Last year, I wrote that BottleRock was a festival in search of an identity. Its ship had been righted after a financially ruinous first year and subsequent transfer, but being at the festival was like living one big unanswered existential question. Its music bookings felt haphazard, its culinary aspect forced. Why, I kept thinking, did BottleRock need to exist?
But now, in its fourth year, BottleRock's identity has become clearer. On its opening day, the culinary stage was bigger than ever. A new raised VIP "Skydeck" viewing area and updated "Platinum Lounge" (tickets: $3,100) coddled the well-heeled. The music skewed toward radio-friendly, accessible pop-rock acts with an adult-contemporary feel. Wine was everywhere.
Essentially, BottleRock has completed its transformation from a scrappy, too-ambitious startup festival to a deluxe Wine Country Experience™: expensive, comfortable, and -- in the landscape of music festivals -- necessary, at least for audiences who require more middle-of-the-road music with an upscale atmosphere.
The evidence was hard to miss. When Lenny Kravitz launched into “American Woman,” a cover of the Guess Who's soft-rock staple of 1970s radio, the forty-something bank teller in front of me grabbed her friend, shrieked “I love this song!” and began the wine-country two-step of soft gyration, careful not to spill her Cabernet.
Friday's musical lineup did include a number of highlights. Fantastic Negrito, from Oakland, invited the entire crowd to “quit your jobs, and come on tour with me” while whipping through a powerful, sometimes haunting set of fiery songs. White Sea, a lesser-known outfit, brought a Coldplay-meets-Fleetwood-Mac sound and charming, convivial banter. Buddy Guy, criminally relegated to the third stage, covered B.B. King and John Lee Hooker alongside his own hits while spinning stories from his upbringing in the south: “I didn't know what running water was until I was 17,” he said, while mostly white fans cheered his authenticity.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, Michael Franti -- who once decried the evils of media and government in his radical 1980s industrial band the Beatnigs -- sang “Summertime is always on my mind / Even in the winter I want the sunshine” while the crowd grooved along to the easy beat.
Headliner Stevie Wonder opened his set with a monologue about the importance of voting, subtweeting Donald Trump by declaring “Division is unacceptable. Prejudice and hatred are unacceptable.” His set included the expected hits -- “Higher Ground,” “Sir Duke,” “Living for the City,” “Signed Sealed Delivered” -- along with a strange section wherein he pressed play on a batch of songs by artists who'd recently passed away, such as Prince, David Bowie and Glenn Frey. (The only thing more awkward than Stevie Wonder DJing other people's songs was when “Hotel California” started skipping in front of the 40,000-capacity crowd.)
But all in all, Wonder made it clear why he's an American treasure, and his set briefly brought a spiritual transcendence from the commercial realities of its Napa surroundings.
It didn't last. While getting into my car, a woman walking by approached me. “Excuse me,” she asked, “do you have an unopened bottle of water?”
An unopened bottle of water. Somehow, the request seemed to embody all the entitlement and condescension that wine country is known for, and I had to wonder if the woman was among the people cheering earlier for Buddy Guy, who grew up drinking water out of the creek.