Photos by Ana Gibert
I’ve been covering music festivals for 14 years (Coachella, Bonnaroo, Americana, SXSW, etc.), but BottleRock goes the extra mile—or two. Wine, food and song got equal billing at this unique festival in Napa, CA, home of the American wine industry and next-door-neighbor to the American food revolution, arguably centered in the Bay Area. I’m used to top-notch music, but BottleRock featured food and wine to the degree that I have not seen at any other festival. The headliners included Maroon Five, Tom Petty, the Foo Fighters, Sterling Vineyards and Momofuku. Even the garbage was special.
In its fourth year at the fairground in downtown Napa, BottleRock boasted five stages and attendance of some 40,000 per day, but compared to other festivals, it felt less chaotic. There were plenty of places to sit, many food and wine vendors, tables, plenty of opportunity to get out of the sun, and a spa tent where people could just chill. The main stage could be a little claustrophobic, but otherwise, there was no wait for anything. The only issue was probably parking—people were staying in Vallejo, 15 or 20 miles away and carpooling in. Otherwise, the site was perfect.
The selection of music not only included platinum-selling artists from the current and past four decades (Modest Mouse, The Roots, Mavis Staples, Ani DiFranco, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, The Roots, Band of Horses, Fitz & The Tantrums, Dirty Heads, Live, The Devil Makes Three, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, Mavis Staples, Highly Suspect, Elephant Revival…on and on), but the variety was interesting, with a little bit of everything (not too much rap/hip hop, except House of Pain, kind of Baby Boomer pop rap).
Tracksuit Wedding blew the crowd away with incredible rockin’ blues, ditto St. Lucia, whose frontman alternately leapt in the air and lay down on the stage, and both those bands’ sets were packed. The Redwoods, wearing ornate masks, delivered ethereal ambient sounds, and this show featured guest Kristy Walker, with outstanding vocals, and even a band from Sweden treated us to really good blues.
Canadians, the Strumbellas, in particular, got the crowd pumping, and lead humorist and keyboard player Dave Ritter did not disappoint. Neo-folk, alt-country or whatever you want to call them, these guys rock, despite song titles like “Born to Be Mild.”
Other festivals feature greasy fried food, but none was to be found here; instead we feasted on food from Napa’s best restaurants: Cole’s Chop House, Mustards Grill, Morimoto—let’s face it, you don’t normally get four-star sushi at a festival. Full disclosure: many items ran $18, but attendees got their money’s worth, which is not always the case at music events. Virtually every Napa winery was represented—some 50 of them—charging about $8 for a glass of wine. BottleRock even ran the tents differently: patrons bought a glass of wine, then they could go into the tent where there was plenty of places to sit.
BottleRock drew a relatively affluent, educated demographic, with most attendees between the ages of 30 and 50, though a strong contingent of people in their 20s joined in. I remarked on one young guy’s custom winery hat, and he replied, “Oh my grandpa owns such-and-such a winery.” Absent the student, camper and biker crowds, the emphasis was on “comfortable.”
On one culinary stage underneath a tent, the Williams Sonoma Stage, bands partnered with chefs, cooking, just like on a cooking show. Packed at all times, that area was a smash hit, especially Michael Franti, who proved to be as charismatic wielding a spoon as a mic.
Notably, BottleRock has a commitment to sustainability. They don’t just have recycling trash cans, they had people helping you dispose of the trash: trash monitors separating things for you. The tableware was a step up from the ordinary, consisting of well-designed bamboo, with each vendor offering their own particular plates and glasses—all disposable.
Even the press area was the best I’ve ever seen: four-star restaurant Morimoto catered our press area. We had beer and really nice wines, with an unlimited open bar for three hours, and the food was yummy: I had some delicious turkey and Hawaiian ahi poki, and everything was just-harvested fresh. We had plenty of space, electricity hookups, Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning. The press people made sure everyone had plenty of water at all times. I was like, Damn!
Sum up: I’m paid to photograph festivals, but believe it or not, I might actually pay to attend this festival. It’s a four-star event.