There are many uncertainties in this world. Over the past 18 months that fact has been painfully proven time and time again. With thousands of concerts, sporting events, and festivals canceled due to Covid-19 it would seem like an unwise idea to get my heart set for my all-time favorite annual gathering.
The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is unlike any festival you will find. It’s the closest thing to Glastonbury or Woodstock on American soil. Spending 4 days on a Tennessee farm in the blistering Summer heat with fellow music lovers creates a community built on harmony and the appreciation of art. Since 2010 I have attended every Bonnaroo. In 2017, I brought my girlfriend with me for our very first vacation together. We survived the heat, camping, a few tough lineup decisions and remained attracted to each other. We would eventually get married and we have attended every Bonnaroo together since.
In 2020, our favorite band, Australia’s own Tame Impala, was announced as one of the headliners and we couldn’t wait for our 4th Bonnaroo together. Then just like everything in 2020, it was canceled due to the Coronavirus.
Now this year as the calendar was about to flip to September we were like two schoolkids waiting for summer vacation. Our dining room table overflowed with camping supplies, flashlights, bug spray, all the snacks you can imagine and all of the Bonnaroo essentials. We were so close to being back at the farm!
But Mother Nature had different plans for us.
As I drove through a Starbucks for an afternoon coffee, I received a text from my wife in all caps that read “NOOOOOOOOOOOO.” My heart immediately sank. I knew exactly what this meant.
The previous weekend a catastrophic storm called Hurricane Ida had ravaged through Louisiana and made its way up the United States going directly over central Tennessee. There had been reports of massive rainstorms and Bonnaroo offering refunds to people who didn’t want to come. There was speculation that a cancelation could occur, but I chose to ignore that and focus on getting through my day and a half left of work… but not without the help of Starbucks. After surveying campgrounds, discovering massive flooding and standing water where 80,000 people were about to be camping Bonnaroo was forced to make what I imagine had to be the hardest decision they ever had to make. Bonnaroo 2021 would have to be canceled just hours before campgrounds were to open and a two days before the festival was to kick off.
The feeling of heartbreak and disappointment is hard to describe. Bonnaroo was meant to be a return to normal. A place that my wife and I had shared some of our favorite memories together. To be surrounded by people who love the same things we love so much that we have been separated from for too long. It was going to be a celebration and an escape, but now it was gone.
I spent that night and eventual morning feeling like I had a rain cloud over my head. An event we had waited over 2 years for had been taken from us. All our planning and preparation was for none. All we had was 5 days off of work with nothing to do but sit at home and think how much more fun we would be having if we were singing our hearts out to “The Less I Know the Better.” It was going to be a very depressing weekend for the McVay’s.
But maybe it didn’t have to be.
If you know me, you know I don’t like to be bored. I always like to have an event on the calendar to look forward to, and an adventure to await. When I found out the news, I took my time to be upset, but then I immediately viewed it as an opportunity to do something else. I was not going to make this cancelation announcement force me to sit at home and binge Netflix for 5 days.
I began a search for the perfect replacement.
And the perfect replacement found me.
A Music Festival in one of the most beautiful locations in the world- California Wine Country.
Bottlerock Napa Valley is a multi-day music festival that began in 2013. Bottlerock, like Bonnaroo is a collection of the biggest names in music from all different genres meant to satisfy the most eclectic of music tastes. But unlike Bonnaroo it is meant to spotlight where the festival takes place just as much as the music itself. The festival this year would be headlined by a VERY wide range of artists from Guns n Roses, Miley Cyrus, Brandi Carlile, The Village People, Megan Thee Stallion and Foo Fighters.
The chance to see one of the most prolific rock bands along with the opportunity to sing “Party in the USA” after having one of the best Cabernets I’ve ever had in my life, maybe, just maybe, the weekend wasn’t lost!
And after a few emails to the incredible Bottlerock team, a very persuasive speech to the wife, and a late night flight to California, we were having the most impulsive, spontaneous music festival experiences we had ever had.
From the moment we entered Napa Valley we had the greatest experience. We were surrounded by the kindest, most welcoming group of people we can remember. So many locals wanting to know which band we were most excited to see. Then when we told them our story and our decision we made 36 hours before they all were amazed and so happy we came to see them.
The moment I knew we had made the right decision was when we walked into the festival and saw the crowds of people smiling and the amazing setup of all the fest had to offer.
From pop up tents offering the best wines in the world, to the most eclectic food truck collection, to tents that offered IV drips. As you walked through the crowds of people you were filled with an energy that hadn’t been available in a year and a half.
Then the music started, and I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. There were so many incredible highlights over the entire weekend.
Friday’s highlight was an unexpected one with Joywave. Lead singer Daniel Armbruster might not have been the most experienced or polished frontman of the fest but he was definitely the most entertaining and joyful. Playing on one of the smaller stages, the energy and fun they brought to the crowd was the perfect introduction to what a wonderful weekend awaited.
Other highlights of the day were the incredible multi-talented Suki Waterhouse playing her first music festival ever, and you would never have known by her powerful presence and even more striking vocals.
The rest of Friday featured a country music takeover led by Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris, who after performing their own solo sets had the sudden task of being an emergency headliner after Chris Stapleton cancelled last minute due to an illness. Both were unbelievable in their own way, with Carlile providing the best moment of the day for me with her performance of “The Story.” But Carlile and Morris ended the night with their supergroup The Highwomen and made the best of a situation that could have been a huge loss. G-Eazy, Finneas, and James Murphy all stood out as well providing the audience a little bit of something for everyone.
Saturday saw crowds multiply drastically thanks to the mega-headliner of Guns N Roses. Although temperatures soared into the 90’s it didn’t keep people from rocking their Black and yellow Guns N Roses vintage shirts from the 1980’s and 90’s. The action leading up to the heavyweight performance did not disappoint as the always energetic Young the Giant brought all they had ripping through their ever-growing hit collection. Portugal the Man then took over and said very little so they could jam very much.
Across the festival grounds, newcomer Dominic Fike played a largely stripped down set with his acoustic guitar while serenading his very young audience and giving them what he called a “music history lesson” by playing Norah Jones and John Mayer. Some moments like these can sure make someone in their 30’s feel ancient. Following Fike was a group I make a point to see any moment I get the chance, Run the Jewels. It’s hard to find any hip-hop, or honestly any musical group that brings more energy, connection, and enthusiasm to their concerts than RTJ. Every show is guaranteed to get you jumping, but also elicit a lot of emotion as what their music stands for and says is more important than any chord progression.
But most of the people there were for the very high profile and very different headliners. Guns N Roses took the stage at 7:30, while across the way and a few minutes later Miley Cyrus took hers. The average age shifted dramatically as you made the walk from one stage to the other. Miley’s set was filled with her massive hits as well as covers from Blondie and Janis Joplin. Miley gave the crowd everything they wanted while also making the observation she had “never seen so many people so drunk off wine, “
Across the park Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff brought the audience into a time machine and did their best to replicate the days of the 1980s. Their 23 song setlist actually went so long and so hard the festival organizers had to pull the plug on the show, as Napa has a very strict noise curfew rule. The hits were all there from “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child of Mine,” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and the star power was there too as Axl Rose had Pink join him to sing “Patience” and Dave Grohl out to play guitar for “Paradise City.” For the crowd there, it was obvious that while the band didn’t quite sound like it did in the 80’s and 90’s they still packed a bolt of nostalgia that was impossible not to love.
The festival concluded Sunday with Foo Fighters at the top of the bill. After seeing Guns N Roses on Saturday it helped me gain a true appreciation for what Dave Grohl and his band have become. They are the sole torch bearers of rock and roll today and they are single handedly keeping it alive and giving the best rock show you can find anywhere.
Their show Sunday night was the best of the entire weekend, packed with 18 of their best songs and with surprises (a Bee Gees cover) and so much personality. Grohl has the ability to connect with every member of the audience to get them engaged, laughing, then ready to scream every word with him. After roaring with Dave to “Everlong” to end the fest, I left with so much appreciation for what the Foo Fighters are today and look forward to seeing what more they have in front of them.
There were many other highlights on Sunday, from Future Islands continuing to be one of the best live shows you will see anywhere on any day. Cage The Elephant were unpredictable, quite emotional, but always fun. Megan Thee Stallion had by far the youngest crowd of the weekend and gave the crowd a tight packed 50 minute set that was all they could have ever asked for. Jimmy Eat World sounded every bit as good as they have since the mid 2000’s and had one of my favorite sing along moments of the entire weekend during “Sweetness.”
But the true star of the entire festival were the festival organizers and the city of Napa. Pulling off a festival in these times is an incredibly ambitious task and they absolutely nailed it. Their care for the safety of their patrons led them to having strict vaccination and negative test result policies and over 96 percent of festival goers were vaccinated. The feeling of being with so many people and still feeling safe and looked after yet all the while still being entertained is a gift I never will take for granted after having it taken away from us last year.
Bottlerock will return next year back to its normal time slot of Memorial Day weekend. If you like wine, incredible people, beautiful sights, and the best live music has to offer than Bottlerock Napa Valley is an experience that should never be missed.
It’s a weekend we will never forget and the greatest change of plans I have ever had in my life. Thank you Bottlerock!
Bottlerock Napa Valley will return next year, for more details about the event, head to https://www.bottlerocknapavalley.com/.
Headline Photo: Foo Fighters at Bottlerock. Photo by Nathan McVay.