What a difference a day makes. This year, I attended the first two of three days of the mega music festival BottleRock Napa Valley. It’s the largest event ever to hit the heart of Napa, CA, the still small-feeling town that somehow agreed to again host the event after last year’s famed financial turmoil and logistical woes ranging from crowd control to noise complaints. This year, a new organizer and scaled-down offerings tried to keep the peace, and they succeeded-mostly.
Day One- May 30:
The weather was the first surprise of the weekend; Friday offered a cool, even breezy afternoon that turned to a chilly evening. Four stages played to 24 bands throughout the day. It was a relatively calm affair that likely saw far less attendees as maybe organizers had hoped. For the most part, the logistical aspects of food and drink lines and bathroom cleanliness was kept in good order, and I saw many festival goers themselves helping to throw away garbage and just be generally decent. Maybe Headliners like the Cure and Sublime with Rome(the guy, not the city) simply brought out equal parts of older and more sedated fans who were content to throw down blankets and relax. Either way, lots of great music happened throughout. Jewish rapper and reggae star Matisyahu delivered an effortless and nicely rocking set of smooth jams and authentic beats, many from his upcoming album, “Akeda,” out on Tuesday, June 3. TV on the Radio wowed me with a continuously intensifying set of their eclectic indie rock and soulful electro pop. Gin Blossoms made the Napa County fairgrounds very “county fair” feeling with their set, but all had a great time. Overall, crowds seemed to not know or care about how much has been made (most of it in jest) of the crop of 90’s radio rock leftovers that filled out the lineup. They sang right along with “Follow You Down” and clapped, mostly in time, with the band through their back catalogue of, ahem, lesser known hits.
The Cure really was the gem of this show for me. They are a longtime favorite of mine, yet I’ve only been able to see them live twice before, and it’s been 7 or 8 years since the last time. They were amazing. No way around it. They sounded great, and their setlist was a mash of surprises and staples from their 30 plus years of new wave post punk emo goth melodic pop angst. Robert Smith’s hair was a glorious tangled web of aquanet and Napa winds and Simon Gallup’s tight denim and slicked back hair still make him look like he stepped out of a 1982 Clash video. It was sight to behold. The Cure opened with “Shake Dog Shake,” a surprise choice off their 1985 album, The Top. They played for 2 and a half hours with hits old and new, and I realized how much I do in fact like their more recent material, pitch perfect pops songs and raw, soaring rock riffs. Smith also allowed himself to show off a playful side, dancing and making faces throughout the set, they and everyone else was having the time of their lives. It was only when the festival had to cut the power at 10pm (a price to pay for hosting your outdoor fest in a Napa neighborhood) that the Cure finally left the stage, and only after the crowd of perhaps ten thousand helped Smith finish singing the band’s encore of “Why Can’t I Be You?”
All in all, a nice easy festival experience that I looked forward to repeating again with BottleRock Day 2. I had no idea what I was about to experience.
Day Two- May 31:
“Third Eye Blind can suck my dick.”
Of all the things that I could not have expected happening on BottleRock day 2, Smash Mouth lead singer Steve Harwell talking mad shit about his apparent rivals has to be at the top. You see, these two 90’s rock throwbacks were playing at the same time on Saturday, only one was one the Main Stage, and one wasn’t. Guess who wasn’t. Still, Smash Mouth rocked the house like I could never have expected. I was having fun, dammit! At a Smash Mouth set! My God, I had to get out of there! But I could barely move, suddenly finding myself in the middle of a horde of festival goers packing us tighter and tighter with every song. And then it hit me, there’s a shit-ton of people here today!
Estimates on Saturday were leveled at around 30,00 festival goers. Now, Friday could not have had more than ten thousand attendees, but this day was different. The whole vibe of Saturday was opposite that of Friday. It looked like a younger crowd, beefier, more apt for alcohol. Beer and wines lines were a dozen deep by 2pm, twice that by 4pm. The food trucks felt the pinch as wait times for orders hit a half hour. Bathrooms got gritty. The whole thing got gritty. Suddenly, people were competing for space, competing for views. There was a tension in the air, at least on my radar.
The day started out well enough, Petaluma band Trebuchet played a fun set of folk rock with great harmonies and cute little ukuleles. Brooklyn indie duo Matt & Kim were the highlight of the early afternoon, running out to meet the crowd from the main stage and practically beaming throughout their energetic and hip set of synth rock. Drummer Kim Schifino’s smile infected the whole crowd, and I’ve rarely witnessed a duo able to get a party going more effectively than these two. L.A. noise punks No Age blew out some eardrums, but sounded awesome on the smaller stage, right before Smash Mouth started taking jabs and downing drinks that weren’t Coca-Cola. After that, the mood seemed to change, couples were bickering more around me. People were stumbling, either from not eating right or not hydrating enough in the sun after drinking heavy craft beers and strong Napa wine. I started to watch my step, if you know what I mean.
But, I’ve totally buried the lead here. Day 2’s headliner was the recently reunited hip hop dream team of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, aka Outkast. The duo have been headlining all the festivals lately, and the general consensus is that they were the big “get” of BottleRock this year, playing it over other major Bay Area festivals like Outside Lands. They were crazy, introduced to the audience in a giant glass case like Magneto at the end of that first X-Men movie. Soon enough, they escaped their confines to perform a blistering, dizzying and all-out electrifying set of hits. The other big evening act was classic rock sister act Heart. Let me tell you, Anne and Nancy Wilson still got it. They sounded amazing, looked spectacular, it was a rock and roll show every step of the way. They, too, got the cut-off treatment at 10pm. But that slight wasn’t nearly as bad as when attendees tried to get out of the festival that night, as 30,00 people attempted to form ONE line that led to shuttles taking folks to the parking areas located out of town. I got the bright idea to leave a little bit early, and still took a good 45 minutes to go from festival gate to car door. I heard reports of people waiting three hours, and fights breaking out over line cutting and such. Not a good way to end the day.
I’m actually glad that I did not get to go to the third and final day of Bottlerock. I know there’s some great acts playing, like Deerhunter and Thee Oh Sees; there’s also some horrible bands playing, like Spin Doctors and Barenaked Ladies. It would have been awesome to see LL Cool J if for no other reason than to say you did it. But, after two long days of escalating madness, its best I stay out of wonderland this last day. I must say it was much more fun than I anticipated, although I knew for a fact I was going to love the Cure already (biased reporting I know, sue me). Would I try it again next year? Maybe, we’ll have to see the lineup. If you can get Crash Test Dummies to come out for 2015, you’ve got my ticket already spoken for.