It’s a few minutes before 10 and I’m walking north on Juarez toward First Street. Behind me, the Zac Brown Band is playing what might be the last song of BottleRock. The amazing sound system at the WillPower Stage drives it through the crowd, out the exit, and down the street with little loss of fidelity. I’ve done this every night, left a little early to beat the crush. It’s a nice way to go home, with live accompaniment by Kings of Leon or The Avett Brothers or The Black Keys. I will miss that, and all the rest.
BottleRock has been by intention a huge and heterogeneous thing, each person or couple or small group having their own unique experience. The specifics of my BottleRock festival may be entirely different from someone else’s — different hours, different bands, different food, different taste, different expectations. Yet I felt, and almost everyone I spoke to felt, a kind of kinship expressed in the smiles given and returned, in the ease of unguarded conversation, in countless simple courtesies that make being in a crowd not just bearable but enjoyable.
How does this kind of kinship happen? I don’t really know, but at this festival I think I know when it started. Way back on Wednesday night, Ben Haggerty (aka Macklemore) enchanted 10,000 or 12,000 of us with his messages of love and joy. It’s corny, folks, but I was there and it happened. As I wrote earlier, the vibe was cast. Everyone’s been smiling since.
Well, maybe not everyone. I did have one unloving encounter. It turns out that some of the professional photographers can be, oh, a little grumpy. For some reason I, a journalist who writes rather than takes pictures, was also given a photographer’s credential for the festival. This might have been a mistake, but given that it allowed me into the photo pit and up close to the performers for the first three songs of each set, I happily kept my mouth shut.
So there I am in the pit at the WillPower Stage, amid a swarm of telephoto lenses, shooting Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes with my little iPhone. Most of the pros don’t care, but this one guy — he’s about 6-4, with three cameras hanging off his belt like assault weapons — is looking down at me like I’m an insect. He does this long disgusted pause and finally says, “This your first rodeo?” Intimidated, I withdraw, conjuring retorts. Maybe, “Yeah, well, can you write a good descriptive sentence without an adverb?”
But Camera Joe was a glaring exception. During Jackson Browne’s set on Saturday, he was singing Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am a Patriot.” When he came to the line, “I want to be with my family,” he unexpectedly thrust his arms out to us — and a few thousand of us, as though he had ignited our synapses, returned the gesture. Corny again, maybe, but there is something tribal and positive that has happened over these five days. It was certainly present in Michael Franti’s performance Sunday with a much bigger crowd.
In 1969, people talked about the Woodstock Nation. There were a half a million people there, so that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. You wouldn’t call our 35,000 a “nation,” but given the affection, joy and courtesy we’ve extended to one another over the past five days, we are, at the very least, the BottleRock Community.
David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist.