[24 May 2013]
It was a beautiful sun-drenched Thursday afternoon in the Napa Valley, as music fans poured into the area for the first day of the inaugural Bottlerock Festival. There was an eclectic music lineup along with a comedy stage and local food and beverage options, including an array of Napa Valley wine vendors. It all appears to have Bottlerock poised to become California’s next great festival.
Controversy popped up in the previous week when local heroes Furthur (featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead) had to back out of the evening’s main stage headliner slot due to Weir’s recent health problems. Rumors swirled throughout the week as to who might replace the band. The Rolling Stones were oft mentioned since they were in the Bay Area for shows in Oakland and San Jose. Pearl Jam was rumored as well since bassist Jeff Ament’s side project RNDM would play the festival on Saturday, while many felt the best solution would be for Lesh to to simply fill the slot with one of his ever popular Phil Lesh & Friends lineups.
Why the latter did not occur remains a mystery. In the end, Bottlerock merely moved the Avett Brothers from another stage into the main stage headliner slot following the Black Crowes. This was a somewhat puzzling and anti-climactic move to many. But there was still plenty of anticipated music to catch, especially with the Black Crowes making their first California appearance in two years.
The Bay Area’s own Moonalice got things going on the main stage with an early afternoon set of their bluesy psychedelic jams that sounded great in the warm Napa sunshine. Ace drummer John Molo was the anchor for Phil Lesh & Friends for many years, and guitarist Barry Sless also toured with Lesh’s band. Bassist Pete Sears is a longtime Bay Area music scenester, while guitarist/vocalist Roger McNamee came from the Flying Other Brothers. And how many bands have Jerry Garcia’s former personal roadie, Steve Parish, as an MC/storyteller? Moonalice brings decades of classic rock cred to the stage and it was readily apparent here, such as on tunes like “Summer Rain” with chords that recalled “Tangled Up in Blue” before a melodic jam. The band closed out their set with an extended jam where Sears was really tearing it up on a great sounding bass that he had apparently just re-acquired after some 35 years.
Los Angeles punk rockers X were rocking one of the secondary stages shortly thereafter, demonstrating that the Bottlerock lineup was targeted to a variety of genres. Among the first wave of American punk bands in the late ‘70s, the band’s debut album Los Angeles was produced by no less than Ray Manzarek of the Doors. The title track sounded great here with singer Exene Cervenka belting it out over a grungey wall of guitar from Billy Zoom and bassist John Doe. “World’s on Fire” was another high-energy highlight appropriate to the age of global climate change.
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The concept of the Earth’s welfare was in play throughout X’s set as Morningstar Farms served up free veggie burger samples in a food truck next to the stage. This was a boon for hungry fans who could sample three different varieties of veggie burgers in servings that were three-quarters of a burger. But Morningstar is a division of Kellogg Company, not an independent producer. This probably explains why the company’s soy products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are cheaper to produce than the alternative. But many in the global community warn against such foods since their effects on human health and the global food chain remain unknown at best. A number of petitions calling for a boycott of Morningstar have been launched in the past decade, which is food for thought for the conscious consumer. But at a festival, free food is generally going to rule the day.
Bottlerock was billed as not just a big fiesta but one that also aimed to help a number of causes with a portion of proceeds generated from a silent auction of classic rock collectibles and other donations targeted to benefit a variety of charities and non-profits. Set up in the air conditioned indoor pavilion, there were a variety of local organizations tabling and a few national ones. Global Zero was the most intriguing, with a goal of “a world without nuclear weapons”. The organization had a petition to President Obama calling for him to “negotiate further cuts to the massive U.S.-Russian Cold War stockpiles and pave the way to bringing world leaders into the first international negotiations in history for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.” A most worthy cause for those who oppose nuclear proliferation, and one that anyone can sign on to.
The regional music flavor continued on the main stage with another of the Bay Area’s own in ALO, who have been bringing their funky jams to the people for over a decade now. “Living in a Plastic Bubble” was a great mid-afternoon groove to get the crowd dancing. Guitarist Lebo, keyboardist Zach Gill, drummer Dave Brogan and pinch-hitting bassist Ron Johnson were in synch throughout the set, with the type of jammy chemistry that’s long been popular in Northern California. Gill even remarked at one point how Bottlerock seemed like just the place to do some extended jamming and this met with strong crowd approval. “Walls of Jericho” was a prime candidate for Bottlerock anthem with Gill singing about getting wasted and melting in the sun, while Lebo provided melty hot slide guitar licks.
Cocktail enthusiasts were assisted here by Deep Eddy Vodka, which was on hand from Austin, Texas for their California launch. Those who have visited Austin for the Austin City Limits or SXSW festivals were probably already familiar with Deep Eddy’s sweet tea vodka. The smoothly intoxicating beverage goes down especially easy in hot weather, in the basic format known as the “Skinny Dip” (sweet tea vodka with water and lemon). Akin to a hard iced tea, it was the perfect beverage for ALO’s hot set.
With overlapping sets, conflict inevitably arises at most festivals and so it did at Bottlerock. ALO fans could still catch the end of Delta Spirit’s set on the Miner Family Winery Stage, the most intimate of the the three music stages (and one which featured shade.) The San Diego band has been on a recent mission to show the world that they’re a fully modern rock and roll band, rather than just a rootsy Americana band as they’ve often been pegged. Material from the band’s eponymous third album achieved this goal, with a raucously rocking sound that entertained an enthusiastic crowd in the 4 o’clock hour.
The set conflicts continued with Joan Jett rocking another stage at the same time as Delta Spirit. The warm sunshine did not prevent Jett from appearing in her standard black leather outfit and she looked and sounded great. There’s few who have lived the rock star life for as much of their life as Jett, who co-founded seminal girl group the Runaways at the age of 15. There’s fewer still who have aged as well as Jett has. “Love is Pain” from Jett’s breakthrough I Love Rock and Roll album found the band in fine form, with the big guitar hooks drawing a big crowd. But anyone who wanted to see the Black Crowes hit the stage couldn’t stay long.
With Furthur off the bill, the Black Crowes were the main draw of the day for many attendees. Anticipation was extra high since the band had taken 2012 off, and was playing their first California show in some time. An amped up crowd packed the main field and the Crowes delivered in kind to kick Bottlerock into high gear. Singer Chris Robinson was in fine form throughout on a setlist that leaned heavily on the band’s early material, as well as on the ever-uplifting anthem “Soul Singing”.
Some were a tad bit skeptical of Jackie Greene as the band’s new lead guitarist, but that skepticism was short-lived. Greene became known as a talented singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist through his year on the road with Phil Lesh & Friends in 2007-08, as well as his own band. But he wasn’t known as a lead guitarist per se. Greene has clearly evolved his skills though, demonstrated here when he tore up the fretboard in a big jam on the band’s classic “Wiser Time”. He and guitarist Rich Robinson seemed to pair well throughout the set, with another extended jam on “Thorn in My Pride” soaring to lofty heights. Greene followed Chris Robinson’s big harmonica solo with another ripping guitar solo, while the band’s big groove had scantily clad ladies rocking out in the still warm early evening sun.
The Crowes went for a big finish with “Remedy” giving way to a smoking hot “Hard to Handle”, which then segued into the band’s smoking cover of Deep Purple’s “Hush” and back into “Hard to Handle” to close the show. This was the climactic type of festival set that would have served Bottlerock well in the closing slot.
There was still one more longtime Bay Area favorite to go and that was Les Claypool’s Primus with their 8 o’clock set. Claypool and company brought some far out psychedelic imagery to the stage on the screens behind them, as well as inflatable astronauts, which enhanced their freakout jams in fine fashion. The temperature dropped dramatically after the sun went down and the plentiful selection of red wine available made for a fine beverage choice here. Claypool was crushing the bass as usual, as well as entertaining the crowd with his traditionally wry sense of humor. He commented on how the Napa Valley has a reputation for sophistication due to the wine industry and asked guitarist Larry LaLonde to play his most sophisticated riff. LaLonde responded with an impressively sophisticated riff indeed, one that could keep guitar students busy for some time.
In the end, the first day of the first Bottlerock Festival was able to overcome the challenges presented and a fine time seemed to be had by all. Festival organizers wasted no time in announcing dates for the 2014 Bottlerock Festival in the following week, so it looks like the Northern California music scene’s many riches will only continue to grow.