates and cracked jokes in between songs. The whole experience was kind of like hanging out with her in a (giant, super-full-of-people) woodland living room. I half expected to run into her in line for beer after the show finished (sadly, I did not). You can listen to the first in a series from NPR's Morning Edition on Neko Case in the studio recording her next album, here.
Kitty, Daisy & Lewis
I hadn't heard of Kitty, Daisy & Lewis previously, but they were at the top of my must-see list for the weekend. This trio of siblings plays ska-inspired, swing-inspired stuff. They're multi-talented musicians, switching from one instrument to another, ranging from piano to lap steel banjos, ukulele, accordion, xylophone, and trombone (to name a few). This weekend they were joined by former drummer for British post-punk band the Raincoats', Ingrid Weiss, and other guest stars. The festival website swooned, "There's no compromise when Kitty's howling harmonica solos backed by Daisy's battered snare drum and Lewis' guitar work drive crowds into a southern evangelical frenzy." I heard them sitting outside a barn around a fire pit, and it was the perfect mood music. Preview their album here.
Fronted by singer/guitarist Erica Wennerstrom, the main force behind the band and writer of all their songs, Heartless Bastards have recently added another guitar player to their lineup. Their sound is now a bit more layered and intense, and the live show captured that. Inspired by spaghetti western film scores, '70s soul, psychedelia, funk, blues, glam, and of course roots rock, the band has been touring nearly non-stop for two years, so they have great synergy on stage, but their lead singer is the star of the show. She has a huge voice. In the midst of yet another tour now (check out dates here), you can see them on the road through the summer. Watch the latest video from their new album, Arrow, and get tour info, here.
Y La Bamba
Frontwoman Luzelena Mendoza, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, has a lush, slightly hazy voice that gives Y La Bamba's mariachi-inspired art rock a somewhat unsettling edge (again, in a good way... Like a gorgeous but somewhat creepy fairy tale). At the hottest point of the day on Sunday afternoon, the performance was a bit more subdued than I expected, but the musicianship of the band and how well they played together really impressed. The instrumentals were rich and layered, they were really together but still relaxed, and in a way, loose. It was a great changeup from the more country-inspired performances that framed their set. This Portland band is kicking off a national tour right after the festival, and you can see tour dates here and listen to them online here.
I heard rave reviews from folks who saw TheeSatisfaction early in the festival. This neo-r&b, hip hop, queer lady duo from Seattle stood out from the rest of the lineup by genre, and their set would have seemed more at home at night in a jazz club than in the sweltering, hay-strewn Galaxy Barn with horses panting in their stall close by. They write what they describe as "funk-psychedelic feminista sci-fi epics with the warmth and depth of Black Jazz and Sunday morning soul, frosted with icy raps that evoke equal parts Elaine Brown, Ursula Rucker and Q-Tip." YES. The sung vocals were rich and sultry, and the raps were tight in contrast. In spite of the heat and close quarters, their performance was poised and hypnotic, and when I ran into them later in the day they were super-personable and friendly. Listen to new music and remixes on their website.
Lake Street Dive
Based in Brooklyn, this was the Lake Street Dive's first trip to Portland and I caught them twice. Their late-night set was a total surprise and a crowd fave. With steamy, downtempo, sexy (believe it!) covers of "I Want You Back" (the Jackson 5) and "Faith" (George Michael), it might sound campy. Lead singer Rachael Price's voice is a little bit like Joss Stone, with an edge more jazz than blues, and a nice foil to the bright trumpeteering of Mike Olson. I loved the story they told late night, situating song "Don't Make Me Hold Your Hand" as a tribute to The X-Files' Mulder and Scully's sexual tension. Stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney absolutely wails, and I could listen to Price sing the alphabet, as they say. Check out more music on their website, and watch this video of "I Want You Back" for a taste.
Shovels and Rope
My absolute favorite performance of the weekend hit me out of left field. Shovels and Rope, a guy/girl duo out of South Carolina, was described to me pre-festival thusly: "They're from the south. They harmonize." But Cary Ann Hearst sounds a little bit like Dolly, and like her, she is a ball of fire with a big personality and a super-positive stage presence. She and bandmate Michael Trent switch on guitar and drums, and I found myself wishing she would just play both instruments all the time—not because Trent isn't talented, but because I loved watching her bob up and down as she beat the drums, or lean into her guitar with an energy that takes advantage of the percussive possibilities with the instrument. It was all about love with them... The heat was "fantastic, I love it!" The crowd was "beautiful, gorgeous, dirt-coated people." The wilted (but gorgeous) crowd gave a standing ovation. Get a taste of their personality, show info, and some hottt sounds, here. Be sure to check out any live performances you can dig up.
While I wasn't able to see everybody, these bands in particular made me want to check out what I missed. You can hear some of their music, plus songs from some of the rest of the lineup, in our Pickathon Preview post mixtape here, see more pics from the festival, and check out the Pickathon website for more info about, and links to, the full lineup. See you there next year!