Fest fatigue

Good music and soul-crushing lines at BottleRock

Muse’s explosive finale at BottleRock.

Muse’s explosive finale at BottleRock.

Photo courtesy of BottleRock Napa Valley

BottleRock Napa Valley, May 25-27

Perhaps we’ve reached peak music festival. There are fewer stadium-worthy acts being born these days, and there’s a shrinking number of bands that would typically get top billing at major festivals. Case in point: One of last year’s headliners at BottleRock Napa Valley—Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—isn’t around anymore. (And good luck filling those shoes.)

The closed circuit can leave seasoned festival-goers with a sense of having seen it all. Two of this year’s headliners at BottleRock—The Killers and Muse—have been playing prominent slots at festivals all over the world for well over a decade. If not for BottleRock’s closing-night headliner, Bruno Mars, this might as well have been a lineup from 2008.

But those world-beating bands still have a massive draw, as my girlfriend, Abby, and I discovered over Memorial Day weekend (May 25-27) at the music, wine and food festival in Napa. She was most excited for The Killers; I was there for Muse.

Friday’s chilly weather must have suppressed the traffic and crowds, because we easily entered the festival and made a bee-line for the Midway Stage—one of the smaller-scale venues scattered around the grounds—where we caught Shakey Graves, a totally bitchin’ guitar-picker from Austin, Texas. (Check out his new album, Can’t Wake Up.) Then we drank wildy expensive beer and watched performances by ’70s R&B/soul legends Earth, Wind & Fire and alt-rock heavyweights Incubus, both solid.

The main attraction on the first night was Muse, the long-running British rock band known for its over-the-top stage shows. And it was on a warpath, pairing heavy-metal songs such as “The Handler” and “Stockholm Syndrome” with brain-frying sci-fi visuals. Frontman Matt Bellamy coaxed all sorts of absurd sounds out of his space-age guitar while simultaneously pushing his falsetto voice into operatic territory, and the show culminated with a sky-high explosion of confetti and streamers. We were blown away.

The second day of the festival was more of a pain. The sunshine came out, and so did every 19-year-old within a 250-mile radius; the demographic skewed younger, louder and drunker, the crowds swelled and the lines became soul-crushingly long. It took an hour and a half just to clear security and enter the festival grounds. It was the worst.

We overhead several people speculating that BottleRock’s organizers must have oversold the festival, and we could only agree. It was so difficult to navigate the crowds that we decided to post up in front of the main stage for Billy Idol and The Head and the Heart to ensure we’d be in a better position for The Killers. When the headliners started, frontman Brandon Flowers appeared in a slick pinstripe suit, flashing a pearly white smile, striking grand poses and generally hamming it up. He’s a captivating, Vegas-style showman, but it was sometimes difficult to hear his voice over the legions of screaming girls on hits like “Mr. Brightside” and “All These Things That I’ve Done.” As The Killers took their encore, Flowers reappeared in a gold suit covered in sequins and brought the house down with “When We Were Young.”

But the most poignant moment of the evening came when the band played a spot-on cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Not only was Flowers emotional about Petty’s death, but it was a reminder that, as the dinosaurs of classic-rock go extinct, festival organizers are running out of bands that will keep us in line for $12 Coronas. Given our aggravating experience on Saturday—we ended up skipping the final day of the festival—maybe that’s OK.