In music festival years, BottleRock is somewhere between infancy and adolescence right now.

During its four years of existence, Napa Valley’s loudest bacchanal has become as much a magnet for great music as any festival this side of Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. This year, BottleRock drew a sizzling slew of headliners for Memorial Day weekend that ranks right up there with the best of 2016, backed by plenty of stellar support on the bill across the festival’s four stage—five, if you include the Williams-Sonoma Culinary Stage, where famous chefs (Gordon Ramsay! Masaharu Morimoto! Michael Voltaggio! Tyler Florence!) and other random celebrities (Cheech and Chong! Mark Sanchez! Adam Richman! Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters!) combined to tempt attendees with tastes only those in the front row could so much as smell.

As for the music, the central appeal of the lineup for many, yours truly included, came from Stevie Wonder. The Motown legend capped off Friday on the JaM Cellars Stage with his usual melange of timeless classics, timely social commentary (that night’s theme: Vote!) and on-stage antics.


He got the crowd rocking with his rendition of Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk,” kept them rolling through a selection of Steve standards (“Sir Duke,” “I Wish”, “Living For the City”) and surprised with both a cover of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and an appearance by his alter ego, DJ Tick Tick Boom.

To the former of those treats, the audience responded with glee. To the latter…not so much. As great as it was that Stev…errr DJ Tick Tick Boom spun tributes to this year’s fallen artists—Prince, David Bowie, Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire—the crowd quickly grew tired of the act, hoping instead to hear Stevie belt out those classic tunes himself.

Fortunately for them, Mr. Wonder hung around long enough after his time on the ones and twos to send people on their way smiling and singing to “Superstition.”

Stevie was the first, but not the last, of the weekend’s acts to take everyone to “Higher Ground” and get Funkadelic on his own terms. So, too, did the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who closed out the festival on Sunday with a bang…and another…and another. Between staples like “Can’t Stop,” “Dani California”, “Otherside” and “Under the Bridge,” the Chili Peppers debuted the title track to their upcoming album “The Getaway.” Like the title suggests, the song was a bit of a departure for RHCP, more mellow jam than funky freak show.


Not that the Chili Peppers were at all lacking on that front. For their encore, they busted out “Around the World”—complete with drum and bass solos for Chad Smith and Flea, respectively—and “Give It Away.”

But even Stevie and the Peppers paled in comparison to the sheer majesty of Florence and the Machine on Saturday night. Florence Welch stole the show, prancing around the main stage and serenading the audience, as if Wendy left Never Never Land to become a rock star.

That she certainly was, from the deep opening dirge of “What the Water Gave Me” to the ecstasy of “Shake It Off” to the tenderness of “How Big, How Bold, How Beautiful.” She and her band comprised every bit the modern rock diva outfit that Stevie Nicks was in her day with Fleetwood Mac, but with an even more impressive stylistic range. Welch brought “Sweet Nothing” from Calvin Harris’ corner of electronic dance music, did more than justice to Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and offered up plenty of her and her band’s own flavor with the song that shot them into the stratosphere nearly seven years ago, “Dog Days Are Over.”

Like any festival worth its salt, BottleRock offered much more music beyond the headliners. Each of the other stages supported brilliant acts, both local and global, that spanned the sonic spectrum.

The Lagunitas Stage was the smallest of the four musical ones, but packed plenty of punch. I could’ve sworn the Black Keys circa 2004 were playing there on Friday. Instead, there was Black Pistol Fire, blazing its way through a set of heavy blues rock, thick with the flavor of the band’s Austin roots. On Saturday, Philadelphia’s Son Little kept that spirit alive on the Lagunitas Stage with a raspy rhythm and blues that was as much a reflection of his upbringing as a preacher’s progeny as it was a celebration of his influences, from Mavis Staples to Paul McCartney. Come Sunday, it was time for Langhorne Slim and the Law to mellow out the joint, albeit up against the Chili Peppers on the main stage across the way.

The Midway Stage was exactly that: a home for acts who were too big for the smaller venues but wouldn’t draw quite enough fanfare to justify jamming at the JaM Cellars Stage.

Not that you’d have known it from watching Kaleo crank out some riffy blues, including his own rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang”, from behind his Ricky Martin lookalike facade. Or from listening to the Cold War Kids treat onlookers to newer tunes like “All This Could Be Yours” and “First” while indulging their long-standing fans with “Hang Me Out to Dry.” Or from Grouplove keeping the curious crowd “Tongue Tied.”

And that was just on Friday. On Saturday, Midway stretched from the grungy drones of the Joy Formidable to a NorCal reunion of SoCal hip-hop legends the Pharcyde, to the roots rock reggae of Ziggy Marley. The next day, Midway shuttered its speakers after a Latin extravaganza, with Ozomatli’s outspoken-activist fusion bleeding into the brilliant, wordless instrumental duels of Rodrigo y Gabriela.

Those that made it to the main stage without seizing top billing were, by and large, worthy of the venue. The underwhelm of Lenny Kravitz and Michael Franti and Spearhead on Friday were washed away first by Stevie, and then by a stellar assortment on Saturday. The Struts riffed through a rocking set, then thanked America for giving the band a platform to break out. Walk the Moon did all it could to get people moving, though the group and the crowd alike knew full well it would all spill out at the end with “Shut Up and Dance With Me.” Death Cab For Cutie dialed down the energy a bit, but for good reason; the emotions baked into their music—be it in Death Cab hits like “New Year”, “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “Soul Meets Body” to newer additions like “Black Sun” and “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”—are what made them one of Seattle’s shining musical lights during the city’s post-grunge burnout.

The JaM Stage undercard, though, wasn’t lacking for verve on Sunday. MisterWives got the throng into a groove. Then, Gogol Bordello made them move in a whole different way: heads banging, fists in the air, calves and feet turning potential energy into temporary human flight.

(It’s too bad there were so many Lumineers seekers lurking before Gogol, though. Nothing disrupts a good, old-fashioned gypsy punk party like dispassionate observers waiting around for non-threatening naptime tunes.)

Of all the stages, the one sponsored by Miner Family Wine featured the most eye-opening lineup.

It was the best all-around stage on Friday. Fantastic Negrito transported a decidedly West Coast crowd to the Mississippi Delta with some downhome blues, spiced with plenty of East Bay grit. Frontman Xavier Dphrepaulezz (no, that’s not the work of a cat traipsing across my keyboard) was part gospel preacher, part Robert Plant. He spun painful tales about the challenges of modern American life and got a crowd antsy about Golden State’s NBA playoff prospects to chant for their Warriors to come out and play-ay.

Particle kept the party going with their jaunty jams, but the real show-stopping came from none other than Buddy Guy. Whatever it is, Guy still has it, just shy of his 80th birthday, no less. When the legendary Chicago bluesman wasn’t plucking from his chosen genre’s catalogue—from “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Boom Boom” to “What’d I Say” and “Voodoo Chile”—he was busy cussing and cracking wise, even crooning a tongue-in-cheek tune about milking a bull.

That is, if his mouth wasn’t already occupied flinging the strings of his guitar, presumably to give his hands a break from melting faces.

The Miner stage spent the rest of the weekend quirkin’ out. Diego’s Umbrella brought a taste of the bar mitzvah life with their version of “Hava Nagila.” Pimps of Joytime put the funk and the fury into the feet of those fortunate patrons who caught their rollicking set on Sunday.

Save for Kravitz and Franti, then, BottleRock’s musicians turned out a stellar set list. No festival is perfect, especially not one that’s barely been around longer than some of the wine that was peddled that weekend, almost all for $15 or more per glass.

Exorbitant prices are to be expected at this sort of shindig. So are the small portions of food granted in exchange. It’s just a shame that the dishes served weren’t at least of a higher culinary caliber, given the food hub that Napa has become.

The biggest problem, though—aside from all the dust and hay that got kicked up and turned yours truly into a poster child for Benedryl on Saturday—was the cluster**** of traffic that became of the festival’s ingress and egress. Better to call it BottleNeck, not so much for the clogged roads in (though those were pretty terrible) as for the never-ending lines to leave the parking lots. Without anyone to direct cars toward the exits after the shows, getting out turned into a futile free-for-all.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the lots themselves were about a mile away from the festival grounds and cost $30 per day ($40 if you paid day of) to occupy. Pro tip: if you go to BottleRock, try parking your car on the other side of the river, where unrestricted street spots are plentiful.

Fortunately, most of these logistical matters can, with more time and better planning, be ironed out. These are matters of infancy, of a festival still finding itself.

Whether Napa is truly equipped to handle a gathering of this magnitude is another story. That point might be rendered moot soon enough, as Napa continues to grow.

But any festival that draws acts as outstanding at BottleRock’s shouldn’t have any trouble gaining a foothold, be it in a bustling metropolitan park, a polo field in the desert or, in this case, a grassy field tucked away in some of America’s most hallowed wine country.


Josh Martin is an avid concert goer who occasionally writes for Live For Live Music. In his other life, he covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.