Prime for the prim: In its fourth year, BottleRock Napa Valley felt settled down.
After a turbulent, debt-inducing first year, promoter Latitude 38 took over the festival and, over the next two editions, massaged BottleRock’s identity into one synonymous with Napa itself. Now it’s time to think long term: BottleRock recently signed on with its venue Napa Valley Expo for 10 more years.
Compared to other major music festivals—and at a complete sellout with approximately 120,000 attendees, it definitely qualifies as major—BottleRock feels more cushy, bougie and relaxed. There are the finest of fine wines, a super-elite $3,000 VIP program, celebrity chef demos and an easy-to-navigate setting with shady patches of artificial grass. The crowd leans older, with more families, and whiter, with an absurd number of perfectly coiffed blond women in high heels. Even the BottleRock campgrounds included huge mirrors and outlets for hair curlers, straighteners and makeup sessions.
And the lineup aptly reflected the scene, with old-school greats like Stevie Wonder and Buddy Guy, as well as current radio hit-makers like Grouplove and Walk the Moon.
Opening day saw a fantastic early set by Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, the blues singer who won last year’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest. With a powerful presence and infectious enthusiasm, he seems poised to blow up any day now. On the flip side, Cold War Kids delivered a fairly lackluster performance to a crowd who, to be fair, really only wanted to hear “Hang Me Up To Dry.”
Stevie Wonder capped it off with a set of feel-good hits—“Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour”—and charming quirkiness. For example, he insisted on being called “DJ Chick Chick Boom.” The audience played along, and Wonder proceeded to deejay. It became a tribute to those who have recently passed—Prince, David Bowie, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire—and felt worthy, though far too long. Folks fled when the sing-along to “Hotel California” broke out, while the remaining spectators were eventually rewarded with “Superstition.”
Wonder also weaved politics into his set: “Please remember, you decide the future in your hands. … Prejudice and hate is unacceptable.” Toward the end of his set, he clarified his position: “Personally, I think it’s time for a woman, but do what you gotta do.”
On Saturday, the smallest stage saw a gem in Son Little, a Philadelphia-based neo-soul artist. He doesn’t quite fall in line with the revivalist movement led by Sharon Jones and Leon Bridges, rather, Son Little sounds more gritty, bluesy and experimental. On quieter, practically a capella songs like “Lay Me Down,” his raw voice silenced the shade-dwellers nearby.
On the main stage, Death Cab for Cutie drew a massive crowd, though many seemed disappointed to learn the ’90s-born band has, in fact, written new material since Plans. Regardless, the indie band’s performance paled in comparison to the almighty, theatrical Florence + the Machine.
With her long, red hair and flowy, golden gown, singer Florence Welch looked like a fairy princess prancing back and forth across the stage. From the outfit to the glittery backdrop to the warm backlighting, every moment was seamlessly choreographed and aestheticized. During “Delilah,” off her Grammy-nominated album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Welch thrashed around to strobe lights, transforming into a self-possessed ghost haunting us all. During the thundering “What Kind of Man,” her silhouette dramatically beat itself until it fell to the floor.
The festival closed on Sunday with a memorable set by gypsy-punk outfit Gogol Bordello, so frenzied and raucous that a few proper folks got dragged into quite possibly the festival’s only mosh pit. The Lumineers delivered the stomps and claps with their massive hit “Ho Hey,” before headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers sounded in fine form, particularly considering singer Anthony Kiedis’ recent health problems. He was hospitalized earlier in May with intestinal flu, canceling a performance just two weeks before BottleRock. No matter how he sounded, fans were stoked to see him at all.