Bluegrass music fest goes green

Pickathon adds energy credits, MAX shuttles, carpool hookups to its lineup
by: JIM CLARK, Pickathon organizers (from left) Dave Allen, Zale Schoenborn and Ned Failing chose environmentally conscious vendors, hotels and other service providers as festival partners.

All music festivals aim to make an impact - to offer fun and festive enjoyment where people can gather, see favorite performers, be exposed to new ones, create community and walk away with good memories.

Portland's Pickathon, a bluegrass-inflected music festival that raises money for radio station KBOO (90.7 FM) and that marks eight years in August, is taking the idea a step further by making major efforts to reduce the environmental consequences that happen when you bring a large number of people together for two days.

'We've always recycled, but we decided to see what else we could do,' Pickathon founder Zale Schoenborn says.

While larger events like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, the Warped Tour and Austin City Limits have all instituted significant green initiatives, Pickathon has an advantage that comes from its geography. Portland is a great, supportive place to host an environmentally friendly festival, particularly one as eclectic as this.

McMenamins is crafting 'green beer' for the event - purchasing offset wind credits to counter the electricity used in brewing. B and J Garbage is providing a portable composting station as well as recycling and waste containers.

'It's a major hassle for someone to do that,' Schoenborn says. 'It's not really profitable, but he's super-excited to be a part of this.'

Food vendors like Sambazon (which utilizes fair trade practices with Amazonian collectives to harvest organic acai, an antioxidant-rich Brazilian berry, that's packaged in biodegradable containers) were chosen because of their leanings.

Like many larger events, Pickathon is using renewable energy credits donated by PacifiCorp's Blue Sky program to counteract the less environmentally friendly energy it consumes. 'We basically take our energy consumption and pay for that much wind energy to be created,' Schoenborn says. 'As a polluter, we're using renewable energy to offset the carbon emissions from fossil fuels.'

The festival's relocation to Pendarvis Farm on Mount Scott brought a number of benefits. Because this is the first major event to be held there, the Pickathon team was able to work with landscape architect David Aulwes from local firm Walker Macy to create a plan that minimized the impact on the land.

'We're trying to set up their land in a way that can be reused,' Schoenborn says. Camping sites, parking, stages, vendor and craft locations all were carefully considered.

Carpools, buses encouraged

Most significantly, the new location (20 minutes southeast of downtown Portland) has enabled Pickathon to offer something rare in the world of big outdoor festivals - the chance to get to and from the event without a car. Festival-goers are encouraged to take the MAX train to the Gateway station and ride the hourly biodiesel shuttle from there to the grounds.

People coming in from out of town can get by without renting a car. In addition to being the only hotel in the state of Oregon certified Green Seal (for environmentally responsible practices), Pickathon's hotel partner, the DoubleTree-Lloyd Center, is on the MAX line, which makes it possible to go from the airport, bus or train stations to the hotel and the festival on public transportation.

The Northwest's long-standing commitment to environmental change means that resources like the local online carpool finder,, already were in place. The festival Web site will have an extensive transportation map that includes bike routes and parking.

'Indie roots' closest label

All the environmental issues would be a moot point if Pickathon hadn't grown into a vital and vibrant festival that draws more people each year. Schoenborn attributes the growth to the fact that the music is eclectic and high-caliber.

'The closest thing you could call us is indie roots,' he says. 'We're very much in the middle of two scenes. There's the whole jam-band scene - we're not that. On the other side you have the traditional music festivals, like bluegrass festivals. Because Portland has so many clubs and because there aren't any long traditions of any of those kinds of music being born here, the scene tends to allow new interpretations to thrive.'

He cites the Avett Brothers as a prime example of what Pickathon has to offer. 'They're really hard to classify,' he says. 'They're coming from a punk-rock angle - indie rock, banjo, guitar, bass. They scream, they play, they're melodic. It's hard to pin them down. They're not bluegrass - they have all these different styles. It's fully representative of something that would come out of Portland.

'We attempt to bring a lot of bands who aren't well-known but are relevant to the music scene. People are starting to trust us so that even though they might not know the performers, they'll come to check out a lot of these acts.'

That's the kind of spirit that drew Dirty martini drummer Ned Failing and Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen to become partners in Pickathon. 'I like the idea of a community-based festival that can involve local and national artists, especially in the Americana-roots genre,' Allen says.

'I tend to support talent more than hip, so Pickathon fits this position well. This year's lineup (which features Iris Dement and Kelly Joe Phelps, among others) is rather fabulous.'

Schoenborn has his eye on the future as well. 'We're trying to create a scene nationally. That's kind of our real vision - trying to be a mouthpiece that you can have a music festival that's not straight-up one style and that people will support it.

'And we hope the environmental part of what we're doing has a ripple effect. The DoubleTree having the Green Seal is a big deal. Everyone else could be following their example. We hope this helps get the word out that people can make changes and make a difference.'

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