Music

BottleRock Launches 2018 Festival Season with a Blast

BottleRock Napa Valley provides a tantalizing "first taste of summer" with three days of rock, pop, and craft booze.

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional opening of music festival season and BottleRock Napa Valley is increasingly staking a claim as not just one of the top festivals in the nation for this particular weekend, but for the entire summer. This is especially true in the Bay Area this year where the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is offering a lineup in August that is largely devoid of rock and/or roll, betraying the genre that put San Francisco on the musical map in the 1960s. Enter BottleRock to rescue the Bay Area's summer festival season with a lineup that mixes in some top hard rock and socially conscious bands along with a wide-ranging array of pop artists that offers something for just about everyone.

It's the perfect time of year in Napa with warm sunny days that aren't yet too sweltering, providing a splendid setting for taking in the music with the wine, beer and food options that have made BottleRock a top culinary destination too. An additional key service is provided with the "Coors Light Silver Bullet Bar" which features an air-conditioned disco and a room full of flat screen TVs for the NBA Conference Finals action that might induce some hardcore basketball fans to stay home if they didn't know they had the option to catch the games on site. This is the kind of good looking out that recalls the football tent at the Austin City Limits Festival, putting BottleRock in the top class of fan friendly festival amenities.

Friday May 25

Those who still had to work on Friday afternoon miss out on main stage sets from Trombone Shorty and then Earth, Wind & Fire, but the rock 'n' roll crowd is out in force when Incubus hits the stage at 6:15 pm to start putting the rock into BottleRock. The Southern California alt-rockers come out blazing with the hard-hitting "Privilege" to show they're not going to water down their set for a festival setting. Vocalist Brandon Boyd is in fine form as he leads the band through one of the weekend's top sets, for there are few other groups in the music world that can rock your socks off and deliver infectious hits like Incubus. Guitarist Mike Einziger, bassist Ben Kenney and drummer Jose Pasillas form a mean power trio, with DJ Craig Kilmore adding great accents to give Incubus one of the most dynamic sounds in rock on tunes like "Anna Molly" and "A Kiss to Send Us Off" with their unique blend of catchy riffs and heavy grooves.

Brandon Boyd of Incubus / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

The aggressive intensity of 2004's "Megalomaniac" and 2017's "Nimble Bastard" makes both songs seem like they could be aimed at America's Swine-in-Chief Donald Trump, though Boyd has suggested that the latter tune from last year's 8 album is not about Trump. The combo of "Pardon Me" into "Stellar" takes the set to a higher level as the audience is transported back to the turn of the millennium when these hard rock hits ruled the airwaves. The audience sings along on the "Pardon Me" chorus after Boyd sings of his urgent desire to escape "the perils of being in 3D and thinking so much differently" and the sing-along energy carries over into the hard rocking tale of romance in outer space on "Stellar". The song morphs into a funky and crowd-pleasing cover of INXS' "Need You Tonight", while the sun starts its descent as it peeks through some cloud cover to create a gorgeous divided sky effect.

The majestic hit "Wish You Were Here" from 2001 provides another peak moment as Boyd sings of counting UFOs on a starry night at the beach and signaling them with his lighter. The audience sings along on this chorus too before being treated to the uplifting ambient psychedelia of "Are You In" and then the band's biggest hit to close the set with "Drive", an ever inspiring song of personal perseverance. What a fun set to kickstart BottleRock into high gear.

Incubus / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

The basketball fans can then catch most of the fourth quarter in Cleveland where LeBron James and the Cavaliers knock off the Boston Celtics to force a decisive Game 7 on Sunday. The bar draws a good crowd here, although not nearly as packed as it will be 24 hours later when the Golden State Warriors repeat the feat in knocking off the Houston Rockets to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference. The beer selection is limited, although the upside of the negative trend of huge corporate breweries buying up smaller breweries means that Hop Valley tall boys are offered alongside the Coors offerings.

Then it's back to the main stage for Muse. The British power trio has become one of the biggest bands in the world over the past decade, headlining festivals and selling out arenas with their unique blend of hard rock and theatrical power pop. Also one of the more subversive bands in rock, Muse is still rolling along here more than two years into their tour behind 2015's Drones album that takes the global war machine and military industrial complex to task on tunes like the edgy "Psycho", which features soundbites from the band's own re-enactment of scenes from Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Full Metal Jacket.

Matthew Bellamy of Muse / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

Guitarist Matthew Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard keep the high energy rock flowing on "Hysteria" (which features a tease on AC/DC's "Back in Black") and with the dynamic "Plug in Baby" as it concludes with an outro jam on Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine". Bellamy is the type of virtuoso who can play practically anything and he does a great job of throwing in such teases to spark the set for the uninitiated who might be seeing the band for the first time. He conjures another cinematic vibe when he offers a tease of the theme from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (did Bellamy and Incubus' Brandon Boyd chat backstage about Earth's hipper ET visitors?) as prelude to the sonic grandeur of "Supermassive Black Hole", which sparkles under the starry night sky.

Muse / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

Few bands in modern rock speak truth to power like Muse, such as here on "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable" with lyrics declaring that "A species set on endless growth is unsustainable". Likewise for the traditional encore of the insurgent "Uprising", a perennial fan favorite that strikes a big chord again here. The inspiring anthem always makes it feel like rock 'n' roll can indeed still help change the world by rallying the masses to stand up against the greedy short-sighted powers that be as Bellamy sings, "Rise up and take the power back, It's time the fat cats had a heart attack, You know that their time's coming to an end, We have to unify and watch our flag ascend…" When the trio adds on the equally defiant rocker "Knights of Cydonia", there's a feeling of intergalactic cowboys galloping off into the sunset after helping save the Earth from evil forces. BottleRock has come strong with defiant rock power on opening night.

Muse / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

Saturday - May 26

It's another beautiful sunny day and attendees can get into the rustic spirit of the Sonoma region with a whiskey sour type of cocktail from the "Knob Creek Bourbon & Beer Garden" that blends rye whiskey with a pineapple infusion of sorts for a sublimely refreshing summer beverage experience. It goes down even better while checking out cosmic cowboy Lukas Nelson at the Jampad, a small stage at the back of the main field presented by local winery Jam Cellars where artists deliver intimate acoustic performances prefaced by a short live interview. Nelson always comes across as just a humble rocker blessed to be making music and delivers a short but sweet set highlighted by "Just Outside of Austin", a breezy romantic tale about high times in his Texas hometown.

Lukas Nelson / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz

There's a plethora of regional wines available as well of course, but most in the rock 'n' roll crowd clearly need cold beer on these hot sunny afternoons to slake the thirst they get from rocking out to artists like Michael Franti & Spearhead. Lagunitas is the most prevalent beer at stands around the fest, but there are also several craft brew bars with an array of mostly California offerings (including Ballast Point, Green Flash, 21st Amendment, Stone, Berryessa, Fieldwork, Napa Smith, and Fort Point.) A Bay Area favorite for more than two decades, Franti has become a global star and delivers a vibrant set here that gets the BottleRock party started again with uplifting songs like "The Sound of Sunshine" and "Get Myself to Saturday". The latter is an appropriate number about transcending life's challenges to find "a way to get myself to Saturday" that finds the whole field jumping up and down in unison with Franti.

He may have toned down the aggresive nature of his revolutionary politics of resistance over the years from the high point of his brilliant 2001 concept album Stay Human, but Franti continues to weave a similarly spiritual message into his music as literally evidenced here with the words "Stay Human" as part of the visual stage presentation. One of the most compelling tunes is the cathartic "Flower in the Gun" as Franti conjures visions of the late '60s peace movement when he sings, "In a world that's so divided, we shall overcome… we can be the healing, we can be the flower in the gun… I want the people to hear this sound, we've got to turn this thing around."

Michael Franti & Spearhead / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz

There are few artists in modern music who can get a crowd going to uplifting songs for peace like Franti can, for there are too few who write such songs and live the credo as Franti does. He wraps the set in inspiring fashion here with the band out front arm-in-arm leading the audience in a sing-along to John Lennon's "Imagine" playing on the sound system. The Record Company keeps the energy flowing next as they rock the Midway Stage in the late afternoon with a blues-powered set and vintage sound that surges higher still with a charged cover of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage".

The Record Company / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz

The highlight of the early evening comes when Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real hit the Miner Family Winery Stage at 6:45 for a strong set on one of the festival's smaller stages that gives fans a chance to get a close-up look at Nelson's electric guitar prowess after witnessing his acoustic skills earlier. The heartbreak ballad "Forget About Georgia" gets a repeat play from the earlier set, but most of the set leans on bluesy tunes that veer from mid-tempo grooves to full tilt rockers. There are many Texas guitarists who can play the blues, but Nelson brings a unique vibe to the stage with that country twang he inherited from his father as well as lead guitar skills he seems to have learned from studying Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young.

"Four Letter Word" features a classic shuffle groove that gets the audience grooving and gives Nelson a chance to dig into some hot blues licks, building energy into the high octane rock of "Something Real". This is indeed where the band gets real, rocking a fierce jam with Nelson shredding the fretboard. A vibrant cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl" wraps the set in fine festival fashion, with a rocking rendition of the classic tune that goes over just as well here as it did when the band played it last fall at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz

It's not long after Nelson's set when the Killers take the main stage for their headlining set. There's a big crowd out there, but it seems like most of the many Gen-Xers in the audience are flocking to the Midway Stage for the competing set from hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg. The titan of West Coast rap apparently warmed up earlier by helping break a Guinness World Record when he and Warren G and Michael Voltaggio created a giant gin & juice cocktail at the the Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage in the 6:00 pm hour that was five feet tall, three feet wide and required 180 bottles of Hendricks Gin.

Snoop Dogg's set is a triumph from start to finish as the showman throws down one classic hit after another, favoring the '90s material that has most of the crowd singing along more often than not as scantily clad ladies work several stripper poles onstage while an amusing guy in a dog costume throws bills at them. This singalong fiesta is most notable with "What's My Name" conjuring a big singalong on the "Snoop Dogg-y Dogg" chorus, as well as the mandatory "Gin and Juice".

Snoop Dogg / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

Sunday May 27

It's yet another beautiful sunny day as Lake Street Dive takes the main stage at 3:15 pm with a soulful vibe blending jazzy elements with blues and rock. Singer Rachael Price demonstrates charisma to spare on the funky "Red Light Kisses", before moving to backing vocal as keyboardist Akie Bermiss takes the lead on an R&B style cover of Shania Twain's "You're Still the One". Price stars on the band's hit song "Good Kisser", but the band makes a bigger impression toward the end of the set on "Shame Shame Shame". Upright bassist Bridget Kearney told Paste magazine that the song from the group's new album Free Yourself Up "is a departure" in writing a song that's "looking at what's going on in the world".

Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

The socially conscious vibe is readily apparent as Price sings, "I bet you think that you're a big man now, But I think you're a sick man now, And you don't know how to be a good man too - No, I'm not getting caught in your little spiderweb, Won't let an angry dog get me down, Don't you think it's time that we put this dog out of his misery?" before concluding on a more upbeat note with, "Change is comin', oh yeah, Ain't no holdin' it back, Ain't no running, change is coming..."

Danish rockers by way of Brooklyn, New Politics do their best to energize the audience at the Midway Stage in the 4:00 pm hour. The band's name suggests a political edge, although this is difficult to discern save perhaps for the song "CIA". The poppy nature of the song doesn't suggest much of an edge though: "My house, I break the law, in my house, I'm like the CIA." The CIA has demonstrated lawlessness time and again throughout the decades, but this doesn't seem like much of a statement. Fans of genuinely subversive music can find it at the end of the day though when Thievery Corporation is set to take the Midway Stage to close out BottleRock in transcendent style at 8:30 pm.

Reggae rockers Soja precede Thievery at the Midway and are a good sonic choice to pair with them due to their groovy vibe. Fanatics of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics find themselves compelled to spend the early part of evening back in the Coors Light Silver Bullet Bar however, with a raucous atmosphere in which to witness LeBron James lead the Cavs to rise up in the fourth quarter for a rare Game 7 road win to secure the NBA's Eastern Conference title. Pop superstar Bruno Mars then draws a massive crowd to the main stage for his 8:00 pm headlining set, building off his Super Bowl halftime show appearance earlier this year by having his band dressed with a sports-themed vibe.

Bruno Mars / Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley

Yet BottleRock organizers must be credited with bringing in a strong alternative choice in Thievery Corporation to continue the socially conscious theme that's been running through the weekend with Incubus, Muse, and Michael Franti. Thievery DJ/ringleader Rob Garza and his global crew have built a devoted following of "Thieves" over the past two decades with eclectic genre-blending music that mixes up electronica, rock, hip-hop, reggae, dub, acid jazz, Indian classical and Brazilian styles for a unique sound that defies categorization. The group is also known for their multi-dimensional prowess in helping fans get their groove on while also speaking out about social and economic injustice in this increasingly mad world.

Thievery Corporation / Photo by Greg M. Schwartz

An early jam features guitarist Rob Myers on sitar over an uptempo groove with polyrhythmic percussion to get the dance party going. Hip-hop ace Mr. Lif stars on incendiary songs such as "Warning Shots" and "Fight to Survive", throwing down compelling rhymes over tight beats and sharp grooves to get the crowd fired up. Thievery Corporation pull still more aces from their deck with female vocalists LouLou Ghelichkani and Natalia Clavier, who lead the band through majestic gems including "Sweet Tides" and "Lebanese Blonde" that sound downright magical under the summer stars. The band's triumphant set dazzles the senses time and again to close out BottleRock in top style.

It's been a memorable weekend as BottleRock stakes its claim once again as one of the top weekend festivals in America with its beautiful setting, fan-friendly amenities, and diversely appealing lineup.

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