The inaugural Bottle Rock Festival at the Napa Valley Expo was a huge success, bringing in just about 40,000 people to enjoy performances by some of today’s biggest names in live music and comedy. Synthesis writer/photographer Jack Knight and I arrived at about 5PM on Thursday to claim our media passes. Off in the distance we could hear The Black Crowes, dropping hits off their multi-platinum 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker. Upon entrance we were greeted by the main stage, AKA the WillPower Stage, an impressive sight that looked about the size of Whitney Hall. The gigantic video screens, located on both sides of the stage and dispersed throughout the food court, were perfectly synced with the live audio, making it so there wasn’t a single bad seat in the house.
After exploring the slightly smaller Citi Stage and the well-shaded Miner Family Winery Stage, we returned to the WillPower Stage to prepare for the imminent double-feature of The Avett Brothers and Primus, who would be performing simultaneously on neighboring stages.
This was probably my eighth time seeing the Avett Brothers live, and they were just as full of life as always. They opened with the mellower single, “Live and Die” off their latest album, The Carpenter, but then launched into more rowdy, foot-stomping classics such as “Paranoia in B Flat Minor.” Despite the “throw-and-go” nature of music festival sound checks, the mix was clean, successfully highlighting the driving, percussive element of Scott Avett’s banjo strumming.
After encountering some old Chico friends, I convinced one of them to accompany me to check out Primus. Unfortunately, no Tim Alexander on drums this time, but his replacement held it down just the same. Ler LaLonde left something to be desired with a somewhat uninspired guitar performance, but Les Claypool saved the day with his inimitable, comically engaging stage presence, and soon had the crowd eating out of his hand. The good Colonel gave praise to the festival organizers and expressed gratitude to them for taking the chance to host such an ambitious event, despite resistance from the powers-that-be. Additionally, he paid tribute to his grandfather who passed away that same morning at 5AM. With his grandfather’s image projected on the screen behind him, Claypool sang one of Grandpop’s favorite tunes while the rest of the band took a break. We headed back to catch the end of the Avett Brothers and then eventually ended up back at our camp after some downtown shenanigans involving a VIP bus we weren’t supposed to be on.
Friday we awoke to the sun blazing down on our camp. Jack’s survival skills came through as he strung up a tarp to provide some shade for us to relax beneath while we enjoyed our breakfast and a game of Munchkin (see Synthesis volume 19, issue 14). We returned to the WillPower Stage just in time for Alabama Shakes. As frontwoman Brittany Howard passionately belted out her emotive lyrics, I couldn’t help but think how much it reminded me of Lisa Valentine’s recent performance at Duffy’s Tavern. About halfway through the set, we made our way for the Citi Stage so as not to miss a single moment of The Flaming Lips.
Until a couple weeks ago when I saw Dr. Dog perform in Portland, The Flaming Lips were hands-down the best live act I’d ever witnessed, and they lived up to my expectations this year at Bottle Rock. Although they didn’t do the classic “ball thing,” where lead singer Wayne Coyne walks around on top of the crowd in a giant plastic bubble, they still delighted the audience with comparable stage theatrics. Coyne stood upon a giant, futuristic-looking podium that was connected to long, white tubes running down the back of the stage. As he sang, Coyne cradled a fake infant that was apparently connected to the tubes, creating a scene straight out of The Matrix. Between the potentially seizure-inducing light show and the psychedelic imagery projected onto the screen behind the band, the Lips were easily the most memorable act of the weekend.
When Friday night headliners The Black Keys took the stage, they were greeted by a sea of fans. At this point, the “VIP” area that Jack and I had previously enjoyed was overflowing with people who’d paid a premium price for what was supposed to be an enhanced, more comfortable Bottle Rock experience. Jack wormed his way to the photo pit just as the band began cycling through songs from their last three albums, including Jack’s personal favorite, “I’ve Got Mine.”
Early Saturday morning we rallied to make it in time for Best Coast. Although I had previously expressed doubts about the band being able to stay hot following their debut, Crazy For You, I was promptly force-fed my own words as lead singer Bethany Cosentino explored a medley of new tracks off The Only Place (produced by Jon Brion…bonus), all of which I found just as satisfying as the more-familiar material. A particularly poignant lyric Cosentino dug into that had the crowd chanting was, “I don’t want to be how they want me to be.” In some ways, Best Coast was my personal favorite of the weekend. Their stripped-down, garage-rock vibe was refreshing, and stood out from all the other acts we’d seen. About 40 minutes into their set, however, we realized how badly the sun was kicking our asses. I started to have flashbacks of Coachella and the next thing I knew, Jack and I were stumbling through the Bottle Rock Sahara in desperate search of some shade.
After fully recuperating with some lunch, we made our way to the Miner Family Winery Stage to catch Jackson Browne. His show at Laxson Auditorium in 2011 was by far the best solo performance I’d ever seen, and I was excited to see him for the first time performing with a full band. I made a joke to Jack, predicting that we’d arrive just in time for “Take It Easy,” complete with The Eagles’ version of the backup harmonies. As my prophecy came true, Jack made that face that only Jack can make, confirming that something awesome just happened. Browne then encored with a stellar version of “The Pretender,” the single that I coincidentally purchased on vinyl for a dollar at Amoeba Records a few weeks ago. Jackson Browne + music festival heat exhaustion = extrasensory perception/cosmic coincidences.
Next up was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The band was celebrated by its fans more enthusiastically than any other act I’d seen, giving new meaning to the term “cult following.” I was reminded of the band YACHT, whose music and mission have been described as a belief system. A highlight from the set was when lead singer Alex Ebert passed around his microphone throughout the audience. Without hesitation, some surprisingly self-assured audience members shared their stories of how they’d come to love the band.
Our festival weekend was coming to a close; we were dirty, and critically fatigued. Fortunately, Iron and Wine was up next, so we’d be able to relax to Samuel Beam’s breathy vocals and soothing melodies…at least, that’s what we thought. Instead, a full band complete with horn section took the stage and launched into rocking jams that were anything but mellow. A highlight for me was observing the horn players’ unintentionally hilarious dance moves. Whenever they took breaks from their instruments, they’d fall into a fairly complex set of synchronized steps that would dazzle even the likes of Synthesis receptionist/senior choreographer, Bethany Johnson.
Kings of Leon were closing out the night on the WillPower Stage, but the crowd had reached overwhelmingly claustrophobic levels, eliminating any chance of a good photo of the band. In anticipation of the imminent traffic disaster Napa was about to experience, we made a hasty escape via northern backcountry roads, avoiding I-80 and an evening of bumper-to-bumper torment.
Given that it was the first year Napa had ever hosted an event of such epic proportions, everything went better than expected. The dates have already been set for next year (May 9-11) and in all likelihood, whatever kinks were experienced at this year’s festival will be smoothed out come 2014. I hope to see you out there.