Imagine That, a No-Stress Music Festival
My job has taken me everywhere — a bullring in Spain, a figure-skating thugfest in Norway, an Australian gym with multi-colored spiders, a Beijing stadium designed like a bird’s nest by a Chinese dissident, an Instagram-perfect field in the Greek Isles, a hockey arena inside a mountain near the Arctic Circle, a 13th-century Italian dungeon where Bode Miller was getting drunk, the futbol cathedrals in Milan and Barcelona, the 18th green at St. Andrews, the slopes of Val-d’Isere, the stench of Lance at the Tour de France, Wimbledon’s lawns, Augusta’s splendor, timeless Wrigley and Lambeau and Fenway, Tyson’s psycho fights in Vegas, the Garden on 33rd Street, the Big House and Cameron and Notre Dame, every NFL stadium, every major-league park but Minnesota (sorry) and every NBA arena but Charlotte (not sorry).
I’ve been lucky enough to be everywhere that matters, and I intend in this running travelogue to guide sports fans looking to live those experiences.
But you know what I’m telling people about right now?
Music festivals usually exist to wear people out, have a stomach pumped at a hospital and make business connections with fellow creatives who may or may not delete the cell number. But BottleRock in Napa Valley was a refreshing departure from my other plunge into 48-hour slackerdom, that being Lollapalooza in Chicago, which was unbearably hot when it wasn’t raining, Woodstock-like-muddy when it was raining and filled with North Shore kids mumbling along with whatever Snoop Dogg/Lion was trying to enunciate. BottleRock was hyped as a convergence of music and wine — what else in Napa? — in a compact field where multiple stages could be navigated in minutes, not hours.
This was truth in advertising.
The acts were top-rate, headlined by the Black Keys and Kings of Leon, who were doing their first public show since the raspy Followill dude faded into rehab. Oh, there were thousands in the audience, but not tens of thousands pressed against each other in borderline filth. And if you wanted an old-school getaway, there was Jackson Browne, hair silvery but still in ’70s-shag form, playing all the hits for a few hundred folks in a tent.
All of which happened mere blocks from Napa’s business district, making your hotel/crash pad — such as the new Westin or Andaz — minutes away. The restaurants were solid, none better than the legendary burger stop, Gott’s Roadside. The bars, which hosted after-parties ’til the wee hours, were accessible and visited by a few rockers — hey, there’s Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, still in his show wardrobe and rapping with a woman, perhaps asking if she realizes she has the most beautiful face.
And sandwiched between it all, just a 75-minute drive away, is San Francisco. You arrive there on a Thursday, stay at the W and try what’s on the dim-sum carts at State Bird Provisions. If we’d wanted, the Giants were playing that night at AT&T Park, which remains the finest 21st-century baseball experience because it pulls in the mood and aura of a spellbinding city. But those who prefer restaurants should head to Flour + Water in the Mission District or Cotogna by Jackson Square. Bars? South of Market, the Mission or North Beach, where you still can play bocce in an old Italian room while talking up a techie who wants to start an app.
Friday, you sleep in and either hit up the Ferry Building for an early lunch or navigate the hills and skinny streets for two slices at North Beach Pizza. Then it’s time to head across the Bay Bridge, past Berkeley and into suburbia. Make a sharp turn somewhere in Vallejo, and soon enough, the vineyards appear. Like wine itself, Napa is subtle with the first glass, then gets crazier the longer you stay with it. For the unforgettable foodie experience, stay a few miles up St. Helena Highway in Yountville, where the renovated North Block Hotel is a short walk to Thomas Keller’s exquisite French Laundry, assuming you’ve booked a reservation decades earlier. If not, try his acclaimed Bouchon bakery for breakfast. Or the housemade pastas at Redd Wood.
BottleRock started on a Wednesday, if you wished to see Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I’d heard the Thrift Shop thing enough; two days and two nights were perfect. Pack up Sunday, battle a little traffic on I-80, stop at Central Kitchen in the Mission, then drop the rental car at SFO. The Giants were finishing up the same series, but garlic fries go only so far with so much to sample in a superb culinary capital.
Soon enough, I’ll get around to sports in my travelogue. But I also value a music festival that won’t kill me, suffocate me or make me feel like an old hippie dancing to Country Joe & the Fish. BottleRock pulled it off.