BottleRock Napa Valley delivers festival primed for the prim

Stevie Wonder // Latitude 38

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 sell-out with approximately 120,000 attendees, it definitely qualifies as major now—BottleRock feels more cushy, bougie and relaxed. There’s the finest of fine wines, a super-elite $3,000 VIP program, celebrity chef demos and an easy-to-navigate setting with lots of shady astroturf. The crowd leans older, with more families, and whiter, with an absurd number of perfectly coiffed blonde women in high heels. Even the BottleRock campgrounds included huge mirrors and outlets for hair curlers, straighteners and full-blown 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.

BottleRock’s “Culinary Garden” // Janelle Bitker

Fantastic Negrito // Janelle Bitker

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. He said “I love you” over and over and over again; tested out a new vocal exercise; cheerfully admitted when he messed up; and 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, Earth Wind & Fire—and felt worthy and sweet, though way too long. Folks fled when the singalong to “Hotel California” broke out, while the rest were eventually rewarded with “Superstition.”

Wonder 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 crowd leaned younger for a day stacked with pop and indie rock. 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.

Florence + the Machine // Latitude 38

With her long red hair and flowy, golden gown, 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 prim and proper folks got dragged into quite possibly the festival’s only mosh pit. The Lumineers led thousands into a singalong with their massive hit “Ho Hey,” before headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage.

Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello // Latitude 38

Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers // Latitude 38

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.

And, of course, it’s not BottleRock without food. The options increased this year, with nearly 60 vendors in all—not quite Outside Lands territory, but getting there. There were jerk chicken baos, cheesy empanadas, ahi poke and Indian burritos, but my favorite was the kimchi-topped burger from Morimoto. The patty was treated katsu-style—panko-breaded and fried—and so juicy, it felt like slurping up a soup dumpling.

Gordon Ramsay // Janelle Bitker

The culinary stage grew this year, both in physical size and scope. Big-name chefs Gordon Ramsay of Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef and Tyler Florence of several Food Network shows all drew big crowds, as did the sillier bookings like San Francisco’s Chris Consentino preparing smoked foods for Cheech and Chong. But only Ramsay actually made people cry—and not because of his notorious temper. One teary eyed fan stumbled away, shouting, “I ate his food!” before sobbing some more.

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