Before I get into all the details of the gloriousness that was this year’s BottleRock Napa Valley, please allow me a moment, not just to digress but to explain why this festival is so important to me. I was born in Napa. As many Napa kids do, I moved away in my early 20s seeking something more exciting (hard to imagine now, but at the time Napa was still a relatively small town without a lot to do). I had some oats to sow, and was gone for 5-6 years, but returned about a decade ago to go back to school. Since then, I often say that “this town and I grew up together,” as we’ve both evolved into something more worth enjoying. While once I was a kid from a small town most had never heard of (and because of which I often claimed SF or the Bay Area to those unfamiliar), I have since become a “townie,” and that’s okay with me. This place is something special, and I can’t imagine ever leaving. True, it was once far quieter (and okay, far more dull), but these days it’s really something to behold, and has earned its reputation as a world-famous, world-class destination on bucket lists the world over. So, add to that a phenomenal music festival that showcases not just the mind-blowing wines and taste-bud-tantalizing food for which we’re known, but consistently impressive musical lineups that offer something for everyone, year after year? How could I not love BottleRock? I’m happy to say that I’ve been BottleRocking since the very beginning, and I can’t imagine what it might take to keep me away. As you can imagine, I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!
Okay, onward…this year, BottleRock was scheduled to fall on Memorial Day weekend. While I personally heard the frustration of local business owners (for many of whom the beloved festival pulls away business all weekend long), I didn’t have any reason to lament spending a long, beautiful-weathered weekend wandering the Napa Valley Expo grounds last weekend more or less than any other.
My Day 1 began with Kaleo, a band to whom I’m pretty new. I think I first discovered them when I heard their single “Way Down We Go” on an episode of Suits, of all places, but I liked it so much I tracked it down and downloaded, before hearing it several other places in quick succession. I schlepped from my car to the Expo, made a quick stop at the Beer Garden to grab a cold one (Anchor Brewing’s Mango Wheat in particular, which was entirely new to me), and made my way to the Midway stage just as Kaleo was beginning their set. Unfortunately, I don’t know any of their songs by name except the aforementioned single, but I can say that I’ll now be downloading album A/B to remedy that ASAP! They were fantastic!
My next stop was over to the JaM Cellars stage (aka the main stage) to catch the second half of Andy Grammer’s set. I’ve seen him before, but the infections pop hooks rarely disappoint, and the crowd seemed to enjoy him, especially during his bigger hits like “Fine by Me” and “Honey I’m Good.” Equally enchanting, however, was Grammer’s genuine appreciation for the invitation to perform at BottleRock; he admitted he was new to the festival scene and that he was “so stoked to be here” and “so fucking happy, seriously!” Perhaps best of all, he got so flustered that he called it the “best Saturday ever!” before realizing it was only a Friday. (“Shit!”) His set also included “Back Home” and a cover of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” during which the entire crowd sang at Grammer’s behest. He closed with recent single “Good to Be Alive,” and the evidence that he was feeling just that way was written all over his face.
Next I had a little down-time before Michael Franti was up next on the same stage, so I headed over to the culinary garden from a snack from Napa Palisades Saloon (the divine chorizo fries) and then made my way back to catch “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” which was the band’s opening song, before realizing I was already nearly due to meet with Blue Moon creator, Keith Villa, for a tasting. Though I was disappointed to miss most of Michael Franti & Spearhead, the beer was calling.
Not only did Mr. Villa educate me on the fascinating history of the beer (that, incidentally, became my own personal “gateway” to the beer-loving girl I am today), but I learned that he has an actual Ph.D. in Brewing, which is obviously quite impressive (and I for one didn’t know that was even a real thing before last weekend)! Also, the “flagship” Belgian White beer is always made with only Valencia oranges from California, though they tested oranges from all over the world before settling on the perfect choice. Next we tasted the Table Pils, which is lighter than a traditional pils, and goes well with street tacos, says Villa. Next came the White IPA, and I’ll be the first to admit that not only am I not on the IPA-loving bandwagon, I don’t typically enjoy hoppy beers or those with high IBUs, but this one only clocks in at about 47 IBUs and was surprisingly drinkable, as IPAs go – the bitterness is really well-balanced. (Villa made a point to explain that he wants all of his beers to be drinkable and balanced, no matter how high the alcohol or concentration of bitter hops/high IBUs).
Our next-to-last beer was already a favorite of mine: the wonderful Cinnamon Horchata Ale. I first experienced this with my bestie a few years ago after helping her move and buying us a case of Blue Moon as a reward. There were only two of the Cinnamon Horchata in the box of 12, and after quickly becoming smitten with the refreshing, delightfully cinnamon-y taste (it really does taste a bit like actual horchata, for a beer), I tweeted the company begging them to release it in a 6-pack all its own. Fast-forward a few years, and it turns out I’m not alone: Cinnamon Horchata is not only here to stay, it was available on tap throughout BottleRock and can be found at retailers everywhere all by itself in a 6er! Suffice it to say it was my favorite of the day, and the one I had several more servings of before thanking Keith and his associates for all the beer and great info. But, there was one more beer to taste, and it was the reason I’d landed the tasting gig in the first place: Villa’s newest Raspberry Imperial Tart, made with a ton of raspberries whose sweetness isn’t drowned by the alcohol, even though it’s a bit high at 10%. There was another version of the raspberry aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from Napa that I was meant to taste, but it hadn’t yet been opened. (Sad face! Mr. Villa invited me back the following day to taste it, but when I returned he and his people had already left for the day.) I left Blue Moon full of beer and awesome information, not the least of which is that the beer is turning 21, as well as opening a new brewery next month in Denver, Colorado, where they’re based.
I would have liked to have caught a few of the appearances scheduled on that stage this weekend, but sadly, music usually takes precedence for me, as was the case last weekend, too. Wild horses couldn’t have kept me from crossing Lenny Kravitz off my musician bucket list (especially with the way things have been going for uber-talented musicians this year…*knocks wood*). I found a spot near a woman I quickly recognized as local chocolatier Anette! Though I’d never actually met her, I had gone to elementary school with her step-daughter, so I introduced myself and ended up spending the rest of my evening enjoying the last two performers on the JaM Cellars stage with her. Lenny Kravitz came out swinging, beginning with “Where Are We Runnin'” and his fantastic, electric version of The Who’s “American Woman,” which was a personal favorite of his entire performance. Next was a “nice friendly little song about racism,” “Mr. Cab Driver,” then a pitch-perfect rendition of the massive hit “It Ain’t Over Til it’s Over”
Kravitz took issue with the fact that someone was “telling us about the time,” but said, “that’s alright, we gon’ make it fit,” and then had to “jam for a little bit” while experiencing technical difficulties with his amp: “I refuse to stress!” While he waited for the amp to be fixed so that he could play again, Kravitz performed a little of his beautiful hit “Again,” after which he was back in business, saying “alright, we gotta move quick!” Indeed he did, quickly cranking out several more songs, including “Let Love Rule,” “Always on the Run,” smash hit “Fly Away,” and then thanking the crowd, saying “we gonna go one more!”
“Are You Gonna Go My Way?” closed out Kravitz’s excellent set, and Kravitz concluded by thanking Napa for having him: “it’s beautiful! Next you have the genius of the world, Stevie Wonder!” As he hopped off the stage, Kravitz walked through the pit greeting adoring fans before disappearing and taking the sun with him.
And then it was the moment so many of us had been waiting for. The sun had begun to set and finally, it was up to Stevie Wonder to close out the first day’s festivities, of which we all knew he was more than capable. He walked onstage reeking of casual humility, saying “hello, hello, hello, hello, hello… I love you.” He began the evening thanking BottleRock for inviting him, and then insisted he didn’t want to get “too political, but he wanted us to “please remember that you hold the future in your hands. However you decide to vote will determine what happens to our children and their children, and so on, and so forth. Division is unacceptable! Hatred and prejudice is unacceptable! A’ight? A’ight, now that I got that out of the way, y’all ready to have some fun?” We were, of course.
He began his set with a cover of Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” Next came “Higher Ground” with the crowd singing along at not just an impressive volume, but quite a lovely chorus as well. He followed these with “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” and “Saturn,” after which he begged for quiet “cause I’ma give you my love.” And give us his love he did with a beautiful rendition of my personal favorite, “Overjoyed.”
“If You Really Love Me,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” and “Living for the City” followed, and then another highlight: a perfect cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed up by “My Cherie Amour and a cover of The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” which highlighted his awe-inspiring harmonica abilities: listen, if you’ve never seen him play that thing live, I recommend you try while he’s around. It’s really a sight to see. I don’t know how it is that a person can play an instrument like a harmonica so well that you know it’s him when you hear it on a record, but that’s what Stevie does, and I was quite blown away.
At that point, Stevie insisted that “from now on until we finish up this thing, we’re havin’ a celebration of life” and asked that the crowd call him “DJ Tick Tick Boom.” I’ve seen it incorrectly reported that Wonder then proceeded to play covers of artists we’ve recently lost, but in fact what he did was simply play the hits of theirs that he wanted to play, as though he was, in fact, a DJ. It was as though he’d made us a mixed tape. First came Prince’s “Kiss” and “When Doves Cry,” then Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World,” Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be,” then the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and finally, my beloved David Bowie’s “Fame.” Wonder finished up the set as he’d begun it, as himself, performing an encore of “Superstition” to an ecstatic mass of fans celebrating life, love, and music.