NAPA — Guitar legend Carlos Santana, closing out BottleRock Napa Valley 2019 on Sunday along with Mumford and Sons, saw it as his mission to fight fear with love. On several occasions, the Bay Area native, clad in a hoodie and sweatpants, made that point clear, but being from the counterculture generation and a product of the Summer of Love, Santana took the road less travelled to get his point across.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked several minutes into “In Search of Mona Lisa,” the title tack to his 2019 EP. “I don’t necessarily mean water—or wine—I’m talking about intimacy.”
And then: “In all four corners of the planet is fear. Fear is boring.” And: “Romance is in you. And it’s got to come out. … I’m talking about the real medicine. Not drugs or the stuff they sell on TV.”
It wasn’t the most coherent line of thought, and as Santana mentioned later, he may have been affected by the strong scents of marijuana in the air, but battling fear with romantic love was a point he kept coming back to, and it became the central theme to his 75-minute set on the last day of BottleRock.
Santana and his band took the stage as images and videos from the original Woodstock festival flashed on the screens, followed by video of a shredding, much younger Santana. The band kicked into the instrumental composition “Soul Sacrifice,” one of the highlights of Woodstock, with the video still rolling behind him.
Without pausing, the band went into Santana’s 1969 version of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jin-go-lo-ba” and a cover of John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement,” from A Love Supreme.
At this time Santana let two of the vocalists in his band do all the talking and singing. While he may have made eye contact with the crowd, he only opened his mouth to emote the wailing of his gold guitar. The expressions he was making were ones of pleasure and pain. He squinted his eyes tightly as the band again pivoted; this time to “Black Magic Woman” and “Evil Ways.”
“Oye Como Va,” a Tito Puente song that Santana popularized, came next. Phones popped out in the crowd to record the performance.
The sound quality of the performance was amazing. There were about 10 musicians on stage, but each instrument and vocal was clear; it was like listening to a high-fidelity album.
Following some blistering rock, the band slowed it down on 1976’s “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile).” While the other musicians quieted their instruments, Santana continued to work at his guitar, making it wail with precision. The diversion into mellowness was short-lived, and was followed with “Hope You’re Feeling Better,” a kick-drum-heavy full-funk experience. One of the vocalists rapped a section in the bridge.
A few songs later, Santana’s drummer led a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”—both in tempo and singing vocals. The song turned more aggressive in the hands of the soloing frontman and his band.
And it was during “In Search for Mona Lisa” that Santana first began to address the crowd, at first throwing out quips to a love interest between the verses: “Bring your body over here…” “You are my goddess…”
Crowd favorite “Maria Maria” came next, during which Santana went on an another offense against fear, which he referred to as “boring,” as well as a pervasive negativity around the world.
“We just need to turn that shit off!” he declared.
The latter part of the set included “Corazón Espinado,” as well as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and the ever-popular “Smooth.”
Mumford & Sons
Mumford & Sons brought the crowd at the JaM Cellars stage together, making the show feel like a giant pub singalong. Kicking off with “Guiding Light,” the band kicked in with its lush acoustic instrumentation and soaring melodies. The stage awash in an orange hue, Marcus Mumford led the singing, bouncing and dancing with the band’s upbeat, pulsing soundtrack.
Following up with “Little Lion Man” and “Holland Road,” the latter beautifully accentuated by a horn section, Mumford announced, “We’ve come to [expletive] party!”
The band’s BottleRock performance marked the first Northern California performance on its Delta Tour. Touring drummer Chris Maas provided a strong foundation for the band’s live sound, with many songs rooted in a heavy percussive drive. Mumford—and, really, the entire band—left it all on the field with a strong, passionate vocal performance that held the audience tight and brought it along for the ride. At one point, Mumford even jumped into the audience to sing with fans pressed against the barricade.
The majority of the band’s material came from Delta, and the rest of the set was rounded out with some of the its well-known songs, including the staple “I Will Wait,” “Tompkins Square Park” and “Ditmas.”
Fans that chose Mumford were rewarded with a sweaty, high-energy performance that ended with a cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
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Gang of Youths
One of the most iconic events in U2’s early career was playing at Red Rocks in Colorado on a stormy night. The show became well known by fans. Sydney’s Gang of Youths aren’t at the same level U2 were back in the day, but the two bands share some key characteristics: they wear their hearts on their sleeves, they aren’t afraid to come off as uncool, they make amazing anthemic rock songs and they stand for something. Also, they played in the rain on Sunday. It wasn’t a significant storm (the expected rain never got worse than a sprinkle), but seeing so many fans bounce around while getting wet reminded us of that U2 show.
Frontman David Le’aupepe and his bandmates started with “Fear and Trembling” and “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out.” The next cut, “The Heart is a Muscle,” was dedicated to the singer’s father, who passed away in August 2018.
“He was the who one who taught me to love without apprehension,” Le’aupepe said.
“Keep Me in the Open” started with only guitars and synths before drummer Donnie Borzestowski picked up the pace. Le’aupepe sat down on a speaker at the lip of the stage during “Magnolia,” characteristically pounding his chest and his head while cradling his guitar. That song, too, began slowly before building up to a euphoric bridge that had the singer doing a scissor kick and head-banging.
Before “Let Me Down Easy,” he explained that it’s his fundamental belief that no situation is too dire that it can’t be helped by dancing. He then proceeded to sensually dance around the stage, swiveling his hips at every step. In full Bono mode, Le’aupepe looked straight into the stage video cameras and even hopped over several barricades into the general admission section, where he walked around and gave high fives along the way.
Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra
Jeff Goldblum was more than a musician (and an actor). He was an experience. He actually started his performance at least 10 minutes earlier than advertised; not with music but by warming up his crowd by playing games like connecting another actor to him, in the style of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. He answered fan questions (“What’s your favorite scene from Jurassic Park?”), had one fan sing the Canadian National anthem (why not?), announced he’s never had a cavity or a filling, he read a Shakespearean sonnet, and repeatedly quizzed attendees on wine trivia, even between songs once the music began. These tangential conversations were quintessential Jeff Goldblum.
Music-wise, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra performed a mix of jazz standards from its recently released album, The Capital Studio Sessions, like Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Times Square” and Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”
Perhaps as a surprise, one of the guest vocalists on on his album, Haley Reinhart, came out on stage to perform several songs, including “My Baby Just Cares,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.”
L.A. band Lord Huron brought its brand of folk and roots-inspired rock. Opening with “Ancient Names, Pt 1”, the band went on to deliver an eclectic high-energy set, perfectly timed with the clouds parting and the rainy skies leaving for the day. Ben Schneider matched a strong vocal delivery with impressive guitar chops as the band rolled through the early part of its set with a Springsteen-meets-Petty vibe and added country soul. The band’s set included “Meet Me By the River,” “Ends of the Earth” and “The Night We Met.”
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Bishop Briggs combined elements of Crossfit, track and street fights during her thrilling hourlong set. Even with a shaved head, she still had a humanizing shyness on stage to the degree where the scope of her success still hasn’t sunk in.
“Hello, I’m Bishop Briggs, and there’s a lot of you out there,” Briggs said after finishing the opening song of her set. She was a firecracker, running the length of the stage, bobbing and weaving her way through her performance. Vocally, Briggs was as strong as ever, bouncing between near-whispers and full-voiced roars. She played all the standards of her songbook, including “White Flag,” “Hallowed Ground” and “Hi Lo (Hollow),” while also mixing in some new material.
The scorned love ballad “Always You” acted as a perfect segue into the newfound imperfect love of “Baby.” One of the biggest ovations of the weekend came from Briggs’ spectacular performance of “River.” She stood on the stage and took in the extended applause after the performance, just to introduce another surprise to the mix: a new track, “Higher.” The cut featured local Bay Area vocal group Be With the Flow singing as her choir. Briggs’ energy, mixed with the choir’s infectious and fun performance, capped off one of the true highlights of the weekend.
The guests at the Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage
Between the JaM Cellars and Lagunitas stages was a little stage that had a general focus on cuisine, but also served as an interesting place to watch celebs gather and talk about their lives. This year featured a mix of pro athletes, BottleRock performers and other notable guests like Tricia Yearwood. We caught a couple of the sets on Sunday.
In the morning, new Top Chef winner Kelsey Barnard Clark and Heroes actress Ali Larter made a Gulf Coast shrimp stew and alcoholic milkshakes, while Game of Thrones actor Kristian Nairn (Hodor) watched and talked about his lack of cooking skills and his 20-year DJ career.
Later in the evening, the events took a little more of a bizarre turn. In theory, rocker Alice Cooper was going to join celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern to attempt to break a world record. With the help of the crowd, the plan was to set the record for the most rubber chickens thrown in the air at one time. Why? Because Cooper had a thing for throwing chickens at a concert.
Seems simple, right? Not so fast. In the end, an official with the Guinness Book of World Records took the stage and informed the crowd that he could in fact not certify the record because he couldn’t verify that the chickens were tossed at the same time. This has to be a bit, right? No! Whether it was the sound system, inebriation or other factors, the crowd simply could not successfully toss their rubber chickens in the air in unison. Some records are not meant to be broken, but fear not: Cooper has already promised a return in 2020 to give another it shot.
The award for “Most Surprised to be Playing in Front of So Many People” goes to Houses. Singer-songwriter Dexter Tortoriello and his bandmates were genuinely and charmingly over the moon to get such an energetic response. The electronica act, performing as a full band (and including the band’s manager on drums because the touring drummer was at a wedding in Mexico), sounded even better live than on record with a sound that blended Tortoriello’s keyboard with guitar and live percussion.
The band played its four-song 2018 EP, Drugstore Heaven, including the dreamy “Years.” Older material like 2010’s “Reds” and “Soak It Up,” which bounced along to a happy melody, also made the setlist. On “Pink Honey,” the live guitar added some rough textures to the song’s base.
Single “Fast Talk” seemed more relaxed than the studio version, coasting at its tempo with a keyboard part that was slightly behind the beat. The other highlight was 2018 song “Left Alone,” with Tortoriello singing in falsetto.
Houses also introduced a new cut called “Hold Me Up,” a blend of lo-fi pop and club dance music.
A mildly heavier rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of fans wanting to see legendary Bay Area rapper Too $hort. Too $hort hit the stage with a DJ, and the duo was more than enough to please the massive crowd, one of the biggest over the weekend. The rapper focused the early part of his set talking to the ladies in the audience, suggesting they dance, bounce and move, among a host of other commands. He brought out songs like “Blow the Whistle,” “Bossy” and “Shake that Monkey”—ending many of the songs by exclaiming “beyyyotch!” Rain-moistened fans followed along with every rhyme, bouncing and cheering for every moment.
Washington, D.C. electro-pop trio SHAED provided some excitement to one of the largest crowds of the weekend at the Bai stage. Vocalist Chelsea Lee provided an earnest and emotional performance as bandmates (and brothers) Max and Spencer Earnest built an ample electronic foundation. The band was stylistically reminiscent of CHVRCHES, though its sound is its own.
Songwriter and new Napa resident Skylar Grey debuted new material and performed some of the hits she’s written for others. Grey has stylistically shape-shifted quite a bit over the years, with her most recent foray into more traditional Americana. She had an engaging on-stage presence, telling stories behind many songs.
“Love brought me to Napa. I met my husband here at BottleRock back in 2016,” Grey said, referencing her significant other a handful of times through her set. She also mixed in stripped-down versions of P. Diddy’s “Coming Home,” Zedd’s “Clarity,” and a show-stopping rendition of Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie.”
Grey had a moment of levity when she took to the JamPad for a piano performance later in the day. During the quiet emotion of her “Love the Way You Lie,” she stopped playing just before the chorus to jokingly ask the crowd what all the yelling was about, learning it was rapper Too $hort’s performance across the festival grounds. It was a sentiment also echoed by Jeff Goldblum ay at the Bai stage.
New Jersey singer-songwriter Harry Hudson gave festivalgoers a fun surprise early into BottleRock’s final day. Hudson channeled a modern street version of Frank Sinatra, swaying and swinging across the stage with beat-heavy pop and an old-school flair. Flanked by a single guitarist, Hudson had a magnetic onstage personality and kept a conversational tone throughout the set. Even Michael Franti stopped to check him out. At one point, Hudson poured a glass of chardonnay before giving a toast: “This song is for my ex-girlfriend!”
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San Francisco singer-songwriter Jes Frances kicked off the final day of the festival on the Lagunitas stage with a set of soulful R&B that frequently crossed over into funk territory. Although she’s got only one published song so far, “Facade,” her set showed a deep range from her lower register to a dreamy falsetto.