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BottleRock Napa Valley returns -- and the long wait was worth it

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In what seems like a sudden and almost overwhelming return to pre-pandemic life, BottleRock Napa returned last weekend to the Napa Valley Expo in all its glory.

The event brought with it more than 100,000 eager festival attendees, over three days, for the first time since 2019. As a Napa resident, local musician and hospitality worker,I had the festival on the forefront of my mind in the weeks and days leading up to it, leaving very little room for anything else to occupy my thoughts.

Despite the ever-present advertisements on social media and constant chatter amongst my friends and colleagues about the approaching festival, a part of me still had a hard time believing this was actually happening after a year and a half of COVID surges, lockdowns and social distancing.

On the morning of Friday, Sept. 3, as I walked through the still-quiet streets of downtown Napa with my Doberman, Max, I felt a brimming sense of equal parts excitement and cautious anxiety drifting from the local businesses and permeating the air.

A large lighted sign that read “BOTTLEROCK COVID TESTING” loomed over Third Street near the railroad tracks on the walk over to the Expo, a reminder of the ever-present pandemic. Upon entry to the festival, attendees were required to show either proof of their vaccination status against COVID-19 or a negative COVID test result within 72 hours.

Some attendees wore face masks while waiting in line to enter, although they seemed to be quickly shed by most upon entering the festival grounds. The crowds quickly spread out, some heading to stages to watch the opening acts, while others checked out the numerous vendor booths, bars and food tents serving cuisines from 72 local restaurants.

About 15 minutes after the first bands started playing, the official social media handles for BottleRock Napa Valley made a very sudden and surprising announcement: Chris Stapleton had declared he was dropping out of his Friday night headlining slot due to complications from a non-COVID related illness, and that the all-female country group The Highwomen (featuring the already performing Brandi Carlile and bandmates) would be filling in for him.

The word quickly spread through the festival and for the next short while I would witness many attendees stare at their phones in shock and shake their heads in disappointment upon reading the news.

“This time slot is cursed,” said user @page2112 in response to the official announcement on BottleRock’s Instagram page, a reference to singer Stevie Nicks’ previous decision to drop out of the festival one month prior.

For most of the day on Friday, the crowds were fairly spaced out, but as the sun started to go down and the headliner time slots approached, the grounds quickly filled up and the concert-goers became tightly packed in together near the festival stages. Still very few masks were seen, although some chose to wear theirs in the most densely packed areas.

After witnessing sets by several bands on various stages including Grass Child, Crimson Apple, Gracie Abrams, Chromeo, Devotchka, and Joywave, my group and I settled in at the Verizon Stage to watch Bay Area hip-hop artist G-Eazy.

Fans packed in shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the rapper perform, with rows of people stretching all the way to the beer tents and restrooms opposite the stage.

A dense cloud of cannabis smoke wafted through and above the crowd, and for over an hour it seemed as if the current pandemic was nothing more than a distant memory to those in attendance. G-Eazy delighted and dazzled his audience with his dynamic rapping skills and staunch swagger, performing old hits and unreleased material from his forthcoming album, “These Things Happen Too.”

“This is my first real festival back onstage, and it feels so f—ing good to be back,” said the rapper to his audience, who responded with cheers and thunderous applause.

Saturday brought with it higher temperatures and bigger crowds. Hobo Johnson, a singer and poet from Sacramento, serenaded his crowd with his spoken-word style emotional rhymes in the afternoon sun on the Verizon stage.

Classic covers seemed to be a running theme for the day, with Young the Giant paying tribute to Stevie Nicks with a lilting indie-pop cover of “Dreams” at the JaM Cellars stage. Dominic Fike covered “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer and hip-hop duo Run the Jewels made an epic stage entrance to “We Are the Champions” by Queen.

Guns N’ Roses headlined that night on the JaM Cellars stage, performing over two and a half hours of smash hits including “Welcome to the Jungle,” “November Rain,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

An hour into their set, pop mega-star Miley Cyrus stole the crowd away over to the Verizon stage, filling in seemingly every square inch of available space. She put on a performance dripping with spectacle, including her hit singles “Party in the U.S.A” and “Wrecking Ball,” as well as a cover of Janis Joplin’s “Maybe.”

Back at the Verizon stage, GNR closed out the night with their appropriately titled hit song, “Paradise City,” joined on stage by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. The song was promptly cut off in typical Dave Grohl fashion at 10 p.m., drawing an uproar of jeers and boos from the audience before the band and audience finished the song together, completely unamplified.

As the crowds rolled out on Saturday night, local bars and restaurants prepared for the incoming mass of drinkers and partiers known colloquially as the “BottleRock Exodus.”

Vendors and street performers competed for attention from the jubilant waves of festival-goers along the Third Street Bridge and Napa Riverwalk. Napa Palisades Saloon was flooded with people filling in both the original bar area and recently completed dining room addition.

Stone Brewing hosted an after-party featuring well-known Bay Area DJ Aaron Axelson (of Alt 105.3 Radio), and their top floor was filled to the brim with singing, dancing, and drinking patrons. Again, it seemed as if everyone had forgotten their masks at home.

Sunday proved to be the hottest day of the weekend, with temperatures cresting at 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Festival-goers squeezed into the few shaded areas near the stages, while others stood in the sun applying vigorous amounts of sunscreen and using hats, visors, and portable umbrellas for shade.

Bay Area songwriter Sam Johnson, of Oakland, performed his original indie-pop tunes on the Truly stage backed by his three-piece band. Johnson was truly delighted to be chosen to perform this year, he told me after his set.

“I lost some hours of sleep leading up to it, but in a good way,” he said. “I knew it was going to be fun, but it was more fun than I was expecting… The people here are so professional, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the music industry.”

When asked if he felt safe attending the festival, Johnson replied “Oh yeah, I’m having a blast. I took my Vitamin D, I got my negative test, I’m good!”

Walk Off The Earth performed dazzling indie rock and pop on the Verizon stage. 99 Neighbors brought fresh underground hip-hop to the Truly stage, followed by the alternative pop rock outfit Almost Monday.

My personal favorite and most-anticipated band at the festival this year, Jimmy Eat World, performed a driving and dynamic mix of their original Emo rock songs including hits “Bleed American” and “The Middle.” Other standout sets from artists I witnessed on Sunday included Cage the Elephant on the JaM Cellars stage and Jack Harlow on the Verizon stage.

Sunday night closed out with dueling headliners Foo Fighters and Megan Thee Stallion, with most of the older crowd watching the Foos while the younger crowd flocked to Meg, who broke ground as being the first female rap artist to headline BottleRock.

She started her set about 15 minutes late and only played for 50 minutes total, despite being billed for 90. Even with the shorter set, the rapper still managed to play all of her most recognizable hits including “Savage,” “Hot Girl Summer,” and “WAP.” Megan hit the Verizon stage twerking along with six backup dancers and encouraged body positivity throughout her set.

“If you love your body make some motherf--ing noise!” cried the rapper before performing her 2020 hit song “Body,” sparking a twerking session that spread throughout the festival grounds like wildfire. “I like it here,” Meg commented in response. “I didn’t even know it was lit out here like this.”

Back on the JaM Cellars stage, the Foo Fighters opened their set with their 2002 single “Times Like These,” a song that seems more relevant now than ever before.

“It’s times like these you learn to live again,” sang frontman Dave Grohl, accompanied by tens of thousands of crooning audience members resonating with the message.

Their set lasted over two hours, incorporating all their biggest hits including “Learn To Fly,” “My Hero,” and “The Pretender.”

At one point, Grohl switched places with drummer Taylor Hawkins to perform a seemingly flawless rendition of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” sparking what might have been the biggest and loudest cheer from an audience I had heard all weekend at the festival.

Early on in the Foo Fighters set, Grohl stated that the band was once again prepared to break the festival’s strict 10 p.m. curfew as they had in 2017. “If you’re cool with it, we’re gonna play all f--ing night until they kick us off stage,” he exclaimed, eliciting another roaring response from the audience. “I think that’s a good idea!”

Despite this statement, the band actually ended their set with about 10 minutes to spare at 9:50 p.m. after a soaring rendition of their well-known anthem, “Everlong.”

Before closing out the night, Grohl made a promise to the audience that the Foo Fighters would never break up. “We’ve been doing this for 26 years,” he said. “It would be like your grandparents getting divorced. Why would you do that?”

Despite a 16-month delay and numerous lineup changes, it would appear that this year’s BottleRock was still a success. Even during a global pandemic, the crowds still came in droves and left singing their hearts out.

A part of me wonders how the hoards of unmasked people populating not just the Expo, but all of the downtown businesses will affect our community in the weeks to come, but there is no denying that the overwhelming majority of festival-goers were excited and hungry for a return to “normal life.”

How long this normality will last, only time will tell. But if this year’s experience is anything to go by, I would certainly expect another sold-out BottleRock in 2022, and in the years to come.

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