After full days Friday and Saturday, you might think I’d have been a little worn out by Day three of BottleRock Napa Valley. Not me: I was ready with bells on, and perched directly in front of the Sprint stage early in the day for Noah Gundersen to kick it all off. His set began with Noah on acoustic guitar, a woman playing the violin, and a drummer. The three sang wonderful harmony, and before long were joined by the electrics: initially a bass and a guitar, but there were some keys mixed in for good measure, too. To top it all off, Gundersen played a bit of the harmonica in places as well. “We’re really trying to kick your Sunday off with a bang,” he said, adding that there were “usually a lot more people in the drinking section.” I noted that this was the first band whose entire discography I wanted to download as soon as I got home. (I haven’t yet, but still intend to.) I don’t know how else to describe their sound but “electric folk,” which is to say that it was like nothing I’d ever heard, and I loved it.
Up next was an exclusive performance by my buddy Mike Annuzzi in the VIP lounge. I have to say, this was really fun, but also frustrating: I understand the perks of there being a stage accessible only to those who’ve paid extra for VIP (or even “Platinum”) benefits. But if someone hadn’t given me a VIP wristband, I wouldn’t have been able to see any performances in this area. Perhaps BottleRock’s people will sort this out for future festivals, but it seems sort of crazy to me that even media didn’t have access to see any/all performances. Furthermore, a lot of these artists were locals who should be showcased for all to see; how can we support them if we have to have special access just to watch? Anyway, Mike’s a local boy from the Bay Area (Redwood City, to be exact), and he’s always a pleasure to see. He was worried that all he had was his acoustic guitar and his voice; he’d been told he had to play acoustic instead of with a full band, though the band that immediately preceded him was just the opposite. He needn’t have worried, though; his performance went well and was well-received by the VIPs in the lounge.
After stopping by the craft beer garden for a Blue Moon Summer Honey Wheat and a delicious pesto pepperoni pie from nearby truck Napa Valley Crust, I made my way to the Toshiba stage to check out the Spin Doctors. Like Third Eye Blind, this band’s biggest hit got so played out in the 90s that I thougth I never wanted to hear it again, or anything else by the band. But given what I’d learned the previous day about that sort of thing, I was actually eager to give the Spin Doctors a listen, and in the end was really glad I had. After “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” I noted the charm and presence of front man Chris Barron, who looks nothing like I remembered. The band has a great sound, too, having returned to their blues roots. They played the title track from their forthcoming record, If the River Was Whiskey before explaining that this was “the stuff we were doing before Pocket Full of Kryptonite.” Before starting another new one, Barron promised to “do all your favorites!” Adding to the overall fun of their show, the Doctors announced special guest John Popper of Blues Traveler on the harmonica. They wrapped up their set with “a song that we made up. We just made it up one day…” Barron explained. “Now we probably never have to do a job that we hate again.” The song, of course, was smash hit “Two Princes,” and in spite of myself I thoroughly enjoyed it. So maybe it took me roughly twenty years to forgive it for oversaturating the market? With or without Popper, it was a great song, and I really dug the whole Spin Doctors’ vibe. I took a break to meet my sister-in-law and get a beer before heading back to the Toshiba main stage in time for Barenaked Ladies, which got off to a fun start with “Pinch Me.” Front man Steven Page addressed the crowd, saying, “Folks, please look around: anyone who’s not singing is a racist!” Another highlight was “History of Everything,” perhaps best known for its use as the theme song for The Big Bang Theory. After “One Week,” BNL took a page from the Spin Doctors’ book and brought out Blues Traveler’s legend John Popper, covering bits of everything from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Lorde’s “Royals,” Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” and the Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun.” It was a nonstep set of fun, and a perfect way to introduce my SIL to the fun that is BottleRock. (She’d taken some convincing to get there, but now she’s a believer who won’t miss another year!)
Before LL Cool J took the stage, DJ Z-Trip got the crowd warmed up, and he was great. Once LL graced the stage, he wasted no time busting out the big guns – both those that sadly stayed under his shirt for the entire set and his biggest hits, including “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “Doin’ It,” and “Phenomenon.” I noted early, and then again a few more times that he’s “bossy” on stage. I don’t mean this literally; I can’t comment on his actual attitude because I’ve never met him. But he likes to bark out orders to the crowd, mostly about putting your hands up and the like. It’s kind of cute, given that he’s had the staying power of nearly three decades, but I had to stop myself from trying to shout back, “take your shirt off!” He did a little cover of Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” and then teased the ladies by unbuttoning his shirt. After “Around the Way Girl” he wandered around the stage to the Commodores’ “Brick House” checking out girls in the crowd while he decided which ones to bring on stage, roses in hand. He made a point in saying that “Barbie-doll-thin is ok,” and that “ain’t nothing wrong with it… But for me personally… I don’t wanna feel like I’m committing assault!” Saying he was “looking for brick houses,” he told one girl, “bring your fiance with you if you want! That’s up to you!” Eventually, he moved on to “Goin’ Back to Cali” before slowing it down with more roses for “I Need Love.” I’ve never had the chance to see him before, and he really didn’t disappoint. As with many of the other bands over the weekend, he played just about every song I wanted to hear, and then some. If my only complaint is that he never took his shirt off, then I suppose I’ll live.
Next we vacated the area around the Toshiba stage as Eric Church’s fans filed in. We made a stop for a couple glasses of Crispin Cider (one pear, one apple) and found a spot near the Sprint stage to watch The Fray. Ricki had never seen them live before, but like me she really enjoys them, so I was excited for her to have the opportunity to see them with me. They have a lot of great songs to get through, and quickly started checking off a set list full of good ones like “Heartbeat,” “You Found Me,” and “All at Once.” As I’ve noted before, Isaac Slade’s vocals are impressive. He’s really got the chops: he sounds as good (or better) live as he does on record. “Look After You” is one of my favorite Fray songs ever, and was beautiful enough to make me cry, but Isaac singing from atop the piano quickly brought back the smile to my face. “She loves you, she thinks you’re hot, she wants your number,” Slade told a band member for one of the girls in the front who then threw her phone onto the stage, which Slade admitted was a move he’d never seen before. Next came “Never Say Never,” “How to Save a Life,” and “Over My Head (Cable Car)” before Slade asked the crowd if they wanted one more. As to be expected, it was recent single “Love Don’t Die.” Instead of leaving the stage when it was over, though, Slade thanked the crowd, sending out “much love,” etc etc, saying that the next song was their last song and that it had been a “pleasure to play for you guys” and wishing everyone a good summer. The last song was current single “Break Your Plans,” and was again not actually the last song. “I can’t believe how lucky we are tonight to come up here and play for you guys,” Slade said. “I wrote this song for my little brother. He was having some trouble sleeping. Sometimes songs take months to write, but this one took about fifteen or twenty minutes, and we recorded it the same day.” The song was the lovely “Be Still,” and then they played their actual last song, “Same as You.” All in all, it was a great end to another wonderful BottleRock! I might have enjoyed checking out a few songs by headliner Eric Church, but that’s part of the fun of a festival – choosing your faves and enjoying them enough to make up for those you had to miss. I already can’t wait to do it all over again next year!