The Black Keys, the Flaming Lips, Andrew Bird, Alabama Shakes, the Dirty Projectors, Vintage Trouble and more
Friday, May 10, 2013
Bottle Rock Napa Valley
Better than: Bob's Hot Rods cover band, Craig Chaquico, or other music you'd typically hear at a winery.
Ostensibly the four-day event that took over downtown Napa last weekend was a "music festival." But that doesn't seem like an accurate term for the situation at Napa Valley's fairgrounds on Friday.
Most major music festivals offer diversions from the stages presenting live music -- ferris wheels, silent discos, etc. But at Bottle Rock, the bands and their performances felt like diversions themselves. Instead a "music festival," perhaps we should think of Bottle Rock as a day-drinking conference, or consumption confab, or cash-discarding party. It was a pricey, exclusive-feeling event packed with comedy, fancy food, and plenty of drinking, one that happened to include -- as a matter of course rather than an aching passion -- live performances from big, broadly appealing rock acts like the Black Keys, the Flaming Lips, and Alabama Shakes.
To be fair, this was the second day of Bottle Rock's first year, and no festival has figured out the focus and balance of activities by this point. Bottle Rock was also a smoother experience than we expected of a new major event, with good live sound and decent logistics. (Although that certainly wasn't everybody's experience.)
But on Friday, most of the musical performances were overlong and not particularly thrilling. At 3:30 p.m., perhaps couple hundred people lingered in the sun at the Citi Bank stage to watch Dirty Projectors work through the almost-Afrobeat of "What I See" and the knotty "Fucked For Life." The latter song approached a kind of odd, offbeat funk, but it never really became truly satisfying. This seemed as much the fault of the musicians as the setting: While they sounded crisp, a hot lawn in the middle of the afternoon didn't easily facilitate the scrutiny and careful attention that the Dirty Projectors' sonic cubism requires.
Unsurprisingly, there was a mass exodus toward a band seemingly better-suited for the situation: Alabama Shakes. Save of the presence of the sun, the band's 4 p.m. set on the main Willpower Stage had all the appearance of a headlining performance, complete with a thick crowd that stretched in every direction. The band dispensed with "Hold On" immediately, sounding full and clear and getting the massive crowd waving arms and singing along. But after three or four songs, another reality of the Shakes' music became all too obvious: Most of it is pretty mellow. Drenched in sunlight, echoing out over Bottle Rock's thousands, "Rise to the Sun" and "Boys and Girls" felt languid and distant, a pleasant dream on a summer afternoon. Soon the tipsy masses around us were talking loudly amongst themselves, and the music receded into the background. About halfway through the set, the sliding, slippery guitar riff of "Be Mine" jolted the crowd's attention -- but it never came back to "Hold On" levels.
A glance at the schedule revealed another obvious problem with the music lineup at Bottle Rock: All of the sets were way too long. Alabama Shakes were set to play for 75 minutes -- a reasonable duration for a headlining set, but not one in the middle of the afternoon, especially from a band whose sole album doesn't even last 40 minutes. When you're standing in the sun among loud, drunk people, things need to change quickly. Predictably, Alabama Shakes started to drag after 35 minutes.
This problem wasn't just with their set, either. Dirty Projectors had been given an hour, when 30 minutes would've been more than enough. The Shins, up next on the big stage, got an hour and a half -- as did the Black Keys, afterward, and the Flaming Lips for closing out the smaller Citi Bank stage. The long sets made it especially hard to decide whether to stick around or leave one set for something better. These days the Shins are purveyors of background music, anyway. This became obvious as soon as they got through "Phantom Limb," and we left to grab dinner -- only to hear them go into excellent older songs like "So Says I" and "Kissing the Lipless" from a distance. If you wanted to hear "New Slang," you had to stick around until the end.
The early evening brought the weird spectacle of seeing the Flaming Lips perform in the last minutes of daylight. Wayne Coyne arrived looking like some kind of human-fish hybrid in a shiny, sequined bodysuit, standing on top of what could've been a crash-landed UFO. The band performed in front of a bright LCD screen, accompanied by a battery of lasers, which of course looked better the farther down the sun got. The first half of the performance was largely ponderous and dull -- until, 30 minutes in, they suddenly dispensed with the amorphous sonics and leapt into a fantastic, faithful cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." It was probably the best musical moment of the whole day: the crowd, animated by having something exciting happen onstage for once, shouted along. Coyne played the triumphant hero he does so well, raising his arms high onstage and vamping for all the audience love he could get. "Heroes" is (of course) a great song, and the fact that the Lips didn't mess with it too much made us infinitely glad. It was the kind of happy surprise you expect at a music festival -- but didn't often find at Bottle Rock.
After "Heroes," though, the Flaming Lips went back to their dull atmospherics, playing as if they had a long set to fill -- and not realizing, apparently, that the time to catch the Black Keys was fast approaching.
Up on the big stage, the Ohio blues-rock duo at first felt tantalizingly concrete. They wasted no time in getting to good songs like "Lonely Boy," "Run Right Back," and "Gold on the Ceiling." But after a quick run through newer songs written with a full band in mind, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney dismissed their bandmates and proceeded to air material from their old days as a bluesy two-piece. In a smaller setting, Auerbach and Carney alone can kill -- we've seen them do it many times. But drums, guitar, and vocals alone do not easily fill the vast expanse of a festival grounds. Left with just two musicians on that giant, towering stage, the energy noticeably dissipated -- and so, it seemed, did the crowd's interest.
The fact that this band has been playing pretty much this exact show for a year now also contributed to a feeling that even this Bottle Rock headliner was just going through the motions, playing a long set for what had to be a big payday, with nothing particularly fresh to contribute. It wasn't bad background music for drinking. But if you want the surprises and revelations that usually come with a major music festival, Friday at Bottle Rock Napa Valley wasn't the place to find them.
Price list: $8 for a Budweiser; $9 for a number of Sierra Nevada brews; $15 for a 12.5oz bag of cold, somewhat decent red or white wine; $10-15 for high-end grub in the Whole Foods market area; and $13-$17 for a five-ounce pour of high-quality wine from any of the winery tents. And that's on top of tickets and parking, of course. So Bottle Rock ain't cheap.
Spoiled: After becoming so used to attending festivals in Golden Gate Park, we had high hopes for the natural beauty of the Napa Valley. But it turns out the area where Bottle Rock took place was just your basic fairgrounds, with paved lots, a few scrubby lawn areas, and random buildings. It was a functional setting -- things were compact and easy to get to -- but certainly not a magical one.