BLUES MAN MICK FLEETWOOD

Mick Fleetwood at work. Photo: Jonathan Todd

Mick Fleetwood at work. Photo: Jonathan Todd

If you’ve seen Fleetwood Mac in any of its incarnations over the last five decades, the chatty, very tall and occasionally bug-eyed fellow permanently behind the drum kit has been Mick Fleetwood. These days, he is immersed in his first and abiding musical love, the blues.

On the phone from his upcountry home in Maui last week, Fleetwood talked about his commitment to the blues as a teenage drummer in London in the 1960s. “There was a huge, powerful renaissance of creativity, fashion, music,” he said. “Blues was the most boutique element probably, that was buried in amongst all of that.

“Early Fleetwood Mac was entirely a blues band. If you listen to the first album, three of us came out of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers — Peter Green, John McVie and myself. The three of us were in that band together. We came out of that whole, we had done our boot camp. We were blues players. That was the world we lived in.”

Fleetwood spoke at length about the influence of black American blues pioneers on young white musicians in Europe. “It was John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, all of the men from that generation,” he said. “Later on it would be the B.B. Kings and Freddie Kings and that whole bunch.

“All of those guys happily came over to Europe. They weren’t really taken care of in the United States, which was ironic to us in England. Happily, all of these guys, including earlier on, way back in the ‘20s with ragtime and jazz, the black musician community gravitated especially to Paris and Spain. There was a reason. They were treated like heroes. A lot of the musicians stayed because they were treated right, quite frankly, on a sociological level.

“We benefited. A strong musical underground current was flowing freely. Even the Rolling Stones, let’s face it, was a blues band. This is the stuff we loved. I was part of that wave that ended up with bands like the Animals, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones way at the top of the list, and then early Fleetwood Mac. Looking back on it, it really had a lot to do with saving an American art form. I don’t think that’s an overblown statement.

“B.B., who we got to know really well through the years, was very open to repeating a mantra, which was, ‘if it wasn’t for Eric Clapton and all of them, us guys would never have gotten the amount of notoriety that we ended up having.’ It was a glorious accident that one way or another, a bunch of English guys grabbed onto an art form that they were able to identify with.”

Fleetwood said he believes that his passion and his presence, rather than his skill as a drummer, have been responsible for his success and longevity. “I’m not a huge technician as a player,” he said. “I play entirely from my gut. It’s almost a little frightening because I don’t really know what I’m doing. But in terms of emotional content and vulnerability, that was a very good place for me to be. Blues music requests that. It requests that you live in the moment.

“I felt that I could really contribute because I felt so passionate and fulfilled when I played blues. That’s the world that I walked into when I was fifteen and a half going on sixteen in London, and I never stopped.”

The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is Rick Vito on guitar and lead vocals, Lenny Castellanos on bass, Mark Johnstone on keyboards and background vocals and Fleetwood on drums.

Read it in the Napa Valley Register.

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TALKING WITH ART GARFUNKEL

Art Garfunkel performing in Tel-Aviv, June 2015. Photo credit: Gil Cohen

Art Garfunkel performing in 2015. Photo credit: Gil Cohen

Art Garfunkel is among the legendary artists who gave us the soundtrack of the 1960s. His angelic tenor lead on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is as iconic and indelible as Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” or Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

On the phone last week from Martha’s Vineyard, Garfunkel talked about the heyday of his work with Paul Simon (1964-1970), years that tracked closely to the life span of the Beatles.

“It was fascinating to be at my vantage point,” he said, “with a college education in the middle of rock and roll, to be a partner of the Beatles and look out at the scene in the ‘60s and see everything open up and to have your own intelligence as your location in the middle of it. It was an amazing, charmed life.”

Garfunkel credits the Beatles as the principal ground-breakers in record-making. “You’re talking to one half of Simon & Garfunkel,” he said, “and I’ll tell you this: We chased after the Beatles. They served as leadership for anybody making rock and roll records. They taught us that making an album can be as open-ended creatively as you cared to make it.

“With George Martin as producer, the lads’ albums got more arty each time. ‘All right, boys, let’s turn the dials and give our ears the maximum treat for the kiddies’ sake, the audience.’ That’s what I felt the Beatles were spearheading as album-makers, and Simon & Garfunkel were right behind them as students.”

When it came to the Simon & Garfunkel vocal sound, Don and Phil Everly were important role models. “The Everly Brothers were so brilliant,” Garfunkel said, “that, for me as a harmonist, that’s a personal piece of nourishment that was very important. That was a genius blend, those two guys, the magic of those two brothers, how they vibrated. You can’t say enough. They weren’t great, they were super-great. They’re such a national treasure, Don and Phil.”

Garfunkel’s description of his personal experience of singing bordered on the metaphysical. “At the fundamental bottom of it,” he said, “when you sing, you let that joy and that bubbling thing happen from heart to vocal cords. I think about this a lot. If you try and analyze how this works, you’re stumped, you’re stymied.

“It’s like looking at joy. What does joy taste like if you analyze it? Well, you can’t. If you’re joyous, you’re within something. You can’t get outside of it to look at it and describe it because you’re within it. That’s what singing is. When you’re singing and you’re using the voice, you’re experiencing joy. You can’t talk about it.”

Garfunkel’s joyful singing experience came to a crashing halt six years ago with the onset of a weakened vocal cord. “I lost it in 2010,” he said. “I was touring with Paul Simon in the Far East. We played arenas, and we played them loud, too damn loud. I came home overworked in the vocal cords. I believe it’s a good guess for what happened to the loss of my chops.

“It was fucking traumatic. I use wild language because it’s an extreme experience. It’s tragic. It killed me. I am a singer. You can’t take my identity away from me. Then who am I? Walter? What kind of guy am I walking through life without the identity I always had? It’s soulless. It’s murder.

“I never accepted that I was really going to not have a voice, and I kept working at it. I kept practicing, using my iPod and singing on my own, and looking for rooms with good reverb, and bringing this crappy voice to bookings with some very small attendance, and trying to work it up again. I succeeded with patience, working at it in small rooms. I got the voice back.

“I can sing 100 percent now, but I can’t sing loud and dramatic, and that makes up only about 5 percent of my repertoire. To be high and loud is rare for all my singing. I almost never go there. For example, I cannot do the loud, high finish of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ I can’t quite do that. So I rewrote the ending.”

Alongside his musical life, Garfunkel has been writing poetry for decades, samples of which are integrated into his live performances.

“For 30-something years, I have been writing little prose poems to myself or to whomever,” he said. “I just wrote them and collected them. They are poetic bits, little half-pagers or one-pagers. They were describing what I was going through my tours with Paul, in the loss of my voice, in my life, in my children, in show business, in private life.

“They began to add up to an autobiography. I shopped it around with an agent, and I got a really good response. I will put out an autobiography in the autumn of 2017. I am truly excited by it. It’s a big deal when you reveal your life. I have my fingers crossed that I know what I’m doing. It will be published by Albert Knopf.”

At 74, Garfunkel remains a fascinated and engaged performer. “I have passion for it,” he said. “At this age, I still am in love with my work, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I have money in the bank. You only do this if it’s alive and well. For me, reading my poems, these autobiographical pieces, between the singing and having a voice back that still works and being a lucky man who can sing and use it in front of attentive audiences is entrancing. It’s a great work life.”

In the Napa Valley Register.

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JUDY COLLINS AND “THE GREAT FOLK SCARE” OF THE ’60’S

Judy Collins performing in 2012. Photo Michelle V. Agins

Judy Collins performing in 2012.  Photo: Michelle V. Agins

In her 2012 memoir, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music,” Judy Collins whimsically refers to the era of her emergence as “the great folk scare.” In the 1960s, on the heels of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, a flood of folk artists broke into the musical mainstream. A partial list includes Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Peter Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel.

Collins joined the folk music wave at age 22 with the 1961 release of her debut album, “Maid of Constant Sorrow.” Her success was amplified with her Grammy-winning performance of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in 1967. In all, she has recorded 36 studio albums, seven live performances and 11 compilations. Her most recent album is the just-released “Silver Skies Blue,” a collection of duets with singer-songwriter Ari Hest.

On the phone from her home in New York City earlier this month, Collins talked about the popularity of folk music and its relation to the events and culture of the 1960s. “It was a breakout on a musical level and a social level and a creative and intellectual level,” she said. “I tuned in last night to this folk thing on PBS where they’re selling this 400-song folk music set. I said, oh, that’s interesting.

“Then I heard my own voice talking about it, about the ‘60s and about the music. The last thing that I said was that the songs were literate. There was literature coming through. It wasn’t just emotions, they were short stories, they were metaphors, they were portraits within the context of some guy playing the guitar in some coffee house. It didn’t take 400 people and an orchestra to get something done.

“We became the news of the day. People were coming to hear us because they were going to hear about the heart, the head, the government, the war. They were going to hear about all the things that were on their minds that they were talking about around the kitchen table.

“It ran the entire gambit of human experience. I don’t know why we had to call it folk music except that we were playing guitars, we were not singing with orchestras, and our songs delved deeply into the human experience. That’s what made it so remarkably poignant and powerful. As a part of it, in the middle of it, I knew the power of the songs that were going on around me.”

While Baez was widely regarded as the most political of the successful female folk artists, Collins was an activist in her own right.

“I was in a hot bed of liberals in my high school and in my life,” she said. “My father was a hot-headed liberal radio man who was willing to talk about everything on the radio. We were coming out of the fog in the country. We were learning about the world. We were learning about ourselves. In part it was the war. And Kennedy had been killed. That blew it open, I think. It was political, it was social.

“The background for all of this is the broadside sheet and the troubadour, the person who is the public advocate, the advocacy poet from the English countryside who goes out with the news and who stands in the middle of the square, just like they still do in speaker’s corner in Hyde Park.

“They’re telling the news about what’s going on in the country, in the culture, in the political situation. We could hear that, and I think people just took to the streets and to the guitar shops and bought themselves guitars and learned to play like I did.”

In her sixth decade as a performing artist, Collins is still going strong.

“I do 120 shows a year,” she said. “I’m writing, performing, making TV specials, running a record label (Wildflower), writing books. I go all over the world singing to wonderful audiences. I have an incredible life as an artist. That’s where the hard work has taken me and that’s where I belong, in the center of this great folk scare.”

Read it in the Napa Valley Register.

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BOTTLEROCK 2016 – A CONVERSATION WITH LATITUDE 38 CEO DAVE GRAHAM

BottleRock 2016, the fourth year of the festival, was its most successful. Sold out well in advance, 120,000 fans attended over three days on Memorial Day weekend. Over 70 bands performed, headlined by Stevie Wonder, Florence + the Machine and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Here’s my coverage, eight pieces in the Napa Valley Register in chronological order. Hope you enjoy!

Latitude 38 partners - form the left, Justin Dragoo, Jason Scoggins, Dave Graham

Latitude 38 partners – form the left, Justin Dragoo, Jason Scoggins, Dave Graham

If you ask BottleRock’s chief executive what he’s most excited about for this year’s festival, he will talk for a long time. Dave Graham sat down last week for our annual pre-BottleRock chat. He began, not surprisingly, with music.

“What I’m really excited about,” Graham said, “is the idea that at every stage this year we have bands that could become the next big thing. That wasn’t always the case when we were talking about, say, the fourth stage in 2014 or even 2015. This year, the fourth stage in many ways rivals the third or second, and even the main stage in some respects.”

He zeroed in on three lesser-known bands. “One would be Nothing But Thieves,” he said, “the second would be The Struts, both of which are from Great Britain. And Black Pistol Fire, a two-man band out of Toronto, you think White Stripes, Black Keys, guitar and drums, and man do they give it their all.”

It’s not that Graham doesn’t care about the headliners, about Stevie Wonder or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Florence + the Machine. He does, but they’re a given, it seems. We know about them. What he loves talking about are the gems down the lineup. As the Latitude 38 partner primarily choosing the artists, he’s become a bit of a band geek. He’s enthusiastic, and he’s reliable.

Graham is quick to credit his Latitude 38 partners for BottleRock’s success in booking major musical acts. “It’s not solely my skill that allows us to book the bands we’re able to book,” he said. “It’s because Justin (Dragoo) and Jason (Scoggins) and their team are able to put together an experience that people love while watching those bands. If that kind of experience didn’t happen, the bands wouldn’t want to play at the festival.”

According to Graham, the Culinary Stage will be more exciting this year, more irreverent and more fun than in 2015. “I think we raised the bar in terms of the lineup,” he said. “Consider what’s planned for Michael Mina and Dwight Clark. We’re bringing in the fish mongers from the Pike Street Market in Seattle. They’re going to be throwing salmon from the crowd up to Dwight Clark to see if he can make the catch. We’re having fun, stepping outside the traditional cooking demonstration.”

“The food selection this year has been ramped up quite a bit,” Graham said. “We have even more local restaurants preparing food, and we will have pop-ups happening from some of the best restaurants in Napa Valley. So you’ll see Angele come out of nowhere with some sliders that you weren’t expecting. They won’t have a fixed tent all three days, they’ll just show up with platters. Morimoto and others will be doing that as well.”

Graham continued his inventory of festival upgrades. The VIP program has dramatically expanded, both in physical scale and in terms of special acoustic performances and meet and greets with festival artists. For the first time, general admission pass holders will have similar opportunities.

The main stage will be considerably larger and supported by an entirely new sound system. “We’ve added steroids this year,” Graham said, “and we’ll have much larger video walls. No matter where you’re at, your going to be able to find out if Anthony Kiedis has shaved that day.”

One of BottleRock’s biggest expansions is in its sponsorship of after-shows. “We’re doing about 20 after-shows,” the Latitude 38 CEO said. “We’re excited about them because, first and foremost, they bring people from the festival into downtown. They can begin to see the renaissance that’s taking place rather than just driving in and going to the festival and driving out. And for the businesses to get more business is really important. We want the city to benefit from BottleRock and thrive.

“Secondly, they’re conducive to an overall better experience for people because the more people that you take off of the road at the end of the festival day, the better. If you can bring 5,000 people or more into Napa, versus having those people get on the road, it makes for less traffic for those people who are not coming into town.

“And No. three, they’re just fun. The notion that someone could go see a band like Gogol Bordello play at the Uptown, that doesn’t happen anywhere. Wow, I wish I could go.”

Despite the array of festival upgrades, Graham is circumspect about the arc of Latitude 38’s success. “We’re not anywhere near where we want to be from a fan experience standpoint,” he said. “People this year will see a huge leap. The bar has been raised big time from last year to this year, but in 2017 that leap will be just as big, and with that will come big challenges. We’ve got a long way to go to be able to hit the benchmark that we’ve set for ourselves.”

Graham is a bit more willing to let his pride emerge if you ask him about BottleRock the brand. “Our brand has definitely grown exponentially,” he said. “If you ask people who have gone to BottleRock about the festival, you’ll generally hear some very positive feedback, and the feedback about their experience is very different from what you might hear, were you asking about other festivals. So we’re very happy with the brand association, whether it is awesome food, awesome wine, incredible weather, great lineup, you don’t have to walk miles from stage to stage, more intimate, nice people, it’s family-friendly.”

Still, always reluctant to pop the Champagne corks, Graham added his cautious benediction. “But you’re only as good as your last festival,” he said. “While we’re genuinely excited about what people will experience this year, they’ve yet to experience it. We still have to deliver. There’s a lot that has to happen between now and Sunday night. There are no high-fives going on, there is no celebration, nor is there any sort of arrogance relative to what we’re providing this year versus what we’ve done in the past two years. The book hasn’t ended yet.”

In the Napa Valley Register

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BUILDING BOTTLEROCK 2016

Constructing the main stage at BottleRock. Photo: David Kerns

Constructing the main stage at BottleRock. Photo: David Kerns

How do you physically construct a world-class three-day music festival? Latitude 38 Entertainment partner Justin Dragoo spoke in detail this month about the planning and production of BottleRock 2016.

“Planning actually started in earnest during the previous festival,” Dragoo said. “During the 2015 festival in May, through video, through drones, through detailed note-taking, we were already figuring out what we wanted to change for the following year. That’s what led, for example, to significant changes in the layout of our VIP areas, the way the restaurant garden will flow, differences in where the stages are positioned.

“We had a user-experience consultant attend BottleRock last year with the idea of helping us with the layout for 2016. We did a formal postmortem review with that consultant right after the festival. We also do what we call ‘360 reviews’ with all of our vendors, multidirectional views of every aspect of each vendor’s involvement. That includes feedback from each person on how we can make our festival better. All of that happens through the months of June and July.”

Dragoo said that by August the physical design of the festival was underway. The team uses CAD (computer-aided drafting) technology to create the layout at Expo for the coming year. “In terms of time spent,” he said, “the design of the site is the most mind-bending, thinking through how 40-some thousand people are going to flow through this site seamlessly, and all have the right experience.”

Constructing the concession tents at BottleRock 2015. Photo: Mitchell Glotzer

Constructing the concession tents at BottleRock 2015. Photo: Mitchell Glotzer

He explained that there’s a good deal of math involved in the site design. “You’re using square-footage guidelines, looking carefully at crowd movement, space for queues, choke points,” he said. “There’s a stat that says that everyone should have at least 7 square feet to themself.

“The size of each bar at each location is based on a mathematical formula related to specific crowd size expectations. For example, the bars on either side of the green in front of the main stage are very large. The same is true for food locations — matching up to a ratio to make sure that there aren’t long lines for food.”

With the CAD map spread before him, Dragoo began to itemize the major projects — he calls them “work streams” — that have redefined BottleRock’s physical environment for 2016. “Looking at our CAD map,” Dragoo said, “I count 17 work streams that we’ve done separately, and I’m probably missing some.

“We create specs for different projects and offer them to different firms to bid on, both on price and to help us to refine our design. For almost all of those, I can’t think of any exception, it’s our business practice to go out for multiple bids.

“Examples of major work streams are a new main stage (JaM Stage) that’s bigger with bigger video screens, the repositioning of the second stage (the Midway Stage), an entirely new Platinum Lounge and a new viewing deck overlooking the Culinary Stage, which was such a hit last year that it got overwhelmed. This year it will be in a new location. It will be bigger and it will have video capability.”

Dragoo enthusiastically described a new double-decker structure, 35 feet high and the length of a football field, running along the eastern edge of the green in front of the JaM stage. “There will be suites, think sports stadium-type corporate suites, the entire length of the lower level of the structure,” he said. “The upper level we’re calling the ‘Sky Deck,’ a separate VIP-related viewing area that we sold as individual designated tickets. This area is multi-tiered and arranged as lounges with a bar.”

The backstage big-rig caravan at BottleRock 2014. Photo: Bob McClenahan

The backstage big-rig caravan at BottleRock 2014. Photo: Bob McClenahan

BottleRock has significantly expanded its “merch,” and the settings for its sales. “Merchandise is entirely new,” Dragoo said. “We’re designing all the merchandise this year, doing it all in house. It’s much better quality compared to any type of concert or sporting event that you’ll go to. And this will not be just a tent. This is a totally redesigned construction project. And we will have three different merch locations. The Miner Stage will get a much enhanced merchandise area plus a bank of restrooms that were not there before.”

The preparation of the Expo site is carefully scrutinized by both the state and the city. “This is a state property that’s inside a city,” Dragoo said. “We have a state special event permit and the process associated with that, and the state fire marshal inspections and sign-off. We also have a city special event permit and work with local fire, emergency response and the Napa police.

“To some degree these are duplicate processes that we need to go through. We think it helps, though. It gives us more talented eyes on the project to make sure something’s not missed.”

Considerable attention is paid to noise abatement. “Unlike many rock festivals,” the Latitude 38 partner said, “because we’re doing this in the middle of a city, there are some unique challenges to putting on a world-class audiovisual show with residential homes nearby. Expo created a noise ordinance that we need to comply with. So how do we comply with that better and better each year?

“We’ve altered the positioning of stages once again trying to be sensitive about where the sound is pointing and where the video lights are. We think that the towering sky deck, running parallel with Silverado Trail, will be a tremendous help as a sound barrier.

“We’ll continue to invest in the monitoring for decibel levels that happens in the neighborhoods. There are listening posts out there, people with decibel measuring devices, both downtown and in the neighborhoods to the north and east of the site. That’s been done in the past and we’ve learned from it.”

To enhance production leadership this year, Latitude 38 has hired Dirk Stalnecker as BottleRock operations director. Stalnecker is a seasoned music festival and special event professional, whose experience includes a decade or more at both the Austin City Limits Music Festivals and at the Lollapalooza festivals in Chicago.

Taken as a whole, it is obvious that BottleRock is not resting on its laurels, that nearly every major element at Expo is being evaluated and refined in hopes of improving the fan experience.

In the Napa Valley Register

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BLUES LEGEND BUDDY GUY PERFORMS FRIDAY AT BOTTLEROCK

Buddy Guy in performance. Photo: Derrick Santini

Buddy Guy in performance.

There will be plenty of star power this weekend at BottleRock, but only two living legends, Stevie Wonder and Buddy Guy. The Chicago bluesman is the less famous of the two, but in his genre Guy is an epic figure, literally the last man standing of his generation of blues musicians.

When George “Buddy” Guy moved to Chicago from Louisiana in 1957, he was 21 years old and a youngster among the idols he’d been listening to on records and the radio. This bluesman, whom we now experience as an elder statesman, was “the kid,” and a flamboyant one at that, in those South Side clubs.

He was a decade younger than B.B. King and a quarter of a century younger than Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. He was their disciple musically, but a generation apart in style and live performance.

When Eric Clapton inducted Guy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, he captured Guy’s electric presence as a performer. “I remember in ‘65 when he first came to England and I was finally able to see him in person,” Clapton said. “In the flesh, he was earth-shattering. His style was fantastic, doing all the things that we would later come to associate with Jimi Hendrix, playing with his teeth, his feet and behind his head. He brought the house crashing down.

“Beyond all that, it was his actual playing that got through to me. With only a drummer and a bass player behind him, he gave a thundering performance, delivering the blues with finesse and passion in a way that I’d never heard before. The blues was clearly alive and well and it looked good, too. Musically, Buddy was a starhis suit, his hair, his moves, his sunburst Strat. Everything was sharp and perfect. He was for me probably what Elvis was for most other people.”

Guy’s discography is encyclopedic, with 17 studio albums, 10 live recorded performances and nearly four dozen compilations and collaborations. His most recent studio effort, “Born to Play Guitar,” won the 2016 Grammy for Best Blues album. In all, he has won six Grammys, the 2015 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and 34 Blues Music Awards, more than any other artist. He is a recipient of the Presidential National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honoree.

Despite his immense musical influence, cited by guitarists from Clapton to Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughn, his whopping output of recordings and his array of honors, he is humble about his talent, always framing himself as the student, the disciple.

Interviewed by Dave Grohl on HBO’s recent “Sonic Highways” series, Guy is self-effacing and characteristically charming and colorful. “The way I describe my guitar playing now is like, if you hung around in New Orleans you know about the gumbo and stuff, right?” he said. “The gumbo was the leftovers, you threw every damn thing in the pot and seasoned it and it tasted good.

“So I felt my guitar playing was the same way. I just wanted to play like T-Bone (Walker), John Lee (Hooker), Jimmy Reed, Muddy and everybody. And I guess I was creating something but I didn’t know it. I’d say ‘I remember that thing that Muddy did, lemme see if I can find it, I remember B.B. up close vibrating that left hand. Oh, I ain’t never going to be able to do that, but I’m going to get as close as I can.’”

Buddy Guy plays the Miner Family Winery Stage at BottleRock at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 27.

In the Napa Valley Register

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DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE PERFORMS SATURDAY NIGHT AT BOTTLEROCK

Death Cab for Cutie - Ben Gibbard. Photo: David Kerns

Death Cab for Cutie – Ben Gibbard. Photo: David Kerns

Death Cab for Cutie’s latest studio album is the 2015 Grammy-nominated “Kintsugi.” The title is a reference to the ancient Japanese craft of rejoining shattered ceramic pottery with precious metals, rendering the broken more beautiful.

Followers of the band will miss no aspect of this pointed metaphor. In 2015, Death Cab underwent the most significant changes in its nearly two-decade history in both its membership and in its studio production. The indie rockers will perform on Saturday at BottleRock.

Though indie in identity and originating from the Seattle area in the 1990s with a truly weird name, this band is a departure from the grunge, punk and metal groups that have been identified with their region. Death Cab’s original music, built on the creative expression of lead singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard, can be hard-driving but is invariably melodic and at times ethereal. Lyrically, Gibbard’s literate, introspective work is much closer to a Jackson Browne than to the Northwest’s rock legends.

On the phone this month, Death Cab bassist and original member Nick Harmer talked about the impact of living in the Seattle area. “There’s no way I would be a musician to this day if I hadn’t grown up at the height of the Seattle music explosion,” Harmer said. “When I was a growing up and listening to music on the radio or that you’d see on TV, it was something that happened in other cities. Bands happened in Los Angeles and New York and in London. It was something that just came to Seattle to visit.”

“Then all of these small Seattle bands started getting international attention and becoming global superstars. As a kid growing up just south of Seattle and listening to all of this and seeing it unfold in front of me, I realized that music could come from anywhere. I believed that if music could come from Seattle, then music could be something that maybe I could do as well.”

“I never had any design that I would have a career playing music. It just really inspired me to gather my friends up and spend time in garages and learn how to play and perform songs. I think I owe everything in my life to what happened in Seattle, what came from Seattle during the ‘90s for sure.”

Death Cab for Cutie - Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr. Photo: David Kerns

Death Cab for Cutie – Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr. Photo: David Kerns

Harmer met Gibbard when they were students at Western Washington University in Bellingham. “When we met, Ben was playing guitar in a Bellingham-based band,” Harmer said, “and I was working for the office that promoted and booked shows for students on campus. I booked his band to open up a show and we got to talking and hanging out at that show and became friends and then roommates.

“Each of us was doing our own thing independently. He was in a variety of bands and I was working at the radio station. We were involved in the music community in Bellingham but we weren’t actually playing music together even though we were roommates and hanging out. Then he wrote and recorded the Death Cab for Cutie tape.”

The tape was a demo that Gibbard had whimsically named after a song used in the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” movie. Years later, Gibbard would say that the name was not intended to be permanent, and that if he could go back and change it, he would.

“That tape got passed around our circle of friends,” Harmer said, “and people started asking Ben, ‘Hey, are you going to put a band together, and make this real?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ asked me to play bass, and that was almost 20 years ago.”

Along the way, Death Cab has recorded eight studio albums and collected eight Grammy nominations, including Best Rock Album for “Kintsugi.” For 17 years, the core band was Gibbard, Harmer and multi-instrumentalist and studio producer Chris Walla. Jason McGerr has been the drummer since 2003. In 2015, Walla left the band and was replaced by guitarist Dave Depper and keyboardist Zac Rae.

Harmer spoke at length about the impact of the changes. “It’s been amazing,” he said, “and I feel very proud and really just re-energized in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I think we were all pretty nervous when Chris announced his departure. He announced it with a blessing that we continue on and keep moving forward. I think we were all wondering how it was going to go, and whether by adding new members we would be the same band. And would we be a worse or a better band?

“Good chemistry has always been very important to us, finding bandmates that we can communicate with and relate to on a deep personal level, as much as on a technical and musical level. We knew that we could find people to play the parts. But we were looking for something more meaningful and knew that in order to keep moving forward and keep evolving, we were going to have to find players that we had a deep connection with, beyond the ability to play the parts and the charts. I feel really lucky that we found Dave Depper and Zac Rae.”

“There are moments when I recognize that things are different without Chris in the band,” Harmer added, “but I would say that it’s not different bad, it’s different good. I guess it remains to be seen how that new expression of the band will turn out when we go into a studio with Zac and Dave and write and record some new songs. But I can tell you how great it feels to play live with these guys, and how the chemistry and the energy passes among the five of us in a live setting. I’m hoping that our longtime fans will be able to feel that new energy in us.”

Death Cab for Cutie plays the main stage at BottleRock at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

In the Napa Valley Register

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BOTTLEROCK 2016 – DIARY DAY ONE

Stevie Wonder and Ryan Kilgore. Photo: Andrew Lustig

Stevie Wonder and Ryan Kilgore. Photo: Andrew Lustig

The Deadlies

It’s safe to say that many or even most Napa rock ‘n’ roll fans know The Deadlies. The non-rockers may also be aware of the band’s bassist, Bob St. Laurent, from his long-running gig on local morning radio.

They are a busy surf-rock party band that is often called upon to warm up audiences at major events and concerts, for example an upcoming tour supporting Billy Bob Thornton’s band. They were perfect, then, as the main stage opener for BottleRock 2016.

These guys go for it from moment one; subtlety is not their thing. Aside from being very capable veteran musicians playing classic good-time music, they have a sense of theater. Exhibits one, two and three were the three go-go dancers in thong bikinis with the band from start to finish. The band’s original name says a good deal about their musical intention. Before foreshortening, they were The Deadly or Potentially Harmful Surf Fanatics.

The band members are St. Laurent on bass, James Patrick Regan on vocals and guitar and Colin Douglas on drums. The most surprising thing about them, aside from the go-go dancers, was the revelation that Douglas is the lead percussionist of the San Francisco Symphony.

Choices required

By their very nature, multi-stage music festivals require choices. On Friday evening, Lenny Kravitz and Buddy Guy performed in roughly the same time slot. Being from Chicago, I had little difficulty making up my mind.

Listening to Buddy Guy play the blues, it is mind-blowing that the man is about to have his 80th birthday. He is not just a bluesman in the traditional sense, playing classical 12-bar tunes with an authentic guitar voice. He is a bold and aggressive soloist, and an adventurer. He is also a narrator with a wicked wit and an R-rated vocabulary.

The surprise in this performance, at least for this fan, was Ric Hall, Guy’s second guitarist, a dazzling soloist matching the master, and prone to breaking into Jimi Hendrix-like moments. Guy gave him the stage several times, and he, as they say, killed it. Overall, this was a thrilling performance by a legend and an up-and-comer to watch.

Sound and light

A few weeks ago, BottleRock CEO Dave Graham said that, among other improvements, they had upped the ante on both the main stage sound and video systems. The quality of the sound was, band to band, superb, clear and without distortion.

At this, and any festival, you don’t get the full effect of the lighting and video until after sunset. Stevie Wonder’s closing set on the main stage was visually luminous. Watching from more than half way back, more than a hundred yards from the stage, the brightness, color and resolution on the two towering video screens flanking the stage were remarkable and clearly an upgrade from 2015. They have technically nailed it.

Michael Franti, joy evangelist

As he is prone to do, Michael Franti spent the better part of his main stage performance in the crowd, wandering far and wide amid the fans. It helps that he is 6-feet, 6 inches tall and relatively easy to see, for us and for the video cameramen. He does this in bare feet, never, apparently, injuring himself.

If he weren’t so talented, and utterly luminous, his shtick and his relentlessly upbeat music and lyrics might be perceived as corny or preachy, but that’s not how this audience, or any other I’ve seen him with, responded. All you see are smiles and singing and dancing people in every direction.

A 40-ish women directly behind me seemed to be having the time of her life, pogo-ing, beaming, swaying. We’d made smiling contact several times during the set. At the end of one of the songs, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I was in the coronary care unit 11 days ago.” The song was “Good to be Alive Today.”

In the Napa Valley Register

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BOTTLEROCK 2016 – DIARY DAY TWO

Florence Welch - Florence + the Machine. Photo: David Kerns

Florence Welch – Florence + the Machine. Photo: David Kerns

Florence owns the night

For this music fan and observer, Florence + the Machine won the gold, the silver and the bronze for Day 2 at BottleRock 2016. In all fairness, Death Cab for Cutie were really good, having no difficulty holding down the main stage in the next-to-last slot of the day in front of a packed house. It’s a good place to be, performing before, rather than after, the green-eyed, redheaded, long-legged, operatic whirling dervish Florence Welch.

Famished after the long festival day, I walked into Gott’s to order a burger. The BottleRocker behind me in line was talking about Florence. “She’s not of this planet,” he said. Welch has been called ethereal and otherworldly; alien comes to mind. It’s not a pejorative, it’s about the scale of her talent, her endurance and, OK, the eccentricity of some of her choices. This is a courageous artist.

She is a startling physical presence. Like Michael Franti, who, in my judgment, took the gold in Day 1 of the festival, Welch is tall, and looks even taller than her 5 feet, 9 inches. The 29-year-old Londoner shows up barefoot in a gossamer and floaty yellow dress, easily seen through to a flesh-colored body stocking. The effect is elegant, bold, sexy, three of her strongest suits.

She hits the big BottleRock stage in a blur, racing from one end to the other, leaping from one platform to the next, whirling, pirouetting. She has the grace of a professional dancer and the endurance of a gymnast. Throughout the performance, she is more often in motion than not. And then there’s her voice.

Welch has said that her vocal idol is Grace Slick, a bit of a surprise given Welch’s ease in the soprano register. But like Slick, she can belt out the alto notes. She has range and power, and readily and repeatedly shows them off. What seems impossible is that she is belting and expressively phrasing, always on pitch, while she is running around the stage like a wild woman. She must have the respiratory capacity of a whale.

She performed 17 songs, all but three originals, with six coming from her latest album, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.” The crowd was in it from moment one, many singing along, readily responding to Welch’s gestures for audience participation. There were a number of times when this performance was in Michael Franti territory, in Welch’s infectious physicality, her unabashed advocacy for a loving world, the ability to get 30,000 people pogoing by her second bounce.

There was, unexpectedly, a moment when Welch lost some of her audience. At first there were murmurs in the crowd, and slowly a chant emerged. “Warriors, Warriors, Warriors!” The word was out. The Golden State Warriors had upset the Oklahoma City Thunder on their home court in Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals. The season, for the time being, was saved.

Oh man, two miraculous performances in one night.

In the Napa Valley Register

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BOTTLEROCK 2016 – DIARY DAY THREE

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Flea (left) and Anthony Kiedis. Photo: Andrew Lustig

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Flea (left) and Anthony Kiedis. Photo: Andrew Lustig

You’ve come a long way, baby

Latitude 38 CEO Dave Graham was asked at a news conference on Sunday to talk about BottleRock’s growth potential. He stated clearly that quality, rather than expansion, was the focus. “We don’t really have plans for growth,” Graham said, “we have plans for improvement. For growth, we’re kind of capped. We just really want to create loyal customers, repeat customers, and continue to raise the bar relative to the BottleRock experience.”

Jason Scoggins, one of the three Latitude 38 partners, had talked with me on Saturday about what attention to quality looks like in real time. “We built a big wooden boat, literally and figuratively, that had never been in the water,” he said, “and Friday at 11:30 we pushed it into the water and we got to find out real quick where the leaks were, and we spent all day Friday working on fixing those leaks, plugging those leaks.

“We were here till 1 in the morning talking about game planning and got together early Saturday morning and talked about executing those plans. I probably walked 20 miles on Saturday fixing all those problems out. It’s a ton of little things. There’s been zero crises.”

It’s an understatement to say that BottleRock has come a long way. After a talent-laden but financially catastrophic first effort by previous producers in 2013, there was near certainty that the festival would not be resurrected. I spoke with Jim Harrington, the ace music journalist of Bay Area News Group (includes the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune), about his perspective on the history of the festival.

“I just want to say that’s it’s amazing that it’s still here,” Harrington said. “I really believed that the hole that was dug the first year, in terms of tarnish to the name, to the financial difficulties, I thought the hole was too big to climb out of. I did not think there would be a BottleRock year 2. I thought that it was going to be this thing that we’d be talking about, ‘say, remember when they tried to do a music festival in Napa?’

“And it’s just been amazing to see what the guys at Latitude have been able to do, not only to save it, put a Band-Aid on it, which was what year 2 was about, but actually turn it into something that has a real future. I believe that it is one of the marquee festivals in the U.S. It’s something that people travel for. If you want to plan for BottleRock 2019, go ahead and plan for it. It’s going to be here.

“There are not a lot of festivals like BottleRock,” Harrington added. “As far as something that holds 40,000 people per day, the way it is nestled into this all very manageable area, that’s unique. You go to Outside Lands and you walk between the two furthest stages, it’s a dozen-plus city blocks. I have to go between stages, but if I were a fan I’d be making decisions very carefully.

“Here you can split sets, which is so important. It’s one of the things that’s made SXSW (South by Southwest) so successful, the fact that you can go from spot to spot to spot, you don’t have to decide where you’re going to be for the whole day. And you get that here. I’m not going to feel like I’m killing myself going between stages.

“I’m just super glad this thing made it, having been through the whole thing. This is not teetering. It’s here, get used to it, make your plans for next year, get your hotel room now.”

Martin Lacey is a seasoned rock music photographer. I asked him about his experience here and to compare the Napa festival with other major rock festivals. “I’ve been lucky enough to be at all four BottleRocks,” Lacey said, “and I’ve seen somewhat of an evolution. This one is the best organized.

“In comparison to other festivals, I think it skews slightly older. Not surprisingly, being in Napa there’s more of a wine and food culture, more affluence I think in general. So the type of folks that like Napa tend to come to this festival.

“Most festivals are known for specific things, so Coachella, for example, is known for having an L.A. crowd, a younger crowd and a more EDM (electronic dance music) sort of feel to it. BottleRock is starting to develop its own feel, and that feel includes food and wine at the forefront, it’s not just a music festival. But it’s not a food and wine festival with some bands that were dragged out. Premier acts are coming here.”

“And because it skews older,” Lacey added, “I think people are likely to be nicer. I think it’s indicative of the town of Napa, which I find to be a friendly place. Winemaking and food, there’s almost this European, laid back culture to the town which seems to have extended to the festival as well. It doesn’t have that ‘too cool for school’ kind of thing. People are happy to be here to experience good music.

“There are festivals that I would regard as less friendly than BottleRock, actually I would say most of them. Most people like music. If you can combine that with food and wine and the promise that you’re not going to get trampled on, and the weather’s probably going to be good, it’s pretty secure and you can bring your kids to it, you’re on to something there. There’s very few festivals that are really welcoming to families. Together, those are all differentiators.”

“This is one of the few festivals that I would come to if I wasn’t shooting it,” Lacey said. “Just for fun.”

After-show surprises

If you had the endurance and good luck to show up at the BottleRock after-show at the Napa Valley Opera House Sunday night, you got a whole lot more than advertised. Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins’ side band, Chevy Metal, was the scheduled headliner. One all-star drummer was apparently not enough, though, and Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith and Green Day’s Tré Cool showed up to take turns behind the kit. Before the night was out, two more Peppers, Flea and Josh Klinghoffer, joined in and so did The Struts lead singer Luke Spiller and blues harmonica ace and world-famous rock photographer Danny Clinch. Oh, what a night.

In the Napa Valley Register

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