The inaugural 2013 BottleRock festival in Napa was defined by a spectacular lineup in an unbelievably small town. The second year came to be defined by a 1990s retro vibe and the improbable resurrection of the festival as a profitable enterprise.
But now that BottleRock is here to stay, we headed to Napa this year with a mind to determine its place -- a “one-of-a-kind music experience," according to marketing materials -- amidst the increasing numbers of other similar music festivals popping up all over the place.
Friday, May 29
Friday's music at BottleRock got its first jolt of excitement with Courtney Barnett, the Australian phenomenon whose debut album is guaranteed real estate on many year-end lists. With only a drummer and bassist, 26-year-old Barnett swayed and flailed around the stage with no guitar pick, strumming chords with the back of her fingers and plucking out solos that pulled her catchy, urgent songs into new directions. Seeing the crowd slowly won over, with their cheers getting louder and longer after each song, was to witness a festival at its best: when it fosters discovery of new music.
But music takes a generally more diminished role at BottleRock. As a festival set in wine country, equal weight seems to be placed on wine and food. And since attendees can't bring in their own food, options like $15 Indian plates and $23 pizza are a reality. Around 6:30pm on Friday, lines got very, very long. To save time, I found a short line, spent $9 on a bacon-topped hot dog, and then watched it fall apart in my hands.
The food focus was enhanced his year by a new Culinary Stage, where on Friday a crowd gathered to
watch upload Instagram photos of Flavor Flav making fried chicken with Top Chef’s Michael Voltaggio. But this idea of chefs and musicians in collaboration isn't unique; it's already a feature at Outside Lands in San Francisco. The other noticeable new BottleRock attraction, the Silent Disco, has been happening at the Treasure Island Music Festival for several years. Other features like large public art pieces, a food-truck court, and a VIP lounge with nice décor and low couches are standard-issue festival touches all over the country.
Was this truly a one-of-a-kind music experience? Halfway through the day, I couldn't help but wonder what sort of meaningful cultural event I was supposed to be participating in.
Then I walked by a food booth called White Guy Pad Thai, which seemed apt. "White Guy Pad Thai" is a perfect four-word review of the festival; White Guy Pad Thai only exists because Pad Thai exists, and white guys want in on it, too. BottleRock exists only because other music festivals existed and some white guys from Napa wanted in on it too. Most of the bands are ready-made "festival bands," like the Mowglis, all full of anthemic choruses and dance beats and magazine-current haircuts. The attendees fulfill their role as People Who Go To Festivals™, with headbands and booty shorts and lots of selfies, and only a passing interest in the music; the Press Democrat quoted two people who either had no idea which bands were even playing, or just plain didn't care.
Public Enemy – who were welcomed to Napa in the local weekly by being advised not to play “Fight the Power” because police are “sensitive around that kind of talk lately, especially when it's coming from militant African Americans,” I'm not kidding – delivered another welcome jolt of energy, dedicating "He Got Game" to Stephen Curry and playing a solid mix of classics and new material.
Backstage, I overheard someone ask Chuck D about his favorite type of wine. "I don't drink," he replied, going against the prevailing grain of BottleRock. In fact, on my half-mile walk back to the $40 parking lot, I saw a guy stumble down Soscol Ave., unable to hold himself up, and topple over the hood of a brand-new car and onto the ground at the Chevrolet dealership. --Gabe Meline
Saturday, May 30
It was sometime after getting barked at by the lady at the first-aid station -- the cost of free Band-Aids for one’s feet, as it turns out, is getting chastised for not wearing thicker socks to begin with -- that we realized the tide had turned: the crowds weren’t happy day-drunk anymore. They were tired and wine-drunk, and they were going to take it out on their loved ones. A mom in rhinestone-covered sandals (while we’re talking footwear) scolded her teenage daughter for some rude rejoinder as they stormed away from the main stage, where the Avett Brothers were midway through a huge-sounding set.
Wine-fueled emotional volatility aside, the atmosphere on Saturday was something like a very expensive county fair: music to be heard, food trucks to wait in line for. With a short walk between four stages, festival FOMO -- the scourge of most fests with overlapping set times -- was kept to a minimum. The sound, too, was the best of any outdoor show in recent memory. VIP areas and various levels of color-coded wristband hierarchy were present, but not to a degree that the general-admission experience felt like a cattle run.
So why did this festival, whose organizers have spent loads of money trying to rebrand it after a disastrous first year, still feel like something was missing? Witness Saturday's Culinary Stage, where Scott Weiland and actor Earl Brown participated in a whole-hog butchery demonstration while answering stilted questions. (What’s on Weiland’s tour rider? Corona Light and socks.) Also new: the “Family Zone,” not to be confused with the “Craft Beer Zone,” which is, naturally, next to the “Whole Foods Market Culinary Garden.”
BottleRock has shown an affinity for '90s throwback acts, so we’re going to borrow a line from Everclear: this festival is trying just a little too hard to be everything to everyone. The actual music part of the festival -- at least, the ability to attract true music lovers, and then to direct attendees’ attention to the areas where music was happening -- seemed to suffer as a result.
That’s a shame, because there were some excellent performances. At the top of that list is one Robert Plant, who took the stage in a mess of grey curls and a shiny silver shirt, opened his mouth, and delivered -- in a voice that’s hardly aged at all -- spine-tingling versions of both solo work and plenty of Led Zeppelin tunes, including "Whole Lotta Love," “Going to California,” and “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The temperature had dropped at least 25 degrees in just 90 minutes, but none of the (mostly middle-aged) couples wrapped in blankets and swaying side to side seemed to mind. Same went for the mood over at Passion Pit’s stage, where Michael Angelakos & Co. delivered infectiously, relentlessly upbeat electro-pop for a similar audience, albeit one with maybe an average age of 23.
Other highlights, in no particular order, include a solid showing of local bands, including Doe Eye, Con Brio, the Brothers Comatose, and Fritz Montana; Portugal the Man covering Oasis, Pink Floyd, and “The Dayman Song” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; funk powerhouse Lettuce and L.A. blues three-piece the Record Company both attracting great showings seemingly through sheer energy and likability alone, despite the presence of bigger names on nearby stages, and appearing to have more fun than anyone as a result.
Oh, and the big one: getting out of parking lot 8A in under 45 minutes. --Emma Silvers
Sunday, May 31
I went back into BottleRock on Sunday with an open mind. Echosmith, the band you know from “Cool Kids,” helped freshen the outlook with a peppy set. Silverado Pickups segued from the Rolling Stones into the Grateful Dead. Los Amigos Invisibles had a full-fledged Latin ska dance party going on. Things were looking up.
But the collective attention was over on the Culinary Stage, where Snoop Dogg and chef Masaharu Morimoto joined forces for a sushi-making demo. It took Snoop less than 30 seconds to make the expected “roll one up” joke, and the short segment was more social spectacle than master class, anyway -- kind of in the same way Vernon Davis' earlier spot on the culinary stage was essentially an ongoing advertisement for his sponsor, a particular brand of beef jerky.
Put all this stuff together -- the excitement of Snoop (“He's dope!” announced stage host Liam Mayclem, awkwardly) in “the hood” of Napa (Mayclem, again); the showering of the crowd with free company swag while said company's social media team takes photos to prove people's excitement over a package of beef jerky; the take-a-picture-of-this-and-Instagram-it-and-win-free-stuff marketing apparatus in effect, widely, throughout the entire festival; the ho-hum lineup of predictable festival bands -- and BottleRock's identity starts to feel like one big opportunity to leverage one's brand, both corporate and personal.
I've grown up in wine country, and I know Napa's wine industry is especially thirsty for this leverage, hoping to mitigate its reputation for being old and staid. Apparently the insurance industry is, too: I walked by the Geico booth and noticed the staffers laying on their backs, having given up, making jokes on the mic about how nobody wanted to interact with their brand.
As various executives funneled into the Platinum reserved area (six feet deep of guaranteed front-row viewing, tickets $3,500/pair), Snoop Dogg took the stage to play songs that the general-admission crowd behind them knew much better, which is to say, at all: “P.I.M.P.,” “The Next Episode,” “Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang,” “Drop it Like it's Hot,” “Gin & Juice,” just a nonstop hit parade, peppered with snippets of songs by House of Pain, Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the start, but by the time he closed with “Young, Wild & Free,” he also achieved the festival brass ring of uniting 30,000 people in a singalong of love and positivity.
No Doubt followed with a similarly hit-ridden set, made off-kilter only for Gwen Stefani's overeager testimonials about how she CAN'T BELIEVE you're all here IN PERSON singing THESE SONGS with her, wow, it's SO REAL. “I'm just trying to find people I connect with so I can think of their faces when I go to sleep at night,” she said in one of many exhortations. “Do you understand that? I'm going to think of you tonight!”
Even for someone who never much cared much for No Doubt, I gotta say, they kept Snoop's unifying ethos alive across the huge field. But the real spirit was outside the festival grounds: walking back to my car, I stopped into Nation's Hamburgers, where the packed restaurant was interrupted by a man's voice.
“Excuse me,” he announced, “but it's this girl's birthday, and she's had a really terrible day. Can we all sing her 'Happy Birthday?'”
Everyone in the place obliged while a huge smile spread across her face. It was, you might say, a one-of-a-kind music experience. -- Gabe Meline