If you ask BottleRock’s chief executive what he’s most excited about for this year’s festival, he will talk for a long time. Dave Graham sat down last week for our annual pre-BottleRock chat. He began, not surprisingly, with music.

“What I’m really excited about,” Graham said, “is the idea that at every stage this year we have bands that could become the next big thing. That wasn’t always the case when we were talking about, say, the fourth stage in 2014 or even 2015. This year, the fourth stage in many ways rivals the third or second, and even the main stage in some respects.”

He zeroed in on three lesser-known bands. “One would be Nothing But Thieves,” he said, “the second would be The Struts, both of which are from Great Britain. And Black Pistol Fire, a two-man band out of Toronto, you think White Stripes, Black Keys, guitar and drums, and man do they give it their all.”

It’s not that Graham doesn’t care about the headliners, about Stevie Wonder or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Florence + the Machine. He does, but they’re a given, it seems. We know about them. What he loves talking about are the gems down the lineup. As the Latitude 38 partner primarily choosing the artists, he’s become a bit of a band geek. He’s enthusiastic, and he’s reliable.

Graham is quick to credit his Latitude 38 partners for BottleRock’s success in booking major musical acts. “It’s not solely my skill that allows us to book the bands we’re able to book,” he said. “It’s because Justin (Dragoo) and Jason (Scoggins) and their team are able to put together an experience that people love while watching those bands. If that kind of experience didn’t happen, the bands wouldn’t want to play at the festival.”

According to Graham, the Culinary Stage will be more exciting this year, more irreverent and more fun than in 2015. “I think we raised the bar in terms of the lineup,” he said. “Consider what’s planned for Michael Mina and Dwight Clark. We’re bringing in the fish mongers from the Pike Street Market in Seattle. They’re going to be throwing salmon from the crowd up to Dwight Clark to see if he can make the catch. We’re having fun, stepping outside the traditional cooking demonstration.”

“The food selection this year has been ramped up quite a bit,” Graham said. “We have even more local restaurants preparing food, and we will have pop-ups happening from some of the best restaurants in Napa Valley. So you’ll see Angele come out of nowhere with some sliders that you weren’t expecting. They won’t have a fixed tent all three days, they’ll just show up with platters. Morimoto and others will be doing that as well.”

Graham continued his inventory of festival upgrades. The VIP program has dramatically expanded, both in physical scale and in terms of special acoustic performances and meet and greets with festival artists. For the first time, general admission pass holders will have similar opportunities.

The main stage will be considerably larger and supported by an entirely new sound system. “We’ve added steroids this year,” Graham said, “and we’ll have much larger video walls. No matter where you’re at, your going to be able to find out if Anthony Kiedis has shaved that day.”

One of BottleRock’s biggest expansions is in its sponsorship of after-shows. “We’re doing about 20 after-shows,” the Latitude 38 CEO said. “We’re excited about them because, first and foremost, they bring people from the festival into downtown. They can begin to see the renaissance that’s taking place rather than just driving in and going to the festival and driving out. And for the businesses to get more business is really important. We want the city to benefit from BottleRock and thrive.

“Secondly, they’re conducive to an overall better experience for people because the more people that you take off of the road at the end of the festival day, the better. If you can bring 5,000 people or more into Napa, versus having those people get on the road, it makes for less traffic for those people who are not coming into town.

“And No. three, they’re just fun. The notion that someone could go see a band like Gogol Bordello play at the Uptown, that doesn’t happen anywhere. Wow, I wish I could go.”

Despite the array of festival upgrades, Graham is circumspect about the arc of Latitude 38’s success. “We’re not anywhere near where we want to be from a fan experience standpoint,” he said. “People this year will see a huge leap. The bar has been raised big time from last year to this year, but in 2017 that leap will be just as big, and with that will come big challenges. We’ve got a long way to go to be able to hit the benchmark that we’ve set for ourselves.”

Graham is a bit more willing to let his pride emerge if you ask him about BottleRock the brand. “Our brand has definitely grown exponentially,” he said. “If you ask people who have gone to BottleRock about the festival, you’ll generally hear some very positive feedback, and the feedback about their experience is very different from what you might hear, were you asking about other festivals. So we’re very happy with the brand association, whether it is awesome food, awesome wine, incredible weather, great lineup, you don’t have to walk miles from stage to stage, more intimate, nice people, it’s family-friendly.”

Still, always reluctant to pop the Champagne corks, Graham added his cautious benediction. “But you’re only as good as your last festival,” he said. “While we’re genuinely excited about what people will experience this year, they’ve yet to experience it. We still have to deliver. There’s a lot that has to happen between now and Sunday night. There are no high-fives going on, there is no celebration, nor is there any sort of arrogance relative to what we’re providing this year versus what we’ve done in the past two years. The book hasn’t ended yet.”

David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at DavidKerns.com.

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