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Napa Valley's BottleRock Is What You Make It

This article was originally published on Respect My Region

You won’t see totem poles and pasties at Napa Valley’s BottleRock festival. This should be obvious considering wine is a central attraction of the event and they even have a culinary stage, yet those attending for the first time are usually caught off guard by how … tame it is.

Suburban moms in denim jackets and high-school teens have dominated the Napa Valley Expo every year since the festival’s debut in 2013. It’s also pretty common to see children running around and babies in strollers because it has always been marketed as a family-friendly gathering. Upon entering the venue, “Live, Laugh, Love” quite noticeably stands out as the overarching theme of the three-day celebration of food, alcohol and music, so when you think of a festival in Napa, BottleRock is pretty much on brand from every angle.

Yet, none of this stopped Tove Lo from flashing the crowd during her tremendously erotic set. Killer Mike held zero punches and repeatedly chanted, “I’ll leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan Dead,” as several Boomers (presumably loyalists) began walking away. Lupe Fiasco went straight for the kill and addressed how many attractive elderly women were present at his show, though his wording was far more audacious.

What makes BottleRock so peculiar yet entertaining is that the Napa locals are in on how palpable the mismatch between the lineup and the audience is. Though a lot of the performers like Sheryl Crow and Carly Rae Jepsen seemed like the perfect fit for the area, there was a whole other side to the festival wherein the crowd didn’t at all look the part.

People of all ages, genders and races were present at Wu-Tang Clan’s debut performance in Napa, which most likely won’t be the case when they hit the road with Nas this September. If this doesn’t sound like an exceptional feat, picture men and women in their 50s holding up Wu-Tang signs while RZA raps, “Ayo camouflage chameleon, ninjas scalin’ your buildin,’ No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children.”

The contrast made for quite the sight and is arguably BottleRock’s most extraordinary characteristic — younger folks attending Duran Duran and War while Gen X parents rushed to watch Lizzo, Post Malone and Lil Nas X. It doesn’t take long to get accustomed to this environment because it encourages everyone to be comfortable. In most cases, you could easily work your way up to the front of any stage and still have plenty of space to move around because people just didn’t seem that fixated on getting a whiff of those playing in front of them.

Though it may not have been the party of the summer that most other festivals brand themselves as, it was one that created a safe space for all while granting them the flexibility to turn it all the way up to 100 if they wished to … some chose to stick to wine and beer while others had their bullets and fungi ready for the moments they had been anticipating.

Killer Mike at the Verizon Stage on Friday, May 26 [Photo Credit: Beth S.]

MEUTE at the Allianz Stage on Saturday, May 27 [Photo Credit: Priscilla R.]

As for the performers, pretty much everyone stepped up. Sure, it was highly upsetting to learn that Japanese Breakfast had been replaced by Dogstar, a painfully mediocre three-piece known only for featuring Keanu Reeves on the bass guitar. Still, Bottle Rock ’23 was packed with a ton of pleasant surprises that made up for the one or two disappointing ones — all you had to do was look. For example, German techno marching band MEUTE put on one of the most dynamic, adrenaline-inducing performances of the entire festival and they weren’t even playing on a main stage! Similarly, Phantogram came through with a headline-worthy act fresh with live instrumentation of the highest standard despite working a 6 pm slot.

The main eventers had a slightly different story. The Smashing Pumpkins demonstrated exactly how a legacy act that still releases music should go about a high-profile performance — play the hits and leave the new stuff for your die-hard fans to listen to on their own time. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, on the other hand, didn’t seem privy to this at all. They insisted on peppering their setlist with new songs that no one seemed interested in, which certainly didn’t help energize an already stiff crowd. Both bands have been around since the 80s but only one is still self-aware.

Napa is by no means the epicenter of popular culture, yet it does a fantastic job of hosting some of the biggest names in music every year. BottleRock is unique because it seems like a county fair on the surface but offers so much more than meets the eye. Though the default setting is calm, you have the option to switch gears as you please and no one seems bothered by it. People move at their own pace and let others do the same, and at no point does it ever feel stressful. You can take a nap on the grass or dance like a lunatic — either way, it’s all good.


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