BottleRock’s high heels, derby hats and ’90s vibe

Rocking Napa: After two questionable years, BottleRock Napa Valley seems to have found its groove.

The first edition was too massive, racking up $8 million in debt that festival organizers are still trying to repay. The second year’s lineup was a little lackluster, a little too ’90s.

But last weekend, roughly 100,000 people came out to Napa’s fairgrounds to see heavy hitters Imagine Dragons, Robert Plant, No Doubt and Snoop Dogg. All right, so the festival is still catering to that ’90s nostalgia pretty hard—but it worked. Sunday, which featured the latter two acts, completely sold out.

Buildings that had been knocked to pieces during last August’s 6.0-magnitude earthquake actually created more spacious grounds for this year’s festival-goers, who enjoyed shady lounge areas, art installations previously seen at Burning Man and a generally easy-to-navigate setup. It was family-friendly—there were a lot of families—with four stages, a luxurious wine selection and some great food. The audience leaned older—evidence of the lack of any electronic dance music acts—and fancier, with more high heels and billowing derby hats than I’ve ever seen at a dusty music festival.

New this year was a culinary stage built to compete with Outside Lands’ Gastromagic—and compete it did. It paired rock star chefs with actual rock stars in an emceed, entertaining and tight format. Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav schooled Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio on the art of fried chicken—which Voltaggio then paired with hot sauce ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, of course—and Snoop Dogg learned how to roll sushi from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

“I’m a great roller but I’ve never rolled this way,” Snoop said. Ha! Because cannabis! The jokes continued.

An absurd number of people huddled around the stage long before Snoop showed up—probably more than BottleRock organizers ever expected—which meant anyone who showed up late couldn’t see a thing and couldn’t hear a thing. Sound issues, sadly, plagued the culinary area all weekend.

Snoop’s own set moved through hits like “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Who Am I (What’s My Name?),” lots of covers—Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” House of Pain’s “Jump Around”—and even more weed references. Bob Marley’s “Jammin’” filled the festival as he walked off stage.

Best outfit of the weekend definitely goes to No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, who came out in a green silk track suit dotted with tigers, patent black combat boots and her platinum-blonde hair dipped in black. Her voice was as strong as ever, her dance moves admirably wild. Fans sung along to radio hits like “Hella Good,” “It’s My Life” and “Just A Girl” while horns blazed and Stefani took selfies with fans in the front row. Toward the end of the set, the big screens went black—a huge bummer for fans way out in the distance. Many left quickly, but many also stayed, not seeming to notice at all.

While Stefani literally dropped the mic at one point, Cage the Elephant’s Matthew Shultz threw his mic into the crowd on Friday. Such was his style.

Shultz flew and flailed across the stage, exhibited mad hops—at one point hopping onto his guitarist’s back—and skipped around shirtless with the childlike joy. “I feel like a warrior princess,” he squealed before diving into the crowd. Even without Shultz’s antics, Cage delivered the most energetic, memorable set of the weekend.

Powerhouse alt-rock band Young the Giant impressed as well, uniting thousands on one of the group’s oldest-ever songs, “Cough Syrup,” as well as its absurdly catchy single “My Body.” Newer songs off the sophomore record still haven’t seemed to stick too well, though.

Over on one of the smaller stages, those who didn’t care for the synthy stylings of Foster the People, Capital Cities and Passion Pit still found excellent, old-school sounds—longstanding funksters Lettuce, psychedelic rock band Chris Robinson Brotherhood and spirited soulful rockers Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds all delighted. But they didn’t delight quite as much as New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band—because honestly, who could? The only jazz act all weekend brought out a formidable crowd with formidable, feel-good dance moves.

And finally, Australia’s Courtney Barnett was a personal fave for her charming, deadpan delivery of smart, biting lyrics. She didn’t go over too well with the relatively sparse audience, though. Remember those heels and derby hats?

—Janelle Bitker