The Roots (photo: Patric Carver)
It’s day one of BottleRock, and I am planted on the bleachers at the Lagunitas stage trying to wrap my head around this massive event. Seated next to me, a girl in a summery dress flips her color-saturated “mermaid” hair over her shoulder. She is drinking a glass of rosé and waving passively to a friend dancing in the crowd. “Who are you here to see?” I ask.
She looks at me as if the question doesn’t register, so I try again. “What bands are you interested in seeing?”
“Oh,” she gazes off. “I don’t know. I guess maybe the Foo Fighters? I don’t know who any of these other bands are.”
Just then, a yellow beach ball emblazoned with the Butter® by JaM Cellars wineries hits me on the side of the head – knocking my pen out of my hand and bringing our conversation to a close.
“You alright?” she breathes at me before leaping off the bleachers to join her reveling friend, with the offending canary-colored beach ball in hand.
During the three days of BottleRock, I had dozens of conversations just like this one with festival goers about who they were there to see. The most in-depth answer I got was, “Petty, man, ‘Free Fallin’’ fucking rules!” from a man dressed similarly to Tom Petty’s mad hatter in the dreamy “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video. He nearly spilled his beer while stomping in excitement. “Tom fucking Petty, man!” he shrieked, “It’s going to RULE!” My excited top-hatted friend was in the minority with his enthusiasm. Most people responded that they didn’t particularly know any of the bands playing other than the headliners, if that.
To be honest, there was plenty to do on the festival grounds aside from watch the musicians. One of the cleaner and more organized festivals I’ve ever attended, there were excessive amounts of trash cans, short lines for food, and no lines for the restroom. One woman I spoke to summarized the feel of the festival by saying, “There’s a lot of old people and babies here. Everything is taken care of. That’s kind of just my speed. I mean, there’s even a spa.” Indeed, there were a lot of middle-aged folks, babies, and, yes, a spa. Woodstock this wasn’t, but you could get someone in the spa to craft perfect flower-child tendrils for a small fee. If that’s not your thing, you could have your face bedazzled with glitter before laying down for an intravenous B-12 infusion to keep you “festival ready.” So many providers were vying to meet needs I didn’t even know that I had – I never knew eyelashes could look “world-worn,” for example. It was indulgent self-care.
Speaking of indulging, food was ever-present at BottleRock. There was the typical barrage of festival vendors trying to convince patrons to indulge in chocolates and cured meats, food trucks peddling everything from fried pickles to barbecue parfaits, and wine, beer, and spirits flowing constantly from taps dotting the grounds. However, the most interesting food-related curiosity at BottleRock was the Williams Sonoma-sponsored Culinary Stage. Riding on the last riptide of the foodie movement, the culinary stage was where rock and roll legends shook up cocktails and prepared snacks with celebrity chefs. It mixed performance with food with absolute bedlam. Celebrity chef enthusiasts are not to be trifled with.
I witnessed Mike Dirnt, Robert Trujillo, Stefan Lessard, and Matt Sorum noodle on three-string basses constructed from pizza peels and drum sets crafted from pots and pans before being joined on stage by celebrity chef Jose Andres. Andres played air guitar with a hock of ham as a prop while the four rock stars plodded through an awkward but enjoyable improvisation that was more spectacle than musical. He then signed his chef’s coat and dramatically ripped it off to reveal a shirt that said “I am an immigrant” before tossing the autographed coat into the crowd. The woman behind me in the audience screamed, “Oh, my GAWWWWD!” when this happened with such force that I think my cochlea was temporarily unraveled. The manic excitement from the crowd at this show topped anything else that I saw on the fairgrounds. We’re talking Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium hysteria. When Andres began leading the musicians in manufacturing a cocktail, I could not hear the name of the drink. It was drowned out by screams and shrieks of delight. When Andres mixed a bowl full of eggs with potato chips, I thought some fellow audience members were going to pass out from sheer delight. I am telling you, do not discount loyal watchers of the Food Network. They are a formidable bunch.
Even in this miniature village of excess, though, the music was still the center. Throughout the festival’s run, the headliners played solid sets. On the final night, the Foo Fighters rocked so hard and long that festival organizers pulled the plug on them mid-way through “Everlong” as their set crept over the festival’s strict 10pm curfew. The Roots held a jump-up and get-down party on stage the last night with blasting horns and tremendous energy. I can imagine that the mad hatter I met earlier was well-pleased with Tom Petty’s two-hour long set as well.
However, it was the small stages and acts that practically no one specifically came to see that had the biggest impact on me. Friday started for me with Hibbity Dibbity, a psychedelic rock band out of San Francisco had a playful, groovy nature that matched their Seussian moniker. With just the slightest essence of Squeeze from their “Tempted” days, Hibbity Dibbity had a bright, bouncy sound even when singing more sober tunes. It wasn’t all wavy gravy relaxed, though, at one point they evolved into a masterful seam-ripping, burn-it-up guitar solo – the type that would have smoke billowing from the guitars, had it been part of a Looney Tunes feature. Other notable acts from the first day included former reality show contestant Jessica Childress, who revived the golden age of soul with her honey-rich voice; musician sisters the Staves, who brought their folk-infused neo-indie sound to the festival with dreamy finger-picking and techno-interjections; and the embarrassingly-named Partybaby, who had that ’90s low-end coverage that is too charming to be grunge but too dirty to be just your standard rock and roll.
The stars of the first day were, without a doubt, Oaklanders Day Wave. A nice group of clean-cut young men, they helped reclaim the genre of jangle pop from the indiscriminate noodling with lots of delay that it is quickly becoming by playing a super hooky set. Just teetering at times on the edge of surf-rock, they have a sound that just tickles the part in all of us that is still delighted by summertime. Their playing was smooth and crisp, their arrangements tight. They had enough spirit to cover New Order’s “Ceremony” with a dedication that was closer to the original than the current state of New Order’s sound. As the sunlight began to diffuse into the golden hour before nightfall, bigger names such as Modest Mouse with their lovely “Dramamine,” and Silversun Pickups with hit “Lazy Eye” captivated my ear momentarily, but, man, I could not stop thinking about those guys in Day Wave and what a tremendous performance they gave. I look forward to what their future holds.
Saturday started with a young man in a coral polo shirt and Ray-Ban sunglasses slurring at me, “Excuse me, who are these dudes?”
“Run River North, from LA,” I replied.
“It’s Some River Worth, babe!” he shouted at his undulating girlfriend. He then hopped off to join her.
Yes, the weekend brought a rowdier, though still somewhat tame by rock and roll standards, crowd. Standouts from Saturday included Run River North, a band that was happy to meet the hedonistic fervor of audience members with a jolting, astral set. Legendary Mavis Staples needed help getting to the microphone, but seemed to support herself on the strength of her own rolling groove and magnanimous voice during the rest of the set. The Shelters combined an unlikely cocktail of dirty slog rock with ’70s butter-soft harmonies spiked with dwindling guitars to make for a sound that was hip swaying and head banging.
Sunday brought a torrent of talent that started with pint-sized rockers the Helmets tearing up the stage. During their press conference, a fellow journalist whispered in my ear, “They’re adorable…I bet they hate that.” It was undeniable that the youngsters had cute appeal, the four of them swinging their feet as they sat in the director’s chairs on stage, braces gleaming in the lights. However, there was more than just cheek-pinching adorability here. Bassist Tye Trujillo (yes, son of Robert Trujillo) controlled his instrument with the force and precision of a session musician. Lead singer/guitarist Bastian worked the crowd with amazing stage presence and provided Ozzy-like reaching vocals that pulled every ear in closer.
Rounding out the last day, Swedish rockers Baskery had a sound that started out somewhat promising – like a smoother Mary’s Danish, but they didn’t seem to be tight enough just yet. Bad Suns brought punchy rock that was a little too clean to be considered alt-rock in my book, and Highly Suspect cruised in with Sublime-like sound paired with a big-boom guitar sound. Hippo Campus played a swimming set of delicious wandering guitars and Strokes-like tickling of the upper-octaves. Poppy and symphonic, they were clever without being cheeky. When I sat down with the group for a short interview, they explained that their unique sound has a little bit of band alchemy behind it. “Well, they were in a band and we were in a band,” their lead singer (listed only as ‘beans’ on their website) pointed to cross-sections of the band, “We were more of a jazz rock thing, but then we just kind of came together.” He added with a side-smirk, “We were the better of the two.”
The real stars of the last day, though, were Oakland boys SWMRS. Dressed in the modern punk rock equivalent of Village People costuming, lead singer/guitarist Cole donned a silky slip dress while brother Max opted for more traditional rock attire in the post-grunge “fashion” wave, but Seb Mueller went full dapper punk in a red-and-black checked suit. Drummer Joey Armstrong kept it simple with a Dexy’s Midnight Runners inspired shirtless-with-overalls look. Honestly, though, with the large, charging sound they brought, they could have been wearing anything – trash bags, ball gowns, nothing at all – and command as much stage presence.
The last time I saw SWMRS they were Emily’s Army, playing to a little club in Oakland. I asked Cole why they changed the name. “Short of starting from scratch, we wanted to do something different. There was so much water under the bridge with Emily’s Army. We had grown up so much in a short period of time. We wanted to do something that represented us now, as adults.”
They were good then, but now they are better. They set the crowd ablaze with eye-dilating, adrenaline-producing sound. Roaring guitars that sometimes squeezed out a little “Johnny B. Goode” old-time rock sound, purposeful and somehow melodic scream-singing, trapping automatic drums, and densely unrelenting low end – SWMRS had everything modern rock needs. Shouts to the crowd of, “I want to see all you motherfuckers jumping and going fucking crazy,” didn’t hurt, either. It was inspiring – the crowd obeyed.
When asked what inspires him, Cole instantly rattled off a litany of local Bay Area artist, including the Your Everyday Artists Reaching Success (YEARS) collective, started by rapper Ricky Lake and rockers Meat Market. Adding, “Support your local scene. If you’re new to the Bay, if you don’t know where the local scene is, just make friends and do it yourselves.”
Of the thousands that attended the BottleRock festival, I’d like to think a few of them are going to heed that advice and take to the stage themselves one day.