Bottlerock Festival Battles For Long-term Viability

The middle day of the festival on Saturday featured a strong draw for the rock ‘n' roll crowd.

Photo: Heart at the Bottlerock Festival by Wes Jones.

The second annual Bottlerock Festival returned to Napa Valley under new management, but featured an atmosphere similar to last year’s breakout event. Warm sunshine abounded and there’s certainly no other festival with as many wine vendors. Bottlerock also stepped up the beer selection this year with an Anchor Steam booth where the venerable San Francisco brewery offered up each of their various beer styles including their lager, IPA and new saison. The food court featured a plethora of regional selections as well, but of course festival value always boils down to the music lineup.

Bay Area music fans were in debate about the worthiness of the overall three-day lineup, but the middle day of the festival on Saturday featured a strong draw for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd. Jamrockers like Tea Leaf Green and Blues Traveler were on hand along with ‘90s alt-pop-rock icons Third Eye Blind and Weezer. The classic rock heroes of Heart headlined the second largest stage with a triumphant performance, opposite of OutKast, 2014’s apparent festival headliners du jour.

San Francisco’s Tea Leaf Green kicked the party into gear with a mid-afternoon set of high octane rock ‘n roll featuring material from 2013’s adventurous In the Wake LP. Guest vocalist Lesley Grant joined the band on “Give Me One More Chance”, as she does on the album, for a great duet with keyboardist Trevor Garrod on the infectious romantic number that probably would have been a huge hit if MTV still had the cultural reach it did 20 years ago. “Space Hero II” was another highlight, with guitarist Josh Clark melting face on a fiery psychedelic jam that won a huge cheer from the crowd.

It seemed like Bottlerock had everything dialed in just right until Third Eye Blind hit the main stage in front of a huge audience. Some consider the band a guilty pleasure, but singer Stephan Jenkins and his band flat out rock in the live setting. They’ve also got a catalog of hits to fill a set with sing-along faves. But the impact of the band’s guitar-driven sound was disappointingly diminished by the weak sound system at the main stage. A quest to find a sweet spot with appropriate volume ended unfulfilled, not even by the soundboard. Hence what should have been a killer set sounded kind of like listening to the band on the radio.

Classic tunes like “Semi-Charmed Life”, “Graduate” and “How’s It Going to Be” still got the crowd going, and new material from the band’s upcoming album sounded promising. But it was rather mystifying to hear such soft sound coming from the main stage at what’s billed as a major league festival. Excuses about decibel restrictions in the town will not fly along side Bottlerock’s ticket prices and this issue could haunt the festival’s long-term viability. The sound was fine for last year’s main stage set from the Black Crowes, so what happened with the soundsystem this year warrants a full investigation.

All was well at the other stages however. Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen offered a vibrant Americana sound on the second stage, mixing blues, country and rock into a winning formula. Keen and his band even paid tribute to the region with a raucous jam on the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie”, before closing their set with a energetic bluegrassy number more along the lines of a “Cumberland Blues”.

Weezer drew a massive throng to the main stage for their 6PM set, and tunes like “Island in the Sun” sounded great in the sunny, breezy atmosphere. But the Toshiba Stage was still plagued by insufficient volume levels. Blues Traveler came to the rescue with a 6:30 set on the second stage that found the New York jamrockers in fine form. Hit tunes like “The Hook” went over well with the festival crowd, with singer/harmonica virtuoso John Popper blowing full steam. The band’s full power was on display during “But Anyway”, as Popper jammed out on harmonica while guitarist Chan Kinchla tore it up on the classic groove.

The masses were drawn back to the main stage at 8:00PM for Outkast, but there was a hidden gem of a set going on at the same time thanks to Jon Batiste and Stay Human. The New Orleans band delivered a funky dance party at the intimate Miner Family Winery Stage, with feel good vibes abounding. John Popper sat in for a hot jam and several band members came down into the crowd toward the end to perform second-line style, just like in the Big Easy.

The best was still to come as Heart hit the second stage at 8:45 with a sizzling “Barracuda” opener that set the tone for an incendiary set. The Wilson sisters and their band showed that they’re far from over the hill, rocking a high-energy set packed with memorable tunes from their ‘70s heyday, a few ‘80s hits and some strong newer material. It was a veritable hit parade with tunes like “Straight On”, “Heartless”, “Kick It Out”, “Even It Up”, “What About Love”, “These Dreams”, and “Crazy On You”. Ann Wilson’s dynamic vocals were on point all night, while Nancy Wilson seemed to benefit from a fountain of youth as she rocked out like a woman half her age and looked damn good doing it. Heart capped the fantastic set by “getting the Led out” with a smashing tripleshot encore of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song>Rain Song>Misty Mountain Hop” that provided a thoroughly crowd-pleasing finish to the evening (save for when the festival pulled the plug on the last minute of “Misty Mountain Hop” due to the 10:00 curfew).

Music fans could also gain free entry to the festival’s aftershow party at the City Winery downtown merely by signing up at the venue’s table at the festival. Jon Batiste and Stay Human entertained once again with their jazzy funk, followed by Tea Leaf Trio, the stripped down version of Tea Leaf Green featuring keyboardist Trevor Garrod, bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Cochrane McMillan. The Tea Leaf Trio kept the party people entertained deep into the night, with Mathis leading the way on a number of psychedelic excursions. The set was highlighted by a stellar jam on the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women”, where Mathis showed off the progressive chops and improvisational style that saw him tapped to play bass with the Mickey Hart Band last year. It was a great surprise bonus set to cap off a long day of music and end Bottlerock’s Saturday night in high style.

RATING 7 / 10