Cage The Elephant
Of all the festivals I’ve covered in May (Shaky Knees in Atlanta, HangoutFest in Gulf Shores, Sasquatch at The Gorge), BottleRock Napa Valley’s was the one I was most intrigued to discover what the demographic would be. Napa is bougie wine country, and BottleRock was being pitched as a family festival, so I didn’t know what to expect.
It was also the least-likely place I expected to get sucker-punched in the eye, which made it all the more surprising when that happened following Cage the Elephant’s awesome performance mid-day on the main stage. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
After taking in solid sets from Zella Day and Courtney Barnett, anticipation was high for Cage the Elephant. Everyone in the GA pit knew pretty much all the words to all their songs. Singer Matt Shultz stood atop the hands of the crowd at one point, remarking that not everything needs to be recorded and life doesn’t happen on a small screen. As one girl up close to him kept filming, Shultz said he was going to fall right on top of her, and he made good on that promise. Shultz crowd-surfed for a bit and ended their set on an ultimate high.
When Cage the Elephant ended, that’s when things took a turn for the worst. Two belligerently drunk men (apparently a father-and-son combo) were getting angry as people left and others moved up to be closer for Foster the People. The father started calling people homophobic slurs and basically challenging anyone nearby to fight him. One of the people I ride-shared to the festival with got in between him and someone and told the drunk person to calm down (something I advise you never should do) and then two security guards finally showed up. At this point, the two drunk guys tried spinning a story of how somebody else was causing an issue. I called bullshit on it and told the security guys that they were the ones causing problems, they were obviously severely intoxicated and should be tossed from the festival. This is when one of the two guys outside my line of sight wound up and sucker-punched me in the left eye, knocking my glasses to the floor, and immediately making me bleed.
The security pulled me out of the pit. I asked if they could please grab my glasses because I can hardly see without them. They said they would find them. I was taken to a backstage area and sat down. For ten minutes, nobody really spoke to me and my eye began to swell grotesquely. I asked for some ice and there was no urgency at all in bringing me some. I asked about my glasses and it seemed as though they forgot and they went looking for them again. By then, they had been trampled and destroyed.
I was taken to the main security area and had to recount the story of what happened about a dozen times to a dozen different people. There seemed to be no organization whatsoever on what to do — perhaps because these things just don’t happen in Napa. They were in disbelief that I didn’t do anything worthy of being assaulted. I then recounted the story to Napa police because I wish to press charges. They told me security wanted to throw me out of the festival as well as the other guys, which had me shocked. Eventually, the cops talked the security into letting me stay. By the end of the whole process, almost two hours had passed and I missed the entirety of Foster the People’s performance.
Foster The People
Since security wasn’t helpful, I had to make my way through the crowd to find people who were witnesses to me being assaulted so I could get their information for when I decide to press charges. People in the crowd were really helpful in letting me pass them in a really tight crowd, and I appreciated that.
I watched Imagine Dragons from further back with a bag of ice on my eye that I had gotten from the Rock Medicine tent nearby. They were really nice in taking a look at my eye and giving me some pain medicine before sending me back out.
Imagine Dragons’ set was pretty solid and they were having a lot of fun out there. They threw in some random covers — Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” a tribute to the recently-passed Ben E. King with “Stand By Me,” and a weird impromptu riff off R. Kelly’s “World’s Greatest.” The teenaged crowd loved every one of their mega-hits and they reached both of the large demographics in attendance. Singer Dan Reynolds pretty much apologized for popular “Radioactive” is before closing their set with it.
I woke up the next day feeling like shit with my eye looking even worse than it did the day before. It was then I got a phone call from Dave Graham, one of the main people responsible for putting on BottleRock. He called to apologize for what had happened to me the day before, and offered to give me upgraded access at the festival should I choose to return. It was a classy act that I really didn’t expect, and it took me by surprise.
When I arrived Saturday, I was greeted by a number of people familiar with my situation. They gave my wristbands that allowed me access to the Platinum benefits (a $1,250 value), the SkyView viewing areas, and even backstage access. After I got a tour of the Platinum lounge where there is free food and beverage, Graham arrived to personally apologize to me and let me know that it is way out of character for BottleRock and Napa in general. He told me that after Friday’s performances ended, he ran down to the police station to talk to them about what worked and what didn’t, and my situation came up. Graham got my number from them and that’s how he was able to reach out to me.
Though it was a bit embarrassing walking around the rest of the weekend with a gross black eye, I felt as though I could return to enjoying myself and get back to work. Saturday’s lineup was the deepest in my opinion, and it really kicked off with an intense set from Portugal. The Man. The young crowd was really feeling their set, singing along to hits like “So American” and “Creep in a T-Shirt.” The medley that featured “Day Man” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” was awesome, even though I was bummed to see teenagers asking “what song is that?” during the Oasis portion of it.
Portugual. The Man
ZZ Ward didn’t let some early-set technical snafus keep her from giving a kickass performance on the JAM Cellars stage. She played a ton of new material from her upcoming new album that all sounded great, while also mixing in favorites from her first release like “365 Days” and “Move Like You Stole It.”
Scott Weiland & the Wildabouts came up after ZZ Ward on the JAM Cellars stage. They played a lot of Stone Temple Pilots songs, mostly from Purple, like “Meatplow” and “Unglued,” while also throwing in a later STP song “Big Bang Baby.” The tracks from the debut album with the Wildabouts were well-received and sounded in line with what fans of STP would like.
Capital Cities knew the BottleRock demographic well. They appealed to the older crowd with covers of Michael Jackson’s “Do You Remember,” the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and Madonna’s “Holiday.” Their big hit “Safe and Sound” had one of the biggest responses of any song of the weekend.
Seeing Robert Plant for the second time in two weekends was a great way to end the second day of BottleRock. I watched from far back where the cold breeze left me freezing, even with three layers. Many girls around me were hating life as their wardrobe choices favored the sun and fashion more than cold weather.
Plant ripped into many Led Zeppelin favorites, albeit with different arrangements. From “Black Dog” to “Going to California,” from “Whole Lotta Love” to the encore-closing “Rock and Roll,” Plant was magnificent.
By the third day, I was legendary around BottleRock with the higher-up staff. All of them had heard my story and were really nice and accommodating. Though the Platinum members who paid all that money to probably avoid looking at black-eyed people gave me odd looks, the staff themselves always greeted me with smiles and were really fun to deal with.
Of all the early afternoon sets of the weekend, Echosmith’s Sunday set on the main stage had probably the deepest crowd of them all. Comprised of four siblings, three of them teenaged, they connected really well with the younger crowd that turned up to see them. Singer Sydney Sierota brought up four different fans on stage to dance with them during one of their songs, taking selfies with them before sending them back into the crowd. They brought a fan on stage who had somehow seen almost 30 Echosmith shows and sang her “Happy Birthday.” They played an awesome cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” before later ending their set with a massive singalong to their hit “Cool Kids.”
I was curious how Snoop Dogg was going to connect with the BottleRock audience. There hadn’t been a lot of swearing up until that point at the festival, but within minutes, the elder statesman of rap had people young and old yelling “f*ck this, f*ck that” right along with him. It was proof that Snoop Dogg still is one of the biggest names in music, even if he hasn’t put out that much memorable stuff in the last few years. (One highlight was hearing how at the Culinary Stage on Sunday, Snoop Dogg was rolling sushi with Morimoto, obviously taking advantage of Snoop’s rolling skills.)
Los Angeles’ AWOLNATION had the crowd at the JAM Cellars stage jumping up and down and using what was left of their voices to scream along with singer Aaron Bruno. Bruno’s range is pretty amazing, he’s able to scream with the best of them but can also sing. The highlight of what I saw of their set for me was the song “Not Your Fault,” which had everyone along for the ride on the chorus.
No Doubt was the main draw to me to attend BottleRock. The ’90s nostalgia is strong in me, and I’ll never forget falling in love with Gwen Stefani as a young kid when Tragic Kingdom came out. For their set, I was able to get right up to the railing in the Platinum section, the security guard who witnessed me being sucker punched right up there at the front with me.
They didn’t get to the stuff from Tragic Kingdom until a little later, launching into their version of “It’s My Life” within a few songs, along with later hits like “Underneath It All,” “Ex-Girlfriend,” and “Hey Baby”
Almost a dozen songs into the set, an acoustic “Excuse Me Mr.” was the first song from that massive 1995 album. Then came the high-energy “Sunday Morning.” At one point during the set, Gwen saw the girl right in front of me had a sign that had a patch she made for Gwen on it. Stefani brought the girl on stage and took a picture with her, hugged her, and saw the tattoo she had of Gwen on her leg.
Ending their set with “Don’t Speak” and “Just a Girl,” I looked around in the Platinum section and figured out I might be the only person under 30 in there. Despite this, almost everyone sang along the words to those songs, making it that much clearer just how massive a band No Doubt was in the late ’90s.
Ending the night was a highly-spirited rendition of “Spiderwebs.” There wasn’t a person in the crowd I didn’t see singing along to the catchy chorus about stalkers who won’t stop calling you (though I personally associate the song with debt collectors).
All through the night, Gwen Stefani kept recounting how no longer how long she’s been performing, she can’t help but wonder, “Is this really happening?” As I stood no less than 50 feet away from her and her awesome band, I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing. At the end of the weekend, that privilege might have been worth getting punched in the face for.
Words: Mark E. Ortega
Photography: Tom Dellinger
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds
The Bad Jones
Young The Giant
Scott Weiland & The Wildabouts
The Last Internationale
JJ Gray and Mofro
Want more photos of bands and fans at Bottleneck 2015? Check out the photo gallery below!