Wino Party: Bottlerock Basks in the Light of its Own Joy
These days, there's a niche festival for everyone—even people who love the radio.
Every year starting in January, those of us that are music obsessives start freaking out over festival lineups as they roll in, with a sort of unmeasurable Q Factor to judging a fest’s potential: Are the headliners unique? Did they get the best small buzz bands? Is the poster font size correct?
But now that the stuffed-to-the-brim destination-festival economy means that there’s a multi-stage fest in nearly every US city, what if the Q Factor doesn’t actually matter anymore? What if—gasp—it’s actually about making sure the most people on the ground have the most amount of fun possible, with unadulterated joy substituted for knowing snark? If those are the criteria, then the Bottlerock festival in Napa—a festival-season kickoff party on Memorial Day weekend, known, for the past few years, as sort of the anti–Q-Factor fest—may be one of the most successful festivals in the US.
Though it may sound illogical on the surface, hear me out: Bottlerock could be the best barometer for just how far the festival market can go before eating itself. With a sold-out capacity of 40,000, it’s large enough to feel huge and small enough that there’s no Bonnaroo-style ten-stage overwhelm; it’s also in the middle of an idyllic city, with the actual city-center an easy jaunt from the festival grounds. And the argument against Bottlerock is the same as the argument for it: It’s chill and plays it safe, mostly, with headliners Maroon 5, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Foo Fighters each playing hit-after-hit-after-hit to end their respective days, and other major-draw acts including Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and a reunited Live not leaving much up to chance (in all fairness, buzz bands like Bob Moses, established-but-edgier acts like Modest Mouse, and a few rappers including Warren G did play the festival, though not in primetime on the main stage). And since it’s in the middle of wine country, that means the booze flows like, well, wine, and herb is not even glanced at; if you’re all about Rosé-all-day (with a quick weed break here and there), this could be your new happy place, though if you’re dedicated to a Molly haze, you’re going to feel like you’re in the minority.
That’s exactly what makes it sort of iffy for a hardcore music fan to let go: Here are tens of thousands of families and upscale winos out to party, arguably invading a scene developed for their kids, not them. Even with Desert Trip breaking open the generational piggy bank last year, American rock festivals have been shooting for younger and younger fans, using the Coachella model to stuff three or four days with flavor-of-the-week acts and EDM artists whose gimmicks extend not much further than a button press. That wont for newness also means there’s far less of the magical moments that festivals used to get credit for: If a headliner only appeals to a small percentage of a festival crowd, who’s to say that the critical consensus walking away from that headliner is relevant, anyways?
Which brings us back to Bottlerock. Midway through the first three songs of Maroon 5’s headlining set on the first day of the festival, I realized that no amount of snark about the band’s credibility could diminish the fact that they had just played three massive hits in a row at the top of their set and had a slew more to go, with a festival-wide smile on everyone but the most aggressive haters’ faces. This festival wasn’t about establishing reputations or breaking a new artist: It was about pleasing the most people for the longest time. And as promoters deal with an audience torn by which fest it makes the most sense to spend their money at, the lesson here at the very beginning of this year’s festival season may be one worth learning: To make a real impact on a large scale, the Q Factor may be becoming meaningless when compared to the overall good vibe people feel when they’re connected on a huge scale.
And, yes, that means that even though I’ve never owned a Maroon 5 album and you won’t find a single song of theirs in my Spotify history, I found myself happily singing along to “This Love,” a glass of red wine in my hand, with a smile on my face—and not hating it.
At least for a few minutes, before heading to the second stage for Modest Mouse. FL