How to describe the wonderful world of BottleRock? Tucked into the heart of Napa’s wine country, BottleRock’s inaugural year drew more than 35,000 music lovers for a five-day extravaganza with wine, food, comedy, and a great lineup.
The festival kicked off Wednesday night at the Napa Valley Fairgrounds with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis headlining, then continued from 11am-11pm Thursday through Sunday with an incredible lineup of more than 80 artists, bands and performers, including; Kings of Leon, The Black Keys,Zac Brown Band, Furthur featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Jane’s Addiction, The Shins,The Avett Brothers,Train, The Flaming Lips, The Black Crowes, Cake, Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, Primus, Alabama Shakes, Jackson Browne, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, along with America’s hottest comics—Jim Gaffigan, Demetri Martin, Aasif Mandvi, Anthony Jeselnik, Tig Notaro, Jim Breuer, Greg Behrendt, Wyatt Cenac, Rob Delaney, Kristen Schaal, Bill Burr, J Chris Newberg, and Natasha Leggero (Whew! If you could recite that paragraph in one breath, go get yourself a cookie).
Entering BottleRock I was immediately struck with particular subculture of the place. The festival setting is one of freedom. A costume deemed unacceptable in a Starbuck’s line fits in perfectly at BottleRock. Barriers dissapate between strangers, and one can easily strike up conversation with other festivalgoers. The sounds of music and chatter fill the air, the smell of smoke lingers, the dust never settles and people dance in the streets. In the case of BotteRock, there was also a wealth of gourmet food and drink as Napa is famous for its delicous wine and healthy food. At BottleRock, artists, friends, and even the friendly worker handing out samples of Morning Star Veggie Burger, mingled to celebrate music, culture, food, and spring.
BottleRock contained three main stages, a fourth stage for local bands, and a comedy tent. All were within easy walking distance of each other, which made catching an impressive number of bands feasible.
I attended one day of the festivities, Friday, and while I was there I was impressed with the versatility of the acts. Playing on the biggest stage, the Willpower Stage, were Alabama Shakes, Vintage Trouble, the Shins and The Black Keys. Though The Shins were a bit of an outlier, the rest of the Willpower Stage bands had a rather soulful, bluesy quality to their rock and roll.
The Citi Bank Stage housed alternative bands—The Dirty Projectors, Andrew Bird and, headliners The Flaming Lips. These guys were a diverse group. The Dirty Projectors are comprised of a male singer and three talented, girl, harmonists. Andrew Bird is an excellent instrumentalist and one-man show. The Flaming Lips is a band known just as much for its dramatic, show theatrics as for its singing.
The smallest stage, the Miner Family Winery Stage, did, in fact, showcase more family friendly acts. Tristan Prettyman, Blues Traveller, and Justin Townes Earle played and Matt Nathanson headlined the evening. All were softer in sound with a mellow, beachy vibe.
The quality of the bands was as impressive as their sheer number. I found myself curious as to how the BottleRock planners organized the stage lineups since almost all the bands there could have sold out their own concert halls. The Black Keys headlined the Willpower Stage on Friday night, but Alabama Shakes or The Shins could have easily headlined as well. Vintage Trouble, a band I’d not heard of, will probably perform in front of sold out venues as its popularity grows to match the level of its talent. The friend who accompanied me to BottleRock had come mostly for The Flaming Lips and The Dirty Projectors—all the other bands were just gravy.
I had come to the festival under the pretext of enjoying great music and food, but mostly to see Alabama Shakes lead singer—Brittany Howard—perform music. She is one of the great new talents of our age. A mix of Janis Joplin soul and hard-core rock and roll, her voice swoops into high-pitched howls and digs into gravely low notes with equal finesse and originality (example of her unique and affecting performance style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HxNtWEIKhQ).
After Alabama Shakes my friend Johanna and I went to watch the Flaming Lips. Before the concert Johanna explained to me a bit about their appeal: “ These guys have been around forever. They are awesome. Wayne Coyne can walk on stage and literally do ANYTHING he wants to do. AS A JOB.”
She had not exaggerated. The theatrics were awesome. During their performance, the lead singer, Wayne Coyne, held a synthesizer shaped like a baby, reminding me of a deranged Mother Mary. He stood atop a silver structure that looked like a mound of foaming bubbles, behind a pulsating screen covered with strings of blue and white lights akin to jellyfish legs. He used a trumpet to blow red smoke onto the audience and periodically turned the bass up on his music so that the beats reverberated heavily throughout the audience.
I turned to Johanna who smiled at me. I, smiled back, albeit weakly, as I brushed at the smoke in front of my nose. Johanna remained happily entranced by The Flaming Lips. I, on the other hand, moseyed over to watch The Black Keys.
Here was real music. The pure twangs of guitar diffusing into the air. The words of The Black Keys lead singer, Dan Auerbach, reaching the audience as he held the microphone close. I swayed in time with the rhythmic beats of drum player Patrick Carney and enjoyed their cheeky, vintage rock and roll vibe. (Funny Black Keys music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpaPBCBjSVc live performance of the same song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZoEu3JT9J4)
I thought back to a moment during the Alabama Shakes concert when Brittany Howard, over slow guitar riff, talked to the audience. “My publicist says I need to reach out more.” She said in her booming voice. “She says I need to connect with yuh. So, today, today, I hope I have connected with yuh. I hope you enjoyed it, I hope we had a good time together.” After this speech she launched into a rendition of a song called “Thank You” and the crowd cheered. Her raw singing approach and her attempts to reach the audience hooked me. The Black Keys, in a similar style, played their music brazenly, nakedly, relying on the sounds of their instruments and voices to carry their truths. This more classical approach was an effective and extremely different performance from The Flaming Lips. Rather than being dazzled by a spectacle unfolding, I felt intimately connected to the artists. On particularly resonant lyrics I knew we were coming from the same place, The Black Keys and I.
Johanna preferred to watch the sci-fi psychedelics of The Flaming Lips unfold, I preferred to watch the blues inspired Black Keys sing with the wisdom of the ages.
Others, I knew, were lounging on a lawn relaxing to the clear voice of Matt Nathanson, and more were sitting around enjoying wine, fire-roasted pizza and a few lingering rays of sun as daylight faded and the stars began to shine. At the end of the day, as Brittany Howard had articulated, the artists and the audience had a common goal—to connect—and BottleRock, with its relaxed vibe, excellent food and great music selection made that goal possible.
photo credit: BottleRock Media Staff