BottleRock Napa Highlights: Miley Cyrus, Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters & More (FESTIVAL RECAP/PHOTOS)

After nearly two and a half years since their last event, the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival presented by JaM Cellars wines took place for the eighth time during Labor Day weekend, September 3-5, 2021. The festival was canceled in 2020 and delayed from its regular Memorial Day weekend dates this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

The festival weekend that BottleRock finally pulled off drew a sold-out crowd that enjoyed hot, sunny weather and diverse live music, along with celebrity chef demos, gourmet food, delicious wine, craft beer and premium spirits in line with the iconic Napa Valley setting.

Festival organizers ensured a safe environment by requiring proof of full vaccination or negative test upon entry each day (with final reports showing 95% vaccinated festival-goers). There were a few hiccups – including an opening-day headliner cancellation ping-pong, with Stevie Nicks being replaced by Chris Stapleton, who then canceled the day before the festival, replaced by The Highwomen – but most of the event went very smoothly. Attendees dealt with long lines at entry points due to COVID-19 checks and the usual strict see-through bag checks to get onto the grounds. However, once inside, the upscale, fun atmosphere that BottleRock is famous for made for an exultant crowd of music lovers. 

With a vast array of musical acts performing over the three days and five stages, daily highlights included:

Friday

  • Legendary soul sister, Mavis Staples showed that she still brings it with her incredibly passionate vocals, belying her age (82). While maybe a bit more gravelly than in years past, Staples earned new fans, perhaps gleaned from the recent “Summer of Soul” hit documentary. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s set included “I’ll Take You There,” “Take Us Back” and “Brothers and Sisters.”
  • Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears played an electrifying set of blues-rock. Lewis stunned with rapid-fire guitar solos including a Hendrix-like teeth-on-strings moment.
  • DeVotchKa brought it all, from guitars and horns to bouzouki, sousaphone and theremin, creating a rock sound tinged with Russian-Roma influences that got the crowd dancing at the Plaza Stage.
  • Brandi Carlile and her stellar band played a set of genre-crossing songs. Her vocals were extraordinary during “The Story” and “The Eye.” Carlile joked after her band mixed a section of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” into an instrumental interlude, saying, “You thought I was going to sing all of ‘War Pigs,’ didn’t you? Maybe next time I’ll do that.” She also mixed in a roots-rock version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Carlile did double-duty later that night, closing the biggest stage with The Highwomen.
  • Spafford performed one of their typically extended jam sets for a gyrating crowd. Brian Moss played an assortment of creative guitar solos while Andrew Johnson contributed several trippy keyboard jams.

Saturday

  • North Mississippi Allstars played two different sets. First, a short show at the intimate VIP Village “Acoustic” Stage (although they were conspicuously electric) and later, a full set on one of the main stages. Luther Dickinson thrilled the VIP audience with a variety of rapid-fire, finger-picking solos. On the big stage, he played a lot more slide guitar. Bukka White’s Delta Blues classic “Shake ‘Em on Down” had people up from their blankets (no portable chairs allowed at BottleRock!) dancing on the grass.
  • Reignwolf delivered a scorching, distorted set of blues-rock tunes. Guitarist/vocalist Jordan Cook yelled to the crowd, “We haven’t played in nearly two years!” and both he and the audience were very glad to be back.
  • Portugal. The Man entertained a large, sweat-soaked gang in the late afternoon of a seriously hot day. “Just For Kicks” drew the loudest roars, but many enjoyed the mashup of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and “People Say.” They closed with a crowd-pleasing “Yellow Purple Red and Blue.”
  • The day’s headliners qualified as both highlights and lowlights. Guns N’ Roses’ history of lineup changes, drug problems, cancelled performances and overall turmoil made their 2021 BottleRock headlining appearance a distinctly mixed bag. They showed up and performed, but it was sad to hear Axl Rose as a shell of his former self. His voice and ability to scream are virtually gone; his singing can hardly be called that any more. Slash did his always impressive best to win over the crowd with his guitar pyrotechnics on hits like “Mr. Brownstone,” “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” but it was Rose’s failure as the lead singer that will be remembered most. In what is now a BottleRock tradition, they cut the power at exactly 10 p.m. as the band, with special guests Dave Grohl and Pink (who was reportedly scouting the venue for a performance next year), went past the curfew as they were performing “Paradise City.” 
  • Miley Cyrus got the co-headliner spot on Saturday. We checked her out on the Verizon Stage for the spectacle, but the best thing we can report is that she actually sang during her overly produced set. She did a nice version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” but it was not enough to keep us interested. As the teenybopper masses exalted, we bailed out early.

Sunday

  • Sunday was the day to remember of BottleRock 2021, as it brought so many terrific bands together for a raucous finish to the music fest that brings the Napa Valley into the spotlight for something different than fine food and world-class wine. As BottleRock presenting sponsors and Napa’s own hometown JaM Cellars’ owners John and Michele Truchard explain, BottleRock also means a lot to the local Napa community at large. “We really love how much BottleRock supports our local hotels and our business owners,” Michele says, “and all the restaurants and wineries can be here promoting themselves with their food and wines, that’s really important, and it makes this a truly special festival.”
  • Chris Pierce did double duty. He opened one of the big stages and later did an intimate acoustic set at the JaM Cellars’ JaMPad small stage. Pierce’s soulful gospel-and-blues-infused vocals were a revelation, as he played guitar and harmonica, doing songs from his album “American Silence.”
  • Full Moonalice did a fantastic soul tribute set. Fortified by Lester Chambers, the 79-year-old vocalist from the Chambers Brothers, his vocalist son Dylan Chambers and the sweet-sounding T Sisters vocalists (Erika, Rachel and Chloe Tietjen), the band did some awesome covers. They performed versions of Sly and the Family Stone’s “You Can Make It If You Try,” The Grateful Dead’s “Turn on Your Love Light” and closed with Lester Chambers belting out “Time Has Come Today,” his Chambers Brothers classic.
  • The psychedelic-soul band Black Pumas played a great set. Eric Burton was maniacal as he sang passionately, jumped into the crowd and bounced around the stage. Guitarist Adrian Quesada played several impressive solos. The band played great versions of “Mrs. Postman,” “Fire” and “Colors.”
  • Jon Batiste brought an incredible band and high energy for his set that included “Tell the Truth,” Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and the band’s recent single “Freedom.” The New Orleans native sang, played guitar, piano and melodica, and got everyone dancing. His backup singers looked like trippy hippies as they coordinated their dance steps and beautiful harmonies.
  • Turkuaz was supposed to do a Talking Heads tribute tour with Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew in 2020. Delayed by COVID-19, they are finally on the road with those two legends/ Harrison sang and played keys and guitar, while Belew’s lead-guitar solos were extraordinary. Harrison mused that, “It’s more than 40 years that Adrian and I have been on the stage together.” The members of Turkuaz, who attribute their band’s formation to their mutual love of Talking Heads, did that seminal band proud along with those original members, on incredible versions of “Psycho Killer,” “Still Waiting,” “Cities,” “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime.”
  • In the early afternoon, Dave Grohl joined famed chef José Andrés on the culinary stage for the breakdown and preparation of a giant halibut. Andrés, known for his great cooking and extensive charity work in disaster areas, told the crowd that Grohl’s Backbeat Barbecue company was providing free food to area firefighters.
  • The Foo Fighters, who are being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, closed the festival and put on a great performance. From the opening notes of their set, Grohl and the other Foos grabbed the audience and took them on a rocking ride through their 25-plus year catalog. The band played great versions of “Hero,” “These Days” and “Learning to Fly.” At the midpoint of the set, Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins traded places. Grohl took over the drum kit and Hawkins sang an impressive version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” Grohl did an explosive drum solo before going back to guitar and vocals. The band closed the show and the festival with fiery versions of “This Is a Call,” “Best of You” and “Monkey Wrench.”

Overcoming many obstacles in 2021, BottleRock Napa Valley’s producers put on a wonderful music festival with thousands of attendees, in spite of major health concerns, unpredictable weather and unexpected headliner cancellations. The diverse music lineup, creature comforts, and finely organized stage and vendor setup provided everyone with a safe, comfortable, delicious, and thoroughly enjoyable weekend. The 2022 BottleRock Napa festival will take place May 27-29 during Memorial Day weekend. We hope to be back in Napa next year for another entertaining weekend filled with wine, food and song.

Live photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon ©2021.

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