This past weekend marked the return of BottleRock Napa Valley 2023 — which has quickly morphed from being not just one of the premier festivals in California, but one of the top festivals in the entire country.
It was my first time at BottleRock since before the pandemic, and it was great to see that they are still thriving.
Here’s a recap of what I found to be the best and worst of this year’s festival.
BEST: Good cross-booking of headliners
This year’s lineup was headlined by names that appealed to the festival’s demographic that is largely comprised of families that head to the festival together. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Duran Duran topped each night for the older crowd while Post Malone, Lil Nas X, and Lizzo appealed more to the younger audience. What made those perfect bookings for the festival however is that all of those acts have crossover appeal with the opposite age group enough that you saw a good mix of both in each crowd. I saw some people catch 4 or 5 songs from the Chili Peppers and then head over to Lil Nas X. Duran Duran had a sizable crowd going up against Lizzo. All six acts that finished the night off on the two largest stages were headliner worthy. Hell, even the Warren G + White Panda silent disco at the end of Sunday night had a few thousand people.
BEST: Main stage institutes a blanket policy
This could’ve been instituted in one of the recent few years that I didn’t attend and I didn’t know it, but it was definitely something different from the last time I attended BottleRock Napa Valley. In previous years, when trying to navigate to a spot at the main stage, you often had to cut across people sitting on the ground on large blankets — sometimes even within 50 yards of the main stage. The people that did this often acted extremely entitled to that space — sometimes it would be one or two people sitting on a blanket that took up the space of where 10 people could stand. And they’d turn into Karens over it.
This year I noticed that at the main stage, they had an orange cone setup pretty far back from the main stage which they designated as the sitting area. This allowed more people to get a good vantage point up close to the main stage who were willing to stand in order to be that close. I had been advocating for this change since first attending in 2015. Now I know just how much work it requires from the festival in order to implement something like this. Security walked around the front of the crowd area and told people sorry, but you can’t sit in this area, the sitting area is back there. They bore the brunt of these Karens for all three days and it was a rather thankless job. It allowed me to get up close for Red Hot Chili Peppers on Sunday, the main band I came to the festival to see. For this change, thank you so much BottleRock! The one minor drawback is it bunched up the crowd at the back by the food and drink vendors when it was packed, which it was a lot.
WORST: Lineup was thinner in notable talent than previous years
I think this is a thing that can be said about all festivals, so it’s not really just a knock against BottleRock Napa Valley 2023. But it seems that the same level bands that would have been playing between 1 and 3 PM at BottleRock in 2015 when I first attended were much bigger names than who we saw on the bill before 3 PM this year. That 2015 year Portugal The Man and Courtney Barnett even back in 2015 would be basically sub-headliners in 2023.
It seems as though festivals have felt the heat from inflation and probably having to shell more money out for insurance thanks to Astroworld, and also be weary of things like COVID knocking out their festival for an entire season, and festivals are getting less value out of their lineup. I love BottleRock but if there aren’t many acts I need to see before 3 PM and the festival ends by 10 PM every night, you wonder if you are getting your full value for what a wristband costs these days. BottleRock lands high marks in basically every other category that I am more willing to overlook a weak lineup and attend than other festivals I used to hit regularly but have been less interested in (Hangout, Shaky Knees, etc).
BEST: Thinner lineup allowed overlooked acts to step up
The flip side to my previous bullet point is that I thought a lot of acts that normally don’t get the love of a later time slot (or even billed at all) on festival lineups were put in the position and everyone I saw seemed to deliver.
For me, one of my favorite sets of the weekend was unexpectedly Lucius. I was a solid fan of what they were doing but sort of grew out of the folksier sound of their earlier work and lost track of them around the time they were killing it as backup singers on tour with Roger Waters. At another festival, they might have been given an unfavorable time slot. At BottleRock Napa Valley 2023, they were not booked against anyone can’t miss and they drew a packed and excitable crowd to the third biggest stage at the festival. I had discovered also that Lucius has leaned into a more disco-y dance-y direction on last year’s Second Nature. While in the past I was blown away by their immense vocal and songwriting abilities, they’ve added a much more noticeable stage presence to go along with their more upbeat tunes. It feels similar to me to Jessie Ware’s equally exciting dive into disco on her last two records. Lucius doing “Next To Normal” was one of my favorite moments of the whole weekend and the duo even put together a medley that featured my only memory of a Tina Turner tribute during the weekend with a snippet of “(Simply) The Best”.
WORST: Lack of tributes to Tina Turner
I’ve attended dozens of music festivals over the last 10 years and many of them have come in the immediate aftermath of the loss of legendary icons in the music business. I remember being at Hangout Fest and seeing numerous bands like The Head and The Heart pay tribute to Chris Cornell after his passing, and how connected those moments made me feel to live music. With the wide-ranging lineup of artists on BottleRock Napa Valley, I was shocked that the only tribute I heard to Tina all weekend was from Lucius with a snippet of “(Simply) The Best”.
Nile Rodgers never worked with Tina Turner but he was friends with her, even recalls her performing Nile’s arrangement of David Bowie’s “Cat People”. Nile and Chic’s set always embodies an entire era and I only expected a tribute from them because they are built to take people back to the time and era Tina thrived. There were some incredible female vocalists and icons at BottleRock that didn’t play any tributes to Tina.
At an earlier show on her tour, Lizzo did “Proud Mary” while talking about Tina Turner. No tribute at BottleRock. I’m not trying to pick anyone’s setlist but it would’ve been nice to see some more people pay tribute to one of the true iconic performers and voices of rock n roll history. And one of its greatest stories. Also this festival’s audience is comprised of a large percentage of people that would’ve really appreciated a tribute. When Lucius did the chorus to “The Best”, the crowd reveled in it.
Three Acts That Should Play BottleRock Napa Valley 2024:
BottleRock Napa Valley 2024 will be the festival’s 10th iteration since it first launched. I think I have a pretty good feel for who would be a good booking for this lineup and the people who attend this festival and wanted to whip up a list of 3 acts that have never played BottleRock Napa Valley that would make perfect sense!
Jungle — After seeing Chic and Nile Rodgers absolutely crush an early afternoon set this past weekend at BottleRock Napa Valley 2023, I have a feeling that UK disco and soul act Jungle would absolutely blow them away. They are about to be four albums deep into their decade-long run and are really hitting their stride these days. Somehow they have yet to play fellow NorCal festival Outside Lands either. Something’s gotta give in 2024 behind their new record!
∫Sunflower Bean — Somehow this NYC indie pop glam band has yet to play either of the big NorCal festivals. After seeing Starcrawler light things up early on Friday at BottleRock, I think the festival would be a great place for Sunflower Bean, another band who has managed to distill a different era’s more simple guitar rock sounds. And just like Starcrawler, they’ve really learned how to punch up the presentation.
Metric — Canadian alt-rockers Metric are currently on a tour with Noel Gallagher and Garbage (another pair of acts that could pull off a BottleRock Napa Valley performance that have yet to play it) and they have such an awesome live show that could really fill out that main stage quite easily. Emily Haines as it the peak of her performative powers in my opinion.
Words by Mark Ortega
Photos by Chad Cochran