The Bottlerock Napa Valley festival justifiably bills itself as “the first taste of summer”, due to its Memorial Day weekend location on the concert calendar. But as the festival hits its tenth anniversary here in 2023, what’s become increasingly apparent in recent years is that Bottlerock has evolved into one of the most satisfying festival experiences of the summer period!
With San Francisco’s Outside Lands devolving into more of an electronic and pop fest that seems like it’s trying to be a northern version of Southern California’s trendy Coachella Festival, Bottlerock has arguably seized the crown as the premier large-scale rock festival in California. There’s pop and hip-hop, too, for a diverse appeal that sells some 40,000 tickets per day, but the allegiance to the Bay Area’s rock ‘n’ roll heritage gives the festival its counterculture edge and regional vibe. This has also given the town of Napa more of a rock edge year-round, with a handful of new venues popping up to support the demand.
The 2023 lineup is like a musical smorgasbord mirroring the offerings in the food court with alt-rock headliners in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins alongside pop stars like Lizzo, supported by the likes of jamgrass phenom Billy Strings and the power pop angels of Lucius; classic rockers Sheryl Crow and Mike Campbell; subversive acts in Wu-Tang Clan and Thievery Corporation; and some excellent vintage acts like Taj Mahal, War, and Los Lobos.
The regional wine and craft beer selections make Bottlerock stand out as a uniquely Californian event (good beer!), along with what’s usually perfect weather here in Napa in late May. There’s still plenty of warm sunshine in the afternoons, though the lingering impact of climate change on the coldest, wettest winter in modern Bay Area memory results in a rather chilly vibe after dark. Most attendees see that coming and layer up to meet the evenings.
Friday: May 26
It’s a balmy afternoon when the Airborne Toxic Event hit the Verizon Stage at 3:15 pm. Singer/guitarist Mikel Jollet has been a vibrant voice for social justice on Twitter in recent years, making him one of rock ‘n’ roll’s leading voices for sanity in this world gone mad. The title track from 2020’s Hollywood Park album sparks the set and has a compelling gravitas, with Jollett soul singing about his woebegone youth growing up on the darker side of the City of Angels. Miriam “Mimi” Peschet has big shoes to fill, stepping in for departed electric violinist Anna Bulbrook, but she seems to fit right in here with a vibrant performance.
It’s a darn shame the band’s set has been scheduled to conflict with the subversive global funk stalwarts of Thievery Corporation, though, who hit the main Jam Cellars Stage at 3:30. The dynamic DJ duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have pioneered a unique mix of funk, hip-hop, and eclectic global trance dance sounds, making for a great sound to get this year’s Bottlerock party started. Mr. Lif fires up the set with his edgy vocals on the groovy “Culture of Fear”, speaking out on how “We fear the IRS, fear the INS, fear God”, but he’s “more afraid of a credit card than a terror squad” as he implores listeners not to succumb to “this culture of fear”.
The ever-fabulous Loulou Ghelichkhani dazzles on the sultry psychedelia of “Lebanese Blonde”, with guitarist Rob Myers moving to sitar while the stellar rhythm section of drummer Jeff Franca, percussionist Frank Orrall, and bassist Dan Africano holds down a compelling groove. Ghost Light fans were pained to see Africano defect after he’d rocked so righteously with the indie jam-rock quintet in 2019, but he fits right in with the Thieves. Fifty-three-year-old ringleader Rob Garza plays some guitar too and shows how cutting-edge Gen-X musicians can still be, blending fresh modern music vibes over influences with classic rock, funk, and reggae foundations from the 1970s. “The Richest Man in Babylon” offers a spacey dub critique of the modern paradigm before Mr. Lif returns to lead another fiery call to arms on the anthemic “Fight to Survive” that gets the crowd bumping with an uplifting and inspiring vibe.
Starcrawler rock the smaller Truly Stage at 4:45 with a blend of punk and glam featuring enigmatic frontwoman Arrow De Wilde. The Los Angeles-based rockers have a high-energy sound, and De Wilde lives up to her name when she jumps down front to get up close and personal with the audience, even grabbing a photographer’s hat to don as her own. This is also an ideal time to grab a late lunch with a short line at the Buckhorn BBQ food truck adjacent to the Truly stage, which serves a tasty char-roasted tri-tip sandwich.
Then it’s over to the Allianz Stage just in time to catch Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs opening their 5:45 set with a vibrant “Running Down a Dream” to add some timely classic rock flavor to the day. Campbell spent four decades on guitar with Tom Petty, and it’s great to see him keeping the vibe alive here. The title track from 2022’s External Combustion is another hot rocker, with Campbell pleading for truth and ripping some hot leads. He’s also got Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone in the band, who requests the rare Heartbreakers song “Fault Lines” from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye album for another rocking bluesy highlight.
Bottlerock is picking up steam now, and the energy level surges higher still with jamgrass phenom Billy Strings tearing it up with his band on the Jam Cellars Stage in the 6:30 slot. The 30-year-old guitarist’s career has taken off like a rocket ship, jumping from clubs in 2019 to medium-sized amphitheaters and arenas by 2022 and a main stage set here. At first glance, the band sounds like typical bluegrass, but deeper inspection reveals Strings as a student of classic rock, psychedelia, heavy metal, and grunge. He also shreds with a scintillating skill that takes the jam factor to the next level, with improv music fans flocking to his shows. Staple jam vehicle “Dust in a Baggie” is a highlight here, sort of a modern-day update of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” with the theme of a small amount of drugs landing the protagonist in prison for 20 years. Strings leads a smoking jam, and it’s easy to see how he’s already manifested jams with Bill Kreutzmann, Trey Anastasio, and Willie Nelson.
There’s another vexing dilemma halfway through Strings’ set, though, since the sensational sirens of Lucius are hitting the Allianz Stage at 7:15. The band delivered dazzling performances at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park and again at the Fillmore in November, so they’ve got plenty of fans eager to see them again. Singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig team for angelic harmonies to give Lucius a signature sound that borders on feeling otherworldly, so there’s quite a vibe here when they appear in silver sparkly outfits in front of a spacey backdrop that makes it feel as if they beamed in from another planet.
“Tempest” is a compelling opener as the ladies unleash mesmerizing harmonies that transport the audience straight to a higher dimension as they sing of two ships passing in the night to find they aren’t riding this wave alone. They mix it up with dual keytars on the psychedelic disco dance of “Next to Normal”, with the harmonies bringing a paranormal aura to the stage. A golden hour version of the acoustic-oriented “Dusty Trails” as the sun is setting makes for a classic Bottlerock moment, with Wolfe and Laessig sounding like heroines from a Clint Eastwood western singing a heartwarming ode about how those dusty trails can lead to a golden road.
Anticipation runs high for Smashing Pumpkins‘ headlining the Verizon Stage at 8:05 pm until discovering that the scene has become an overcrowded clusterfuck because no one else is playing since main stage headliner Post Malone doesn’t come on until 8:30. Everyone, therefore, wants to catch some Pumpkins, making it impossible to navigate to a spot that has decent sound or view. It’s so crowded that it starts to border on feeling unsafe, a rare logistical screwup at Bottlerock. The opening sequence of the set is a letdown for much of the audience, which is a damn shame since it didn’t have to be this way.
There’s a surreal vibe on an edgy cover of Talking Heads‘ “Once in a Lifetime”, as Billy Corgan emotes and sings of “Water dissolving and water removing”. This seems to align with some positive motion as the crowd starts to loosen up about a half hour into the set, as some thankfully depart for Post Malone. When Corgan and James Iha pick up acoustic guitars for “Tonight, Tonight” about halfway into the set, moving up to a decent spot becomes possible. Smashing Pumpkins go back to 1994’s Pisces Iscariot for the deep-cut psyche-rock power of “Starla”, and now it’s feeling like a kick-ass alternative rock show. Corgan, Iha, and Jeff Schroeder layer gorgeously grungey guitars for a majestic wall of sound as drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist Jack Bates build up a powerhouse groove.
Corgan dials up another blast of mighty sonic grandeur with “Rocket” from 1993’s Siamese Dream, easily a strong contender for the best grunge album ever. “Cherub Rock” keeps the energy level surging, with some of the greatest riffage ever on the alt-rock anthem that caused a seismic shift in the popular music landscape. Following with the incendiary “Zero” makes for a dynamic sequence, and it’s easy to see why Scott Pilgrim was such a fan. The new “Beguiled” almost sounds like a Metallica song with its heavy riffs, and it’s great to hear Corgan embracing grunge power on about one-third of the 33 tracks on the band’s new triple album Atum. Returning to Siamese Dream to close the show with the epic “Silverfuck” is a triumphant choice, leaving fans confident that this summer’s Smashing Pumpkins tour shouldn’t be missed.
There’s still one more Bottlerock treat to be had, though, as fans can hear War still going over at the Allianz Stage and get there to see the band close their set with their classic hit “Low Rider”. The deep funky groove makes it feel like walking into a scene from Dazed and Confused, and that’s a great way to close out a Friday night at Bottlerock.
Saturday: May 27
Bottlerock has a cannabis lounge named The Garden, though it’s more promotional than practical as cannabis sales are not yet allowed on the grounds like at Outside Lands. But savvy festival-goers don’t want to leave procuring the right strain for a full day of music to chance anyways. Hence using a regional delivery service like Nice Guys Delivery earlier in the week to score some “Sour Diesel” from Autumn Brands out of Santa Barbara County is a winning move. Sustainable farming and pesticide-free cultivation produce an excellent batch of the classic Sativa strain, which provides an uplifting effect to enhance the music that doesn’t leave one tiring as the day progresses (the company’s “Smackers” Indica strain, on the other hand, provides a mellow sleepy effect for winding down upon arriving back home.)
Saturday’s lineup isn’t as stacked as Friday’s, but there’s a solid undercard with Particle Kid throwing down some vibrant psych-rock in the 3:30 slot. Guitarist/vocalist Micah Nelson is a renowned cannabis supporter himself, even serving as a board member of the National Hemp Association. Nelson has more than a stony family pedigree going, though, stepping up with a diversely creative double album in 2022’s Time Capsule. Willie’s youngest son is going his own way, and his way is a trip, as the band rocks out with high energy and psychedelic visuals that blend vibes from Neil Young, John Lennon, and 1990s alt-rock. “Backwards” and “Radio Flyer” from 2019’s Window Rock album explode with more power in the live setting, making it clear that Particle Kid has a sound that goes to a higher level onstage.
It’s a shame how another dilemma soon pops up with the remarkable return of Dogstar getting moved from the scheduled 2:15 pm start time into the 3:45 slot at the Verizon Stage. Actor Keanu Reeves’ rock trio is playing their first show since 2002, so there’s a high curiosity factor. Reeves looks like he’s still working on a John Wick flick, and it’s surreal to imagine Wick having escaped from jeopardy as a marked man and now just playing in the band. A couple of songs seem too low-key for this big crowd, but then the trio picks it up with some satisfying rocking that hits the mark on this sunny Saturday. Reeves holds down a solid low end, and it’ll be interesting to see where Dogstar goes from here.
There’s another special treat in the 5:00 pm hour for those lucky enough to wind up in the Monkey Shoulder “Porta-Party” Speakeasy, a semi-hidden lounge by the Allianz Stage where GARZA throws down a very groovy stealth set (after earlier playing the Verizon Stage at 12:45.) This side project from Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation finds the maestro spinning a blend of electronica, dance-pop, and psychedelic grooves accompanied by some multi-dimensional bandmates.
It’s a stripped-down version of the group here, with drummer/percussionist Alyssa DeCaro raising the energy level with a handheld drum and her infectious good vibes while Monkey Shoulder ambassador Anna Mains pushes the good vibe too with her energetic presence. Garza sure knows how to keep a dance party grooving, as he mixes funky samples from Talking Heads and INXS before a closing collaboration with English DJ Stee Downs. The Monkey Shoulder Whiskey drinks don’t hurt either and are downright delicious. The “Chi-Chi” is a big winner that mixes the malt whiskey on the rocks with coconut cream, pineapple, lime, and hibiscus for a refreshing flavor that goes great with these groovy sounds.
Then it’s off to see R&B star Leon Bridges at the Jam Cellars Stage at 6:15, where the 33-year-old soul singer-songwriter from Texas puts on a solid performance. His romantic hits are a bit on the cheesy side for some folks, but then there are songs like “Texas Sun” from his popular collaboration with Khruangbin that blends some spaghetti western tones with deep bluesy vibes for a great sound here in the early Napa evening.
The incomparable Lizzo headlines the main stage at 8:15, and the intergalactic hip-hop soul songstress draws a huge crowd. She’s got some tight funky tunes and a charismatic vibe, so it’s not hard to see the mainstream appeal. She also scored big pop culture points this spring as the Duchess of Plazir-15 on The Mandalorian, where she was married to Jack Black’s Commissioner Helgait character, befriended beloved starchild Grogu while strategizing a key diplomatic exchange for Mandalor and the New Republic, and even and knighted Grogu at the end. That’s pretty amazing stuff, and the title track from 2022’s Special album provides a peak after Lizzo laments how some “very unfriendly people” displayed disparaging signs out front of the festival entrance. She dedicates “Special” to them, suggesting no one’s told them they’re special in a long time. It’s a hot groove with the crowd getting down, so score this as a victory for Lizzo & the Rebel Alliance over right-wing haters who support the Dark Side.
Duran Duran headline the Verizon Stage in the same time slot, and while it feels like more of a nostalgia fest, there are some vibrant moments on hits such as “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Notorious”. John Taylor brings rocking vibes on the bass, and fans are joyed to see Nick Rhodes back in action on the keyboards. Singer Simon Le Bon doesn’t seem to exude much stage presence tonight, although it’s getting rather chilly at this point which could be a factor. “Planet Earth” is a highlight toward the end, with Taylor throwing down a punchy bass line that helps generate a surging groove as Le Bon wonders why there’s no sign of life here on Earth.
Sunday: May 28
The Hendrick’s Gin 3-Story Bar next to the Culinary Stage is a great spot to grab a unique cocktail to start the afternoon, with exotic scenery and refreshing beverages. With 11 botanicals from the Earth’s four corners, Hendrick’s Gin makes for a yummy hard lemonade of sorts, with a bit of mint for extra refreshment on this semi-sunny but still warm Sunday afternoon. The charming Hendrick’s ambassador Mattias Horseman is an interesting character in his own right, as a mixologist who studied psychology and jams with members of Particle Kid in Los Angeles.
It’s pretty cloudy when genuine rockstar Sheryl Crow hits the Jam Cellars Stage at 3:30, but Hendrick’s lemonade still hits the spot as she brings musical sunshine with her rocking 1996 hit “If It Makes You Happy”. Sporting a Wonder Woman T-shirt, Crow seems to have a larger-than-life persona as she rocks one classic hit after another. “A Change Would Do You Good” is another tight rocker from her great sophomore album, with Crow speaking about being tired of politicians and suggesting we all take care of the planet for a change? This reminds me of how much we here at PopMatters admire outspoken artists like Sheryl Crow, who recently joined with other Nashville musicians (where she lives) to call out for common sense gun control laws after the horrific school shooting there in March.
Crow wins a big cheer when she adlibs the lyrics to “All I Wanna Do” and sings, “This ain’t no disco, this is Bottlerock!” The set is pure momentum with more rock ‘n’ roll crowd pleasers like the bluesy “My Favorite Mistake” and “There Goes the Neighborhood”, featuring a Rolling Stones’ “Heartbreaker” tease in the intro. Crow moves from guitar to bass to frontwoman with natural ease as her set provides some of the weekend’s best vibes. “Soak Up the Shine” keeps the party going and conjures a bit of sun peeking through the clouds before an electrifying take on “Everyday Is a Winding Road” concludes the set in a climactic fashion.
Indie hip-hop funk duo Little Stranger hits the Truly Stage shortly after, and they win some psychedelic counterculture points by advising fans to “Take your shrooms now”, before launching into the groovy “Brain Fog” (which features Del the Funky Homo Sapien on the studio track). The song is an ode to psilocybin mushrooms, and these guys seem like a lot of fun for those who dig hip-hop with a psychedelic spin.
Indie folk rockers Caamp follow Sheryl Crow on the Jam Cellars Stage at 5:00 pm. The Columbus-based group comments on how they don’t mind the gray sky vibe since they’re from Ohio, where the weather is predictably unpredictable. “Officer of Love” has an easygoing sound for a Sunday afternoon, although the set’s mellow vibe feels like a bit of a drop-off after Crow’s high-energy set. The band’s 2019 breakthrough hit “Peach Fuzz” raises the vibe significantly, though, with its catchy tale of falling in love with a cutie at a house party.
The lines at the food court get really long during the dinner rush, so grabbing a tri-tip sandwich from the Buckhorn BBQ food truck and taking it over to the Allianz Stage, where Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is delivering some hot blues, works out great. The 23-year-old guitarist from Clarksdale, Mississippi, is clearly an old soul, rocking a delta blues-tinged sound with great tone and soulful vocals. Ingram connects in a big way on “Fresh Out” when he sings, “I drank my last bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, now I’m alone in this bed”, and then rips melty blues riffage to soothe his soul. He strikes another chord on the simmering “Another Life Goes By” (named Protest Song of the Week by Shadowproof in 2021) as he laments black people getting killed by white cops. “We got to make some changes before somebody else gets shot… we gotta stop the madness before another life goes by,” Ingram sings before tearing up the fretboard to drive the point home in a song that remains all too zeitgeist.
The one and only Wu-Tang Clan draw a big crowd to the Verizon Stage at 6:15, but it’s still manageable as the iconic hip-hop collective ignites. With their old-school raps, kung fu videos, and animated ninja babes on the video screens, the Wu-Tang Clan bring a larger-than-life vibe to the stage, and the audience is loving it. “Bring Da Ruckus” brings some massive energy with the all-star team of rappers, flashing Gen-Xers back to the 1990s. There’s some talk of how the New York-based group is from the east coast, but it serves as a unifying intro when RZA says, “I don’t care if you’re east, west, south, or north, the Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to fuck with!” Easily one of their most well-known tracks thanks to the self-referring lyrics and the cinematic reference in 2011’s classic stoner flick A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta F’Wit” gets the crowd bumping, and it’s huge fun for everyone.
Meanwhile, there’s an old-school bluesman doing his thing over at the Allianz Stage- where the incredible Taj Mahal comes on at 7:15. Watching him sit centerstage plucking delicate riffs on one of those old school hollow body bronze guitars as he sings an ode to his “Queen Bee” is a treat, save for how the booming sounds from the Monkey Shoulder Speakeasy bleed too much into the soundscape. But the sun even starts to shine through the clouds behind him during the set, so you know he must be doing something right here.
It’s soon time to head back to the Jam Cellars Stage for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who will give Bottlerock the big finale it’s been missing in some years. The funk-rock titans have been on a roll since guitarist John Frusciante rejoined the group last year, packing stadiums and releasing two new double albums. As on last summer’s tour, they light a fuse immediately with a smoking power trio jam featuring Frusciante melting face over a big groove from drummer Chad Smith and iconic bassist Flea. Singer Anthony Kiedis joins in for 1999’s “All Around the World”, and they are off to a hot start.
The easygoing yet catchy “Snow (Hey Oh)” is a crowd-pleaser with some singalong action, and then it’s the new “Here Ever After” from 2022’s Unlimited Love that sparks the set higher as Flea throws down a dynamic bass line to power a hot jam with Frusciante wailing. The guitarist rocks the cosmos with some spacey psychedelic shredding on the atmospheric “Don’t Forget Me”, elevating the Chili Peppers to a higher multi-dimensional level. Then he’s tapping and wailing on “Eddie” from 2022’s Return of the Dream Canteen, a great new tune that seems like a tribute to Eddie Van Halen. The whole band shines as Kiedis sings of heady days on the Sunset Strip in 1983, with Frusciante conjuring visions of Eddie Van Halen with his hot molten lava riffage.
Flea takes a moment to say he’s excited to be playing at the same festival as the Wu-Tang Clan, noting that it was fun to watch them play earlier. It’s fun to watch Flea crush funky grooves as he does on “I Like Dirt”, a hot tune with the women getting down. 1999’s “Californication” might be their most zeitgeisty tune, which continues to resonate here in mesmerizing fashion. 2022’s “Black Summer” feels like it taps into a similar vibe with its simmering groove and Kiedis singing of how “China’s on the dark side of the moon” plus psychedelic leads from Frusciante. The frenetic groove of “By the Way” makes for a smoking finale closing Bottlerock the right way, with maximum Chili Pepper power.
Those who strategically retreat toward the back for the Chili Peppers’ rip-rocking “Give It Away” encore can then make it to the Allianz Stage just in time to catch the end of the set from Los Lobos, who rock out on the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” under some psychedelic lighting to conjure a festive dance party. The veteran Los Angeles rockers cap it off their classic take on “La Bamba”, jamming into “Good Lovin'”, then back into “La Bamba” to provide a fantastic finish to the weekend. Bottlerock wins again!