Napa Valley’s Three-Day Event Sets the Stage Ablaze with Great Music
To paraphrase Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corrigan, BottleRock is most definitely a top-shelf music festival. Yes, the crowds at this annual Memorial Day weekend extravaganza are massive — more than 40,000 people per day invaded the Napa Valley Expo May 26-28 (that’s close to half the population of Santa Barbara to give you some scale) — but the talent on stage is equally massive.
Here’s a recap.
The first day’s headliners included the aforementioned Corrigan and the Smashing Pumpkins, who gave a full throttle, pedal-to-the-metal, balls-to-the-wall, pulse-quickening performance that most 50-somethings can only dream of pulling off, featuring a playlist of mostly old favorites like “1979,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” and “Silverfuck,” as well as newer songs like “Empires,” from the 2022 album ATUM-Act I & II. One of many highlights: an amusing cover of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” that sounded nothing like David Byrne.
Also on the bill that same night (and unfortunately at the same time) was Post Malone, who my friend Misty (and many others) ranked as one of the top shows of the weekend. Sadly I missed out on Posty, but the Pumpkins were worth it in my book.
Another highlight from day one was Bastille, an indie British band whose strong lead vocalist Dan Smith added the beautiful voice of backing vocalist Bim Amoako to the mix for extra oomph. They made an excellent pair, and she even took on lead vocal duties on a cheeky cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” — quite a departure from Bastille’s sad/happy songs like “Good Grief,” Pompeii,” and “Things We Lost in the Fire.”
I also really enjoyed a set by Jean Dawson, who brought a super random juxtaposition of sweetness and scary to the stage. He looked like a full gangsta-rapper-style dude with a grill, bandana, etc., and then played in front of videos of Teletubbies. He even pulled a little girl (maybe 12 years old) up on stage with him to sing along and play the maracas for a while. This is the kind of thing you (or at I) only get at festivals, and it’s so much fun to see what surprises are in store from stage to stage.
There were 22 bands in all that day, including S.B. Bowl favorite Billy Strings, Thievery Corporation, Peter Cat Recording Co., The Airborne Toxic Event, Phantogram, Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs, War, and The Stone Foxes, among others.
As I wrote earlier, they had me at Lizzo. She’s an incredible performer and her show was the absolute highlight of BottleRock for me. She owned that crowd from the moment she strutted on stage in her black leather catsuit with the curve-emphasizing green lace-up accents — joined by a fabulous five-piece, all-female band, three backup vocalists, and nine backup dancers she calls the Big Grrrls — she performed her long list of hits, including “About Damn Time,” “Juice,” and “Truth Hurts,” along with a terrific cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” I heard she played Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” a couple days before in Phoenix, so I was hoping she would do a repeat of the song in honor of the late performer, but sadly she didn’t, which was probably my only disappointment in a truly stellar evening.
Lizzo is such a natural born superstar — she oozes so much charisma and talent, but is also so authentically herself — not to mention her unapologetic self love and sex positivity, that her joyful performance was something that truly transcended her show into a completely different realm than a typical concert. I got a little teary watching a trans teenager and their two moms dancing it out to Lizzo’s show together. She’s just that kind of an amazing performer, and it was just that kind of a night.
That day wasn’t too shabby either. While we missed Duran Duran playing on a competing stage (there were 27 bands playing that day), I was able to catch Leon Bridges, Lupe Fiasco, and Carly Rae Jepson on Saturday. I also saw Dogstar, Keanu Reeves and his band of buddies who were adorable and sounded like, well, Keanu Reeves and his band of buddies.
Among my other highlights of Saturday was an opportunity to hang out at the JaMPad, a special club-like venue from JaM Cellars, the winery who is the main sponsor of the event. I sat about six feet away from singer Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael Jackson), who did a short, angsty, coffeehouse-girl-and-her-guitar set, and then was completely blown away by Mac Saturn, a Detroit-based band with some 70s Rolling Stones meets Greta Van Fleet vibes. They are currently opening on tour for the Struts (who had a fun mainstage set on Sunday) but I wouldn’t be surprised if we start hearing about Mac Saturn headlining shows on their own soon. I was tempted to text Moss Jacobs myself, but I figured they’re probably already on his radar.
Another embarrassment of riches. In terms of the headliners, I recently saw Los Lobos at the Lobero, so although I love the wolves, I decided to check out the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and damned if they aren’t still smoking! I’m always a little worried they won’t live up to their past glory when I see my old favorite bands from my younger days, but the Chili Peppers are still one of the most exciting live bands that I’ve ever seen, running and bouncing all over the stage like guys half their age.
Anthony Kiedis looked a little like Spock with short black hair and a day-glow green tunic top, but his voice, enthusiasm and pure star quality were just as sexy and appealing as ever. And Flea, on bass, is still an acrobatic wildman up there, backed by Chad Smith on drums and John Frusciante as fabulous as ever on the guitar. They did an awesome set that included “Around the World,” “Snow (Hey Oh),” “Black Summer,” “Californication,” “Give it Away,” and my personal favorite, “Under the Bridge.”
Because of the time conflict with the Chili Peppers, I was only able to catch a few Lil’ Nas X songs, but boy does he make a sassy, spicy, show-stopping first impression. Between the sexy, scantily clad costumes and dancers, and the fun meshing of hip-hop, pop, and country music, he’s definitely a performer I want to see again.
Other day three highlights for me were Sheryl Crow, whose well-earned Wonder Woman t-shirt got a workout as the tiny dynamo with the big pipes sang and strummed her way through almost all of her classics, including “Strong Enough,” “All I Wanna Do,” “My Favorite Mistake,” and “Soak Up the Sun.”
With 74 bands in total to choose from over the three-day weekend, I could have easily created a completely different and still enjoyable playlist, as I’m sure many others did. There were so many aura delights to be found that despite listening to music from noon until after 10 p.m. each day, I still barely scratched the surface.
The Rest of the Fest
That being said, I would be remiss in not reporting at least a little about the bounty of food and drink at BottleRock. We were in Napa Valley after all, and the many fabulous wineries pouring included title sponsor JaM Cellars, as well as Caymus Vineyards, The Duckhorn Portfolio, Miner Family Winery, Emmolo Wines, Schramsberg Vineyards, Silverado Vineyards, Mumm Napa, Robledo Family Winery, ACUMEN, Anarchist Wine Co., Oberon Wines and Art House Wines. There were also more than 40 different beers on tap, and loads of artisanal cocktails made with top-shelf spirits including Ketel One Vodka, Don Julio Tequila, Hendrick’s Gin, Aperol, Monkey Shoulder Scotch Whisky, Bulleit Bourbon, Captain Morgan, and Baileys Irish Cream — all of whom had cleverly themed and sometimes quite elaborate booths to visit. On the non-alcoholic side, Liquid Death (a hip canned water brand) had its own club, complete with a D.J. and dance floor, Tarot Card readings, tattoos, and other fun accouterments.
The food itself was also really good, with big name restaurants like Morimoto Asia, La Toque, Goose & Gander, Nash & Proper, and about 40 more serving up incredible fare.
Another highlight for me was the Williams Sonoma Culinary stage, which brought out celebrity chefs and celebrities together to cook on the spot. Cooking bigwigs like José Andrés, Giada De Laurentiis, Aarón Sánchez, and the Voltaggio Brothers were joined by musicians Lil Nas X, John Taylor & Roger Taylor of Duran Duran, Wu-Tang Clan, Sammy Hagar, Bastille, Tré Cool of Green Day, Dogstar featuring Bret Domrose, Robert Mailhouse & Keanu Reeves, and Dancer Derek Hough, among others. If the music itself wasn’t so tasty, I definitely would have spent a lot more time at the culinary stage.
BottleRock music festival was a sensory feast of sights and sounds, fun and festivities. It’s truly an adrenaline-fueled rush of entertainment of the highest order. The crowds were friendly and mostly very well behaved — there was grass all over the place rather than the dusty fields of many festivals — and the food and the wine were top notch. It really is a first class festival experience. That being said, the whole event was still tempered by the unavoidable inconveniences of being surrounded by so much humanity.
Am I too old for this stuff was a question I asked both before, during, and after the festival. My conclusion: not quite. Being able to watch so many incredible artists in one place in just a few days is worth all of the inconveniences — but I definitely had to hang up my tiara in order to really enjoy it all to the fullest!
Tickets are now on pre-sale for next year’s BottleRock, which takes place May 24-26, 2024. Click here to access the information.
This story originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Independent on June 3, 2023.