Day One at Pickathon: A lesson in unwinding
Yesterday afternoon, after a surprisingly rocking set from Weinland to open the whole festival (I’d only heard their more quiet, affected, sentimental stuff before seeing that set), I dropped myself on a dusty patch of hill and kicked back for Martha Scanlan. Schedule in hand, August sun beating hard.
Scanlan has been living in a cabin at the end of a ranch in the emptiest reaches of Montana, working on a record and seeing, as she told us, more cows than people for about a year and a half. Which is precisely how her songs sound. Long and quiet, small and spread out, like a passing breeze or tumble weed could knock the whole tune on its back. There is so much space in her music, my mind had to resist the urge to bring in furniture, so to speak. It was exactly what I needed to be wrested from the usual 80 mph momentum of daily life, thinking, working, and doing whatever it is I do.
For a minute, I felt bad that my brain so wished to run on past Martha’s lyrics, that I missed pretty much everything she was singing about. Then I remembered, it’s only the first day. Day one of any festival has to be about shifting direction from Real Life to Festival Life. So, I gave my brain a break and resolved to just spend the day unwinding.
I unwound myself all the way into the middle of the woods for a stellar set from the Punch Brothers. Unsurprisingly, they blew my mind…a phrase I pretty much never employ in print. I almost don’t think it requires support or explanation. The Chris Thile-led stringband is peopled with pickers who are some of the most creative instrumentalists in their field, if not also fields which don’t belong to them. Everyone in the woods knew it, too. That venue, intended to be an intimate escape at the end of a wooded trail, was nearly as crowded with people as the mainstage.
In addition to selection from their two albums, they played some of Thile’s tunes from his “solo” days as well as covers by Norman Blake and Radiohead. The latter caused a 3-year-old in a superman t-shirt to hop up on a rotted tree stump and exclaim “Wadiohead!” with both fists in the air, triumphant. That’s the power of music, yall. Nobody needs to tell that kid to unwind.
Later on, I packed into the barn for a fine set from Town Mountain. I remembered those guys from last year, but had forgotten they’re from my soon-to-be new hometown of Asheville, NC. That small and new bias aside, they gave certainly the finest bluegrass set of the day. Fine enough that, two bands later, people were still asking me who that band was from North Carolina. Town Mountain’s fiddle and banjo interplay is their secret weapon, and they didn’t hold back.
Red Stick Ramblers got the whole room jumping and doing that bouncy hippy marching in place thing. From behind the stage, it looked like some strange and hilarious army advancing. Dueling fiddles from Kevin Wimmer and Linzay Young are what make that band’s odd fusion of Cajun music and other things (did I hear a little ragtime?) stick hard in my head. It was a perfect warm up for Langhorne Slim, who has recently moved to Portland from Philadelphia. (I believe. You can fact check me in the comments. Not enough juice on this computer right now to do Google searches, etc.)
That photo up there is from that set. Slim likes to climb up on things, then jump off them. It’s the simplest rock and roll move that always drives a room crazy. If anyone was still trying to unwind at 1:30am, Slim pulled the last of them into Festival Mode.
As I cut out back to the tent, I passed Black Prairie playing to a large late night crowd up on the hill, under the stars and some strings of white lights. I could hear their banjo and accordion in the distance as I unwound straight to sleep, then woke to children making up songs as they go…and the grumble of the port-a-potty trucks. Beats waking to an alarm, at least.