For the third time in five years, I headed up to NorCal for one of the country’s best put together music festivals. BottleRock Napa 2019 saw a trio of headliners in Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, and Neil Young appeal to Napa’s audience. Though this year’s festival didn’t sell out as quickly as in 2018, it was still packed. Last year, they pulled an insane booking out of their hats in Bruno Mars. This year, they reverted to a more traditional lineup of headliners.
That isn’t to say it wasn’t a captivating lineup. BottleRock Napa 2019 had one of the deeper undercards of any American festival — especially if you like guitars. As EDM and hip-hop seem to take over many festivals that used to lean on rock music, BottleRock Napa 2019 proved you can still draw a crowd leaning on the genre.
Outside of a little bit of rain early on Sunday, it was perfect weather all weekend long. Below, I recap what I found to be the Best and Worst of BottleRock Napa 2019.
BEST: A festival worth getting to early
A lot of times I look at a festival schedule and there isn’t really anyone I’m dying to see when the gates open. Not the case with BottleRock Napa 2019. All three days there was someone I was looking forward to seeing as early as noon. The beauty was that you could get right up close to the stage for almost any band that played before 4 PM. On Friday, that was LA’s own Valley Queen and Vintage Trouble. On Saturday, it was LA garage rockers The Regrettes. And on Sunday, it was LA folk singer John Craigie and Aussie rockers Gang of Youths. Passionate fans showed up for each one of those sets and you could tell the acts were thrilled to be playing in front of a good-sized audience. At other festivals, the earliest acts are sometimes playing in front of so few people you can count them on your hands and toes.
BEST: Gary Clark Jr. rips it up at official aftershow
Though not technically part of the festival as this show carried a $60 price tag, it’s nice to be able to see acts play full shows around Napa after the fest. Gary Clark Jr. played the JaM Cellars Ballroom on Friday night, and you could’ve seen all of Imagine Dragons and walked over and not missed anything. Gary didn’t take the stage until about 11:15 PM and he played a full two-hour set in a beautiful and intimate venue. I was dead tired after 10 hours spent mostly in the sun, but Gary revitalized me every time he dipped into a guitar solo or his swoon-worthy falsetto. It was amazing to then be able to see him play the main stage something like 15 hours later.
WORST: Those damn blankets, man
Though BottleRock has signs up that says blankets cannot save spots, the signs aren’t visible where they need to be. It was disheartening to head to the main stage to try and get up close for Jenny Lewis on Friday, only to have to navigate across dozens of blankets laid out. Within the first few rows of the GA crowd there was a family lying down on a blanket, with a toddler wearing no headphones, no less. It’s disrespectful to performers to be so close to the stage and not even standing up to watch them. I’m pretty sure I railed against this last year, but BottleRock needs to adopt a rule that says you can’t lay out blankets any closer than the soundboard. People got really indignant when you stepped on their blankets as you made your way through the crowd.
BEST: Neil Young rocks in the free world post-curfew
Napa has a hard out at 10 PM where they have to cut the sound. On Saturday night, Neil Young & The Promise of the Real were closing out their set with Neil’s signature “Rockin’ In The Free World” when the sound cut out at 10 PM. They were finishing up the final chorus, and even though the sound cut out they finished the song. The jubilant crowd kept singing along with Neil until the song was over. It was an interesting crowd all around. I saw a couple of guys in their sixties pop a couple of mushroom caps into their mouth while waiting for Neil to take the stage. I also saw a couple dudes in their sixties nearly come to fisticuffs over nothing. But overall it was the most enjoyable set from Neil I had seen (I think this was my third or fourth time seeing him).
BEST: Tash Sultana into Santana on Sunday
You couldn’t ask for a better lead-in act to iconic guitarist Santana than Aussie multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana. I’ve been a fan of Tash for a couple of years now and recognize her as one of the best live performers that is making a big splash these days. I was in the crowd for her set amongst a sea of people who had never heard her music before. One older lady to my left yelled “HOLY SHIT!” right when Sultana’s set was silent and then looked kind of embarassed and said “Sorry!” But it was the cutest thing and her and her friends couldn’t wrap their heads around what they were seeing. These people were posting up for Santana, who was closing out that stage as the next performer. I’m pretty sure the Aussie made a ton of new fans as she rotated through about a half-dozen instruments, while also showcasing her immense singing ability. Santana then came and closed things out in style, wowing the crowd with his deep catalog of hits and still insane guitar prowess.
All photos courtesy of BottleRock Napa Valley