Each Memorial Day weekend in Napa is commemorated with a flock of festival goers gathering for a weekend of wine, music, delicious eats and more wine.
BottleRock is to festivals as ‘glamping’ is to camping. Aside from the slight wintry Northern California gloom, the festival turned to another cheerful highlight on this year’s agenda.
It remains tough to iterate how BottleRock differentiates itself from the typical connotations and assumptions of a ‘music festival.’ Aside from the heavy-hitting headline trio of Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, and Neil Young, the event hosts world-famous chefs and award-winning breweries, wineries and food options. When you need a break from the music and the beating sun, instead of nurturing a $6 bottle of water and a slice of greasy cheese pizza, guests can find solace in delectable eats, wine happy hours, a massage parlor and yes, even a play area to drop their kids off for a few hours. The festival grounds are kept clean and tidy and host a number of art installations and lawn games and other activities. The staff is mostly made up of cheery Napa local volunteers who are just excited to see new folks enjoying the sunshine in their otherwise sleepy tourist town. Moreover, the festival continues to increase production value to accommodate – more screens and speakers to carry the show further out for general admission.
The diverse line-up appeals to folks young and old, including Logic, Nathaniel Rateliff, Gang of Youths, Cypress Hill, and Santana.
The Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage was a standout as always, hosting chefs like Matty Matheson, Padma Lakshmi, and Andrew Zimmern, crafting mouth-watering dishes and testing them out with Ken Griffey Jr and Too $hort.
Here are some of my 2019 awards:
Best Band You Forgot About: Santana
I had a couple of votes for this category, but it was too hard to ignore the now 71-year-old legend doing what he does best right next to his hometown of San Francisco. Carlos packed the stage with up 10-11 musicians, offering a sound so full and so in-sync if felt like listening to a re-mastered version of his greatest hits album. The band cycled through the classics like “Maria Maria,” “Smooth,” and “Corazón Espinado,” splicing up the hits with covers of John’ Lennon’s “Imagine” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” Topping it all off, Santana’s team filled the screens with nostalgic and iconic images of the Carlos and his band from their younger days rocking out at places like Woodstock.
Hits You Couldn’t Remember: Too $hort
The legendary Bay Area rapper, Too $hort, burned up the stage during a light and dreary rain on Sunday afternoon. He’s been in the rap game since 1983 and has countless hits both old and new. The crowd was visibly pleased to be able to enjoy such a pioneer to grace the festival with his presence since he rarely makes on stage anymore. It was hard to deny the sing-a-long (and dance-a-long) of his tracks “Bossy” and “Blow the Whistle.”
Strangest Crowd: Sylvan Esso
Every year there’s a show that really strikes me in this category. Don’t get me wrong, I love people letting loose and discovering new music. I love people being weird, dancing and getting wildly out of character. There’s always an artist at BottleRock that typically isn’t as well known in the older crowd but really connects with them and reels them in. For me, this year it was the experimental electronic duo, Sylvan Esso. It was hard to not grow closer with their entertaining and intimate performance. Amelia (singer) and Nick (beats / production) danced around the stage like mad folk with bright and infectious smiles. Both members repeatedly thanked the crowd for coming out. Despite being a more ‘off the cusp’ genre of electronic music, they had a charisma that touched everyone there that day.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Gang of Youths
I’ve known about this band for some time but never really gave them much of a heartfelt listen. I made a point of catching their set Sunday to get a deeper understanding. The Australian rock band sits (for me at least) somewhere between The Killers and The War On Drugs. What makes this band so special is their confidence and vulnerability. They aren’t afraid to be uncool or to verbalize the message in their music. After talking straight into the camera and running around barricades into the crowd, frontman, David Le’aupepe, stopped to let everyone know that it’s his “fundamental belief that no situation is ever too difficult that it can’t be helped by shutting up and dancing your ass off.”
Best Daytime Energy: Ocean Alley
Ocean Alley, made up of Baden Donegal (vocals), Angus Goodwin (guitar), Nic Blom (bass), Lach Galbraith (keys/vocals), Mitch Galbraith (guitar) and Tom O’Brien (drums), have recently taken their independent brand of sun-soaked music on the road and fans are learning what the hype is all about. One thing that struck me about OA is there sheer confidence on the stage. For some young guns and arguably one of Australia’s brightest new acts, they seem to take everything in an easy stride. The group seems excited to play every note of their set and appears on stage like you know they’re best friends off stage. Yet there’s a strong tone of refreshing authenticity on stage that was reinforced by guitarist Mitch Galbraith’s answers to my questions below. Make sure to keep an eye out for these guys!
Best Performance: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats / Gary Clark Jr.
Unfortunately, this year made it nearly impossible to pick a single best performance. However, I think I can get away with double-header since they took the main stage back to back this year.
Gary, as always wowed the crowd with his impressive guitar playing. He streams through a wide range of songs from slow and somber blues to dirty rock numbers. His vocals are impeccable and smooth, sounding equally pleasant live as on your radio. One of the highlights in his set was the crowd pleaser, “Come Together” a cover of The Beatles’ famous tune.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats then swung in after Clark. The Colorado-based band is the ideal definition of soulful. They bring something to the stage that’s hard to find in today’s live music scene. It’s genuine and pure and feels so good way deep down in the listener’s bones. Nathaniel’s songs are grounded in old-school soul and R&B but don’t be surprised to catch him rocking out better than most and then breaking it down to stripped down acoustic folk track.
Best Bites: The Farmer’s Wife
The sandwiches are all based on a grilled cheese but there are always about 4 different choices. Each sandwich is based on the best seasonal selections in NorCal. Kendra buys ingredients from local farmer’s markets and creates the sandwiches from scratch – so they were all different than last year! The Farmer’s Wife can be found at Bay Area Farmer’s Markets at the Marin Civic Center and San Francisco Ferry Building & at various festivals & events in CA throughout the year.
This award-winning plant-based cheese brand hosted a pop-up at BottleRock in the Food Village, where they served up vegan cheese platters, smoked ‘mozzarella’ sticks with marinara, and truffle mac and cheese.
Miyoko’s, founded by former restaurateur, author, and environmental activist Miyoko Schinner has become famous for vegan butter and award-winning cheeses. The collection of premium vegan cheeses includes mozzarella and cheese wheels like Rustic Alpine, Smoked Farmhouse, earthy Winter Truffle, and Fresh Loire Valley wrapped in wine-soaked fig leaves, as well as cream cheese and butter. A highlight here was definitely the Vegan Mac & Cheese with a Kale Caesar Salad — a three-cheese mac layered with leeks and mushrooms topped with buttery bread crumbs and parsley.
Afterward the fest, I had a chance to touch base with Ocean Alley’s guitarist Mitch Galbraith on some of his favorite parts of BottleRock and life on tour.
Culture COLLiDE: What’s the best part of BottleRock festival to you? Did you see anything particularly memorable/crazy/interesting?
Mitch Galbraith: The venue is an amazing place to hold a festival. The multiple viewing areas for each stage made it easy to see and hear everything blaring from the giant stages. It’s a great spectacle to see this huge crowd being entertained by premier local and international performers in such a memorable venue. Watching Santana from the front row was totally awesome!
CC: How does it compare to other festivals you’ve played?
MG: Compared to some of the biggest festivals that we play in Australia it’s defiantly got more people in attendance but still such a great vibe when it comes to the focus on food and wine. I think Australian music festivals have managed to find that balance too. I think the stages were bloody ginormous! It was a pleasure to be able to play in a venue like that. Definitely a massive highlight of our tour so far.
CC: If you HAD to choose anything besides being a musician, what would it be?
MG: I’d like to try my hand at pretty much everything I guess. Maybe first I could become a bus driver? Or a mountain climber? Its got to be a toss up between those two.
CC: Growing up, what was one band or artist that steered you the most towards being a musician?
MG: I don’t think I ever decided at one point that I was going to be a musician, probably similarly to most of the other guys. It’s something we just always loved to do and so we kept doing it. More and more to get our fix I suppose. By the time we were playing gigs we had been rehearsing a lot in a shed out the back of the bass player Nic’s house and during that time we listened to an eclectic mix of blues, reggae and rock classics. Artists like Dire Straits, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, Marley, Joplin you know, all of it and all mixed in with what we were hearing on the radio at the time too, which was probably mostly Aussie Indie rock.
CC: What is the hardest part about touring for you?
MG: The hardest part is leaving new friends behind. Apart from that nothing’s hard. The rumors aren’t true.
CC: BottleRock has a big focus on food. What food/drink do you need to always have with you on the road?
MG: Coconut water is good for a hangover after a few too many wines and a popular snack on the bus is popcorn. Just bung it in the microwave for a couple of minutes and Bob’s your uncle!
Click below to check out Ocean Alley’s single, “Infinity.” It’s a dreamy new one with touchingly nostalgic video.
You can watch “Infinity” here: https://youtu.be/4zQn5D_lhKc