Best and Worst of BottleRock Napa 2018

The key to a successful festival is knowing your market — and it’s hard for you to argue that any festival knows their market better than BottleRock Napa 2018.

With Outside Lands still not sold out and FYF Fest cancelled, the point could be made that BottleRock Napa’s brand is stronger than any west coast festival not named Coachella. It was easy for me to understand why after returning to the festival this weekend for the first time since 2015 — these guys seem to sink a majority of their profits back into the festival.

The first year I went, it was so dusty that I felt like I was on the Polo Fields of Coachella. Now? There’s grass or turf laid down pretty much everywhere, including at the main JamCellars stage. Whereas many festivals become complacent once they’ve started selling out (what new things has Outside Lands really added in recent years?), BottleRock Napa keeps looking for ways to improve.

As Bruno Mars closed things out Sunday night in front of a packed crowd, I looked around and realized that despite wine country’s profile as being for the upper class, BottleRock Napa 2018 was a very inclusive festival. Check out what I found to be the Best and Worst of BottleRock Napa 2018 below.

BEST: Bruno Mars delivers one of the best headline sets of recent years

While many pop stars rely on a ton of pomp and circumstance, fireworks and crazy visuals, Bruno Mars doesn’t need all of that. He’s got an insanely talented band behind him and the kind of dance moves and singing ability that have made it easy for people to compare him to Michael Jackson.

When I interviewed one of BottleRock Napa’s owners Dave Graham, he told me about the Bruno Mars booking. “When you have a headliner that has music and a brand that can speak into the listening of a broader audience, that has credibility with the younger generation but also approachability to the older customer — Bruno Mars is all that and then some,” Graham said. He couldn’t have been more right. As I looked to the right of me, I saw two guys probably in their fifties singing and dancing to one of Bruno’s many hits. They looked up and saw themselves on the big screen and freaked out as if they were kids experiencing the same thing.

I don’t listen to Bruno Mars on my own time hardly at all, but by the end of his show Sunday night, I considered myself a Bruno Mars stan. The guy is incredibly talented and it honestly was one of the best headliner bookings I’ve experienced in over 50+ music festivals that I’ve attended. Bravo, BottleRock Napa.

BEST: VIP experience continues to build

One place that BottleRock Napa has especially focused on building year after year is their various levels of VIP. The Platinum VIP level is the highest the festival offers, at a price tag of $3,900 per weekend. It gets you special parking on the festival grounds and golf cart access around the festival. The Platinum lounge sits adjacent to the main stage and has an open bar and delicious Michelin quality food being served.

But one of the coolest things offered was a viewing area above the soundboard at the main stage. While initially they tried putting 40 people up there at a time, the fire marshal shot that down the first night and limited it to 20. They cycled people through every couple of songs so everyone could get a chance. The view up above the crowd was mesmerizing and it’s honestly an idea I haven’t seen offered at any other festival.

Then of course there is the side stage viewing that many festivals have, and also the Skydecks that run along the side of the main stage that also are open bar. They also had special acoustic performances in the VIP village of bands like The Head and The Heart and Shakey Graves, quite a special treat. There’s a reason VIP tickets sell out in mere minutes the last few years, and that’s because those who buy these passes know they’re getting bang for their buck.

WORST: Blanket privilege

If I have to gripe about something, I really can only think of one thing. When you cater your festival to a more privileged demographic, there’s always going to be a certain sense of entitlement. BottleRock Napa isn’t alone in this (I’ve seen this at similar festivals), but people were laying down their blankets extremely close to the stage and getting indignant when you’d cut across them to get in and out of tightly packed crowds. If you want to lay your blanket down and have space, you should be further back from the stage to do so. This was my only complaint about the festival all weekend long.

BEST: The Head and The Heart, others know their audience with prescient covers

I love a good cover song. It’s even better when the cover song fits the crowd. The Head and The Heart played a swoon worthy cover of Crowded House’s classic “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, and the crowd young and old sang every word to the chorus. It was a perfect fit for the BottleRock Napa contingency, and the Seattle folk band weren’t the only ones on point with their cover selection.

The Struts delivered an awesome cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”, bringing up an older woman on stage from the crowd to dance and sing along with them. Bleachers covered Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. One of my favorites was The Night Game covering Annie Lennox’s “No More ‘I Love Yous'”, which got a good response as well.

BEST: E-40, Adam Richman, Mike D get down at Culinary Stage

I didn’t really check out the culinary stage my first year at BottleRock Napa back in 2015. But this year, there was a lull in who I wanted to see play a show on Saturday, so we checked out the culinary stage. Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food was paired with Bay Area legend E-40 and Beastie Boys legend Mike D. E-40 and Richman were making steak sandwiches of some sort, but the real treat was in Richman rapping over E-40’s “Choices”. I went into this thing thinking that they probably didn’t do that much preparation and were just paired up together, but clearly these guys put in a ton of effort by having Richman do a rap that had to do with the food they were making. Mike D came out afterwards and paired a wine with the meal. Everyone around me really enjoyed this.


Five Best Sets of BottleRock Napa 2018

  1. Bruno Mars — I wonder if Bruno Mars has to ice his groin after every performance, as he did at least 70 pelvic thrusts throughout his set Sunday night. He united the crowd young and old as he banged out hit after hit.
  2. The Killers — Brandon Flowers is a masterful showman and frontman and this was the second biggest singalong behind Bruno Mars all weekend. They have so many certified bangers to their credit. Flowers changed outfits, emerging on stage in an all gold suit towards the end of the set. “All These Things That I’ve Done” was probably the high point of the entire festival for me.
  3. NoMBe — I rode to BottleRock Napa 2018 the first day in a carpool with strangers I found through the ride share part of the festival’s website. I told them they had to see NoMBe, and they listened to a couple songs. After the festival they told me that he was their favorite set of the day other than Muse. It’s easy to understand why, he’s got an extremely talented all-female band behind him and just has a bunch of groovy songs that have a Bowie-meets-Prince R&B vibe to them.
  4. Durand Jones & The Indications — There was quite a bit of soul on this year’s lineup, with my personal highlight being this group. In the last year they’ve added a horns section which has provided a little more depth to their already wondrous sound. Jones’ voice gives you goosebumps and the crowd was really reactive to their show, with a high rate of participation as opposed to other sets I saw over the weekend.
  5. The Aces — I’ve been listening to this four-piece’s debut album a bunch since it dropped last month and finally got to see them live Saturday afternoon. They were one of the earliest sets of the day on the main stage — which is always a difficult task — but they got the crowd involved early. Their Amy Grant-esque jams fit the vibe of BottleRock Napa 2018 like a glove and people undoubtedly walked away with at least one of their many songs “Stuck” in their head.

The weather for BottleRock Napa 2018 was perfect after an initial forecast that called for a lot of rain Friday. It only misted a little bit. I remember my first trip to the festival in 2015 being hot as hell early in the day and then freezing cold, but it wasn’t quite like that this time. It was quite the perfect weekend in Napa and I’m already looking forward to seeing what their lineup will shape up to be next year.

All photos courtesy of BottleRock Napa Valley unless otherwise noted

BottleRock Napa 2018 lineup: Bruno Mars, The Killers, Muse headline