Megan Thee Stallion performs at BottleRock Napa Valley festival on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Estefany Gonzalez)
BottleRock has a reputation as a luxury experience curated for wealthy Napa wine drinkers, with past lineups consisting mostly of older rock acts and some pop sprinkled in. Yet this year's edition, held Sept. 3-5 at the Napa Valley Expo, marked a turning point for the festival.
BottleRock 2021 saw many changes, and not just because of pandemic safety measures. More than that, it featured artists we might expect to see at niche festivals like Noise Pop and Rolling Loud. Miley Cyrus, Big Freedia and Brandi Carlile held prominent time slots on the bill and showcased queer representation across multiple genres. There was a new emphasis on hip-hop and rap acts, including Digable Planets, Run The Jewels and G-Eazy.
It’s hard to say whether it was pandemic concert deprivation or a fresh take on the lineup that packed the crowds at BottleRock this year. But one thing is for sure: it felt like a triumphant comeback for live music in the Bay Area.
Megan Thee Stallion Celebrates Hot Girl Summer
Megan Thee Stallion’s performance on Sunday, Sept. 5, drew a crowd of “hotties” ( as the Houston rapper calls her fans) who saw her as the true headliner of the night and chanted her name long before she took the stage. The Verizon Stage was just as packed, if not more so, than the main JaM Cellars Stage where Foo Fighters closed out the night.
Despite playing for less than her scheduled 90 minutes, Megan Thee Stallion and her dancers made up for the lost time with their performance. Dressed in a black matching two-piece ensemble, Megan played hit after hit and delivered a show that made it worth getting stuck in traffic on the way out. She performed radio favorites “Savage,” “Hot Girl Summer” and “WAP,” her collab with Cardi B. The set also included classics like “Big Ole Freak” from 2018’s Tina Snow for her longtime fans.
Full of sex-positive songs that embrace bodies of different shapes and sizes, the set was a power-packed performance that turned the tables on some of the misogynistic rap songs played earlier at the festival.
The Highwomen Save the Day
The Highwomen proved the Friday, Sept. 3, headline slot on the JaM Cellars stage wasn’t cursed (and saved the festival from a year of all-male headliners) after Chris Stapleton canceled at the last minute. The original BottleRock lineup featured Stevie Nicks as Friday’s headliner, and Stapleton was set to take her place after the Fleetwood Mac songstress canceled her 2021 live appearances because of COVID concerns.
The Highwomen only have one full-length album, and had less than a day to put a show together, but Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris (who were already on Friday’s bill) called up the other half of their all-star band and took on the headline slot. The only hitch? Amanda Shires had recently undergone surgery and couldn’t make it. Thankfully, Natalie Hemby and a friend of The Highwomen, Brittney Spencer, were able to rush to Napa just in time to close out the night.
Carlile, who played an extended set and had less than an hour between gigs, admitted that this was The Highwomen’s second performance to date. Yet, backed by members of both Carlile’s and Morris’ bands, the supergroup gave Napa a healthy dose of country music.
Big Freedia Brings the Dance Party
Earlier that Friday, Big Freedia treated BottleRock attendees to a flawless performance. Wearing a dazzling purple jumpsuit and equipped with backup dancers, the “queen diva” turned the Truly Stage into the biggest dance party of BottleRock weekend, silent disco included. The set marked the start of Big Freedia's first tour back since COVID-19, and featured a makeshift imaginary catwalk on stage that had the crowd cheering during “Strut.” The set also included popular songs “Judas” and “Karaoke” featuring Lizzo.
The biggest highlight of Big Freedia’s set came during “Azz Everywhere,” a song during which she normally invites fans on stage. Instead, the New Orleans performer asked fans to join her for a “COVID edition” of the song and asked the audience to put their hands on the metal barricade near the stage while Big Freedia twerked along with her fans. She even adapted the song lyrics to “hands on the rail, hands on the rail.”
The First Run The Jewels Show in Three Years
After releasing a new album during the height of the pandemic, it was clear Run The Jewels couldn’t wait to perform RTJ4 live for the first time. “I’m so happy to be the fuck out here,” Killer Mike told the crowd at BottleRock on Saturday, Sept. 4.
His partner in crime, El-P, admitted it was Run The Jewels’ first show in three years. But by the end, the pair delivered a performance that felt as though no time had passed. The crowd was ready to hear the songs too. Many repeated the words back to the duo. Others jumped along to the beat.
The pair flowed off each other seamlessly between “ooh la la,” “holy camalafuck” and “out of sight.” Danceable numbers aside, Killer Mike took a moment to note the pain many experienced during this pandemic at the end of the set. “We are all human beings,” he told the crowd before closing with the track “a few words for the firing squad.”
Jessie Reyez, Jon Batiste Stun with Powerhouse Vocals
Jessie Reyez might not be a household name, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard her music. Her set included a celebration of her first hit as a songwriter, “One Kiss,” which Reyez penned for Dua Lipa and dedicated to all the “dreamers” out there chasing their passions. But her own songs were the real gems, particularly “Sola,” a soft, acoustic track Reyez sang in Spanish alongside her guitarist Heather, about not fitting the mold of a good Latin woman.
Shortly after, Jon Batiste played for the biggest crowd at the smaller Plaza Stage all weekend. Many know Batiste as the bandleader of Stay Human, the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Ever the showman, Batiste graced the crowd in royal blue sequins and a silver space cape that matched his backing band’s colorful wardrobe. A classically trained musician, Batiste wowed the crowd by switching between vocals, piano and melodica.
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