NAPA — BottleRock Napa Valley and Imagine Dragons have come a long way since the two last crossed paths in 2014. For the festival, the annual music spectacle has become one of the destination festivals in the country (or as Bruno Mars dubbed it: “Fancy Coachella”). For the band, a continued rise to success has cemented its status as one of the biggest rock acts in the world. Friday night’s headlining set was a showcase of everything Dan Reynolds and company are about: inclusion, positivity and earnest songwriting. The band closed out the first night in front of sold-out crowd of 40,000 music fans.
Imagine Dragons took the stage as the sun began to set on the horizon of the JaM Cellars Stage lawn. Reynolds sang out the rhythmic, nursery rhyme cadence of “first thing’s first…” to open “Believer.” He had a commanding presence on stage. At 6-feet, 4-inches tall, the singer drew all the eyeballs as he strutted and bounced across the BottleRock stage. Reynolds’ vocal range had also evidently developed over the band’s career, ranging from a guttural and animalistic roar to a soft, refined falsetto.
Before performing “It’s Time,” Reynolds drove home his message of inclusion and that everyone was welcome to enjoy the show, removing his hoodie to reveal a Tegan & Sara Foundation T-shirt. Lyrically, the be-true-to-yourself message of “It’s Time” felt even more poignant now than when the song was first released back on the band’s breakthrough debut, Night Visions.
The majority of the evening’s setlist came from Evolve, but Imagine Dragons made it a point to mix in a fair amount of earlier hits. The band charged through rockers “Whatever It Takes” and “Natural” full of vigor, pyrotechnics and confetti. The band’s set had a number of production elements including strobes and smoke cannons, but it was always executed in a tasteful fashion that added to the emotion of the performance. “Shots” featured a stripped-down piano introduction before the full band joined in. The band launched into a mid-set cover of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” which was a nice, understated surprise.
Reynolds continued driving home his message of inclusivity, speaking about raising awareness of depression and anxiety. At multiple times, he addressed younger fans and assured them that the stresses and anxieties they felt at school could be overcome.
“They’re going to try to put you in a box,” Reynolds said. “You don’t have to exist within that box.”
One of the night’s most powerful moments happened before the encore, when Imagine Dragons appeared on an auxiliary stage in front of the soundboard in the middle of the crowd. From there, the band broke into a trio of acoustic songs, even performing one with classical stringed instruments. It was a beautiful moment of calm among the chaos of a music festival. The band closed out the acoustic portion with a rousing singalong of “I Bet My Life,” which had families and friends singing to each other.
Imagine Dragons returned to the main stage to close with a trio of hits: “Demons,” “On Top of the World” and “Radioactive.” Throughout the night, each band member was also able to show off his own musical chops with solos and interludes, including bassist Ben McKee, a North Bay native. Imagine Dragons closed out the night with their trademark full band drum circle, a feature that was as compelling and dramatic as ever.
Rapper Logic probably won’t take this as a compliment, but compared to last year’s closing set from Snoop Dogg, his was downright mellow. For starters, there were no strippers and fake bills blowing around the stage. He, however, made up for it in other ways, primarily his speed-rapping ability and his enunciation, which made it easier for even non-fans to follow along with him.
Logic opened with “44 More,” on which he name-dropped the likes of “champion Kevin Durant,” before quickly transitioning to “Everybody” and “Tell Me How You Feel.” He decided to restart new cut “Homicide” because he wasn’t happy with the fan reaction he was getting, and apparently the second time was the charm as fans cheered his insanely fast delivery.
Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic came strong with the hits, along with a few surprises for their set. Tedder took the stage equipped with an acoustic guitar for early hit “Stop and Stare.” The band not only showed an adeptness with its own material, but also mixed in a number of surprise covers throughout the set.
OneRepublic covered Adele’s “Rumour Has It” (which Tedder co-wrote), Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop Children What’s That Sound,” and even the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker.” Tedder was a natural showman—swaying, bouncing and playing conductor to the crowd. The band brought out new material including “Rescue Me,” as well as hits like “Secrets,” the stellar stomp-and-clap anthem “Love Runs Out” and breakout hit “Apologize.”
The Dandy Warhols
The Dandy Warhols were stacked up against OneRepublic, but fans of gritty garage rock got their money’s worth during their set Friday evening. The Portland band kicked off with “Forever,” off 2019’s “Why You So Crazy,” before transitioning to a 12-minute version of “Holding Me Up,” from 2006’s Odditorium Or Warlords of Mars. The latter turned into a full-on jam session with the band raising the intensity of the sound. “STYGGO,” from 2016’s Distortland, came next.
With each passing song, The Dandy Warhols dug deeper, creating walls of sound, sometimes seemingly going off on tangents and more or less rebelling against the glossy pop so widespread today.
If there were an award for the best under-the-radar set of the day, it would unquestionably go to Nashville singer-songwriter Anderson East. His performance was a master class on the intersection between New Orleans jazz, old-school soul and rock. His vocal prowess was truly something to behold. He was powerful, nuanced, soulful and strong.
Flanked by a horn section, a keyboardist, guitarist, drummer and bassist, East poured out passionate soul ballads to upbeat danceable funk rock. A power outage during a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” couldn’t even slow East’s momentum, allowing the crowd to provide the vocals as the band pressed on. East’s set was truly a pleasure to witness, and one of the day’s strongest moments.
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The brothers of AJR didn’t save “Sober Up,” their biggest hit, for the end of their set. Instead, they used it as an energy booster early on. The roar that went up for the song could be heard from other stages. Of course, the trio now has other hits and a new album on which to focus its performance. Highlights included new song “Don’t Throw Out My Legos,” which sampled some classic Disney sound effects, “Break My Face” and “Netflix Trip.”
AJR’s stage presence also showed growth as the brothers engaged fans more. There was one segment where Ryan Met tried on a fan’s American flag cowboy hat, describing his look as “Jewish guy goes to NASCAR.” He and Jack Met also teased a couple of fans for zooming their cameras in on their faces and trying to get noticed a bit too enthusiastically. Ryan, Jack and bassist Adam Met were always moving, even as they covered Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”
The brothers shared how they wrote their songs, explaining that they’d try different things before landing on a sound they liked. They used “Burn The House Down” as an example, switching out some instruments and changing tempos, which likely kept some fans in the dark until the band actually kicked into the song. While their methodology was not much different from most artists, it likely inspired some future musicians in the audience. AJR closed with a rousing “Weak.”
Jenny Lewis brought her unique blend of alt-country and avant-garde style to her midday set. Lewis took the stage in a pink sequin dress and oversized glasses—with her band in equally dapper style—to Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny.” The bandleader was an engaging presence, playing a throwback brand of country with modern flare. Lewis began her set behind the piano for mournful ballad “Heads Gonna Roll,” off her new album, On the Line. The more upbeat “Wasted Youth” recalled 1959 song “Love Potion No. 9.”
During “The Big Buns,” from 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis strutted the catwalk. She also played a turquoise guitar on a few other songs, such as “Taffy,” and took on some percussion as well, showing off her chops as a multi-instrumentalist throughout the set.
One of the surprise sets of the day came from Nashville’s HalfNoise. Fronted by Paramore drummer Zac Farro, the band stormed the stage with precise, amped up and danceable rock. The band turned heads on its Bai Stage set, drawing an increasingly larger crowd as the performance went on. Farro was a serviceable frontman, staying in constant motion while keeping rhythm with his tambourine. One of the high points included Farro sitting down at his own drum set for an extended multi-drummer jam.
Lovelytheband provided the kind of danceable, singalong pop that was tailor-made for the music festival setting. The Los Angeles trio provided sunny, amped-up sounds that brought energy to the stage. The band exuded summer, dressed in brightly colored shirts reminiscent of the ’80s dance pop aesthetic. To top it off, the band mixed in a cover of The Killers’ classic “Mr. Brightside” before closing with fan favorites “Broken” and These Are My Friends.”
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Utah band Neon Trees delivered banger after dance-pop banger at their daytime set on the main stage. The band opened with 2012 cut “Lessons In Love (All Day, All Night)” and played a bit of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” before “Moving in the Dark.” The brief snippet got the already energized crowd to go nuts, starting a singalong that many probably wished went on for a bit longer. The band’s breakthrough hit, “Animal,” also incited a singalong.
Frontman Tyler Glenn then talked a bit about coming out as gay a few years ago, which became the segue into “Love In the 21st Century,” the 2014 cut about looking for love online. Other songs included “Feel Good,” “I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)” and “1983.”
Poppy singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin brought to life his ability to tell a moving narrative through song. Unlike Springsteen or Dylan, his songs were in the first person. And while he is still young and doesn’t have a lot of life experiences to draw from, what Benjamin had was compelling. Early in the set, he broached murder on “If I Killed Someone For You.” Later he explained how he wrote “If We Have Each Other” for his sister. The song began with, “She was 19 with a baby on the way,” before unfolding his promise to always stay by her side.
These sort of heart-on-your-sleeve ballads were his specialty, but Benjamin, who said he was playing his first festival, found a way to make them fun as well. For example, on “1994” (named after his birth year), Benjamin sang about the loss of innocence on 9/11, but he used comparisons to comic book superheroes alongside a pretty touching lyric that referenced “My Country Tis of Thee.” Benjamin was surprisingly effective for someone—as he pointed out on numerous times—born in 1994.
Hollywood soul rock heroes Vintage Trouble took the stage as the temperature began to rise, both literally and figuratively. Vocalist Ty Taylor brought his magnetic and frenetic presence onstage, spending few moments of idle time throughout the band’s set. Taylor didn’t let a sound issue early on disrupt things, taking matters into his own hands and running down the walkway between the crowd to the soundboard. Taylor involved the crowd, including Green Day’s Tre Cool, throughout the entire set prompting them to clap, sing along and, at one point, even leading them in a two-step. Taylor also pulled off the weekend’s first (we think) recorded stage dive, with the crowd lifting him around the front of the pit.
“I know it’s all about Instagram, but I’m going to need your hands for this one,” Taylor said before leaping from the barrier, even adding a handstand for good measure. The band’s set was tight and ranged from soulful funk to full scale classic rock and roll. Vintage Trouble lived up to its reputation as an impressive live band.
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@vintagetrouble yup!…yup!..yeah came for two bands and #vintagetrouble as one was f-ing amazing!!! #fuckingawesome #fanforlife As a techie, they had major sound problems but played it off hella cool and gave a shout out to the crew for fixing it fast. #bottlerock #fanforlife
The Minnesota artist, a member of the hip-hop collective Doomtree, performed one of the more eclectic sets on Friday. Dessa and her band sounded at times like a rap-rock act, at times like a lounge act—such as on “Dixon’s Girl” off 2010’s A Badly Broken Code—and at times funky or melodic. She seamlessly blended rapping with singing (the latter with the help of two bandmates) on a few cuts like “Fighting Fish” from 2013’s Parts of Speech. Meanwhile, “Matches to Paper Dolls” featured a deafening bass that likely knocked the leaves off nearby trees.
“Good Grief” had some funky drumming, while “Shrimp” was bouncy and also funny, with Dessa breaking the fourth wall to have a conversation mid-song to question whether she should sing a curse. She opted to not. And on the melodic “Call Off Your Ghost,” she jumped about four feet from the stage to the barricade, sticking the landing like it was no big deal, and began to sing to fans.
Los Angeles’ Valley Queen brought an eclectic variety of sounds to its midday set. A little bit jam, a little bit alternative and a little bit folky, Valley Queen’s set was full of dynamics, nuanced musicianship and the otherworldly falsetto of vocalist Natalie Carol. She had an unassuming, yet attention-grabbing stage presence. The band included some wandering and wondrous musical interludes that tied its set together.
We didn’t get to catch all of Minnesota-Sweden duo Flora Cash due to a delayed set from sound issues, but what we saw was impressive. Married couple Shpresa Lleshaj and Cole Randall quickly set a moody, turbulent scene with “Roses on Your Dress,” off 2017 LP Nothing Lasts Forever (And It’s Fine). Unreleased mid-tempo track “You Love Me” followed, led by a piano and a synth brass section, hinted at the band’s next phase.
“Pharaoh,” off 2016 LP Can Summer Love Last Forever?, showed the band’s strong interpersonal composition skills, even predating Flora Cash’s biggest hit, “You’re Someone Else.” The uptempo, yet meditative cut starred Lleshaj’s Swedish-inflected vocals.
Napa’s Shannon Shaw kicked off the day’s main stage festivities. The set also kicked off a busy weekend for Shaw, who not only played solo on Friday, but would also perform with her band, Shannon & the Clams, on Saturday as well as take to the Culinary Stage. Shaw brought retro soul sounds that recalled Amy Winehouse. She delivered sweet, sultry vocals with lush multipart harmonies that burst across the festival grounds. Her band, which included a violinist, also provided ample support and rounded out Shaw’s full sound.
Yoke Lore opened the festival by proving that dreamy synth-pop can include the banjo as its central instrument. The singer-songwriter, formerly a member of Walk the Moon, performed songs from his 2017 and 2018 EPs, Goodpain and Absolutes. Playing the banjo as one would a guitar and backed by a drummer who also controlled some backing tracks, he opened with “Fake You” and “Only You,” the latter of which had a reverb-laden dreamy vibe. That’s something not typically associated with the instrument.
He followed that with a lonesome rendition of Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply,” turning a whimsical love song into one of heartbreak. Yoke Lore’s set included his best-known song, “Beige,” newer single “Chin Up” and “Goodpain”—the latter being about needing to go through difficulties before, in his words, “getting to the good shit.”