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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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 - 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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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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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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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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Austin Whitney (center) and the Accessible Festivals team at BottleRock 2016

Austin Whitney (center) and the Accessible Festivals team at BottleRock 2016. Photo: Simon Liu

Austin Whitney is the founder and CEO of Accessible Festivals, a nonprofit company specializing in services for handicapped guests at music festivals and other large events. Whitney and his team were hired by Latitude 38 Entertainment to provide accessibility services for BottleRock 2016. I spoke with Whitney, along with Latitude 38’s Micah Malan, on the closing day of the festival.

“There’s a big misconception in the disabled community that festivals aren’t accessible,” Whitney said. “I was in a car accident nine years ago that put me in a wheelchair, and at that time my picture of a rock festival was Woodstock — a sea of people. How would I see the stage? How would I use the restrooms? I think that’s the conception that most people have if they’ve never been to one.”

Whitney’s organization is the largest of its kind in the country, providing services this year to 45 music festivals. They have also worked with large non-festival events such as Cirque du Soleil and Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015.

“This is a passion project for me,” Whitney said. “I just graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law two weeks ago. I thought I was going to go into corporate law, but along the way I found something I just really fell in love with, and this is what I do.”

Whitney and his team began working with Malan and Latitude 38 six months before the festival, developing an accessibility approach for the site and setting up an informational website for handicapped fans. The design of the festival’s layout and structures incorporated essential accessibility elements from the start.

“This event has more elevator lifts than any other festival in the country,” Whitney said. “On the Sky Deck we have three very large lifts to get from ground level to the top. We have a lift at the Platinum Lounge and two lifts at the VIP structure. These guys (Latitude 38) really care. We may run into small oversights, but major things are taken care of. When they put in a big new piece of infrastructure, accessibility is on their radar from day one. They have been very supportive of us.

“We have to make sure that the music festival environment is compliant with California building codes and federal regulations about accessible parking, accessible restrooms and so forth. That’s straight legal compliance, but that’s a very low threshold. That’s not the goal.

“Our goal is to create events that are welcoming to people with disabilities, and this event does it particularly well. We are pretty close to 300 disabled guests this weekend, which in our line of work is a lot. And you figure that each has a companion, and we have to provide seating for them.

“We have 17 acts being sign-interpreted, which is more than any show I’ve ever done. There’s a very large deaf population at this festival. We also have a number of folks with visual disabilities, who have been provided guided tours throughout the weekend. And we have lots of service animals that we’ve checked into the event.”

It turns out that accessibility services are also available for pregnant BottleRockers. “Women in the last trimester of pregnancy can really benefit from the services we offer,” Whitney said. “For example, we have raised platforms with seats on them where somebody can sit and see over the crowd and not have to worry about being bumped. Of course, pregnancy is not a disability, it’s part of normal life. The philosophy behind our program is that we just want to help people.”

Malan, who, like Whitney, is in a wheelchair, talked about the improvements to the food court at the festival. “It’s a massive piece of land,” he said, “and when we first got here it was like a field of speed bumps, one after another in different directions, like there’d been land mines or something.

“So they went in and flattened it out and got an appropriate surface over it. I thought it was incredible that they cared enough to get in there and take care of that. I don’t know how much it cost, I don’t know how many days it took, but it was a major improvement.”

Whitney’s overall assessment of BottleRock was glowing. “This is a pretty accessible event for many reasons,” he said. “It’s a very flat site, the weather’s really great, it’s pretty condensed. There are a lot of festivals out there where you have severe weather, or they’re huge and you spend your whole time rolling from one end to the other. This is not that.

“This is beautiful Napa, you can get between any of the stages pretty quickly, the accommodations are there for folks. If you have a mobility disability, it is just about as comfortable as any music festival that exists.”

In the Napa Valley Register

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Charlie Musselwhite

Charlie Musselwhite

On the phone from his Sonoma County home, Charlie Musselwhite talked about how, as a barely of-age kid who’d come up from Memphis in the mid-1960’s, he immersed himself in the black blues scene on the south side of Chicago.

“I didn’t even know anything about Chicago, as far as blues,” he said. “I’d been told that people in the entertainment business either lived in New York or Hollywood. I only went up to Chicago because I heard that there were good factory jobs that paid well.

“The South was really economically depressed and a friend of mine had gone North and gotten these good jobs and had new cars and stuff, and that’s why I went to Chicago. Luckily, the first job I got was a driver for an exterminator, which meant driving all over Chicago, so I learned the whole city real fast.

“I saw posters in the windows of bars advertising people like Elmore James and Muddy Waters, and I couldn’t believe it. Here were all my blues heroes, right in Chicago. I’d make a note of where these places were and I’d go back and just hang out.”

“I did get a job in a factory,” Musselwhite said, “and I would talk to the black guys there. We talked about what you did on the weekend. I’d say, ‘I went to hear Howlin’ Wolf,’ and they just couldn’t believe it. They’d say, ‘That’s old folks music, man. You got to get up with the times.’ I’d say, ‘Well, I like Howlin’ Wolf’s music. I like Muddy Waters too.’ ‘Muddy Waters,’ they’d say, ‘man, what’s wrong with you?’

“I wasn’t promoting myself at all. I was happy to just be hanging out and listening and I’d request tunes. They just thought of me as a fan. Then one night, this waitress I had gotten to know real well told Muddy, ‘Hey, you ought to hear Charlie play harmonica.’ He’s like, ‘What, Charlie plays harmonica?’

“He had me sit in, which wasn’t unusual. People sat in a lot, because if you weren’t working, it was a place to hang out and make connections or whatever. Other guys heard me sitting in there with Muddy and started offering me gigs, and that got my attention. They’re going to pay me to play this music? Well okay, let’s go.”

Musselwhite said that Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs), the harmonica ace in Muddy Waters’ band, took a liking to him. “I knew Little Walter real well,” he said. “I’d go to see him and hang out with him, and he would buy me drinks and give me a ride home often. He would look out for me.

“There’d be some trouble or something, he’d be right next to me, watching my back. I remember one night there was a fight in this club, and he walked me to the bus stop and waited there until the bus came, just to make sure I got out of there safely. I thought it was a little unnecessary, but that’s what he wanted to do.

“He was real nice to me, and he would have me sit in. He’d be playing. He’d have the microphone with a long cord on it, and he’d come up to me and just hand me his harp and his mike and say, ‘Play boy,’ and just take off and go talk to some woman.”

Fifty years down the road, 72 year-old Musselwhite credits his success and longevity to taking care of himself physically and to being true to his music. “I try to watch what I eat and get the exercise, and I have regular acupuncture treatments, and drink Chinese herbs,” he said. “I try to be conscious of what I’m doing, and I think good thoughts.

“Musically, you can’t really please everybody, so you might as well just please yourself. If you play what you really have your heart in and believe in, there’s going to be some people who like it. Maybe not everybody, but you’ll have an audience, and you’ll be good at it because you’re doing something you love.”

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Red Hot Chili Peppers - Flea and Anthony Kiedis

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Flea and Anthony Kiedis

Well, here we go again, and ain’t it fun. Latitude 38 Entertainment announced its 2016 BottleRock Napa Valley lineup and it is star-studded at the top and broad and deep, with 80-plus bands and the “something for everyone” variety that has been the hallmark of the event since its inception.

The headliners, who will close the festivities on the main stage each of the three evenings, May 27-29, and not necessarily in this order, are Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder and Florence + the Machine.

Red Hot Chili Peppers have been among the top-ranked rock bands nationally and internationally for the past three decades, with 80 million albums sold, seven Grammys and induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Their live shows are legendary, with lead singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea typically out front and shirtless, combining funk-flavored hard rock and hard bodies in a leave-it-all-on-the-stage aerobic musical celebration.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder










Stevie Wonder is a national musical treasure, a singular artist, recording and performing for more than 50 years, with over 100 million records sold, 10 No. 1 hits on the pop charts and 20 No. 1’s on the R&B charts. His honors include 25 Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and membership in both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2014 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Florence Welch

Florence Welch

Florence + the Machine is one of the hottest indie rock bands in the world. The British group has been recognized over the past six years with a slew of Brit, MTV and Grammy nominations. Like the Chili Peppers, their live performances, featuring lead vocalist Florence Welch, take them to a level well beyond their successful recordings. About Welch, one critic wrote, “The singer could have burst into flames with the amount of energy she was putting out.”

Right behind the headliners are three acts that are each worthy of topping the bill at a major festival: The Lumineers, Death Cab for Cutie and Lenny Kravitz.

A sampling of the rest includes Walk the Moon, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ziggy Marley, Grouplove, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Gogol Bordello, Buddy Guy, Iration, Shovels & Rope, Ozomatli and BottleRock perennials Moonalice. At least five Latino bands will be in the mix, and, as in the past, a large number of local bands will perform, including The Deadlies, who will open the festival on the main stage on Friday.

BottleRock will begin selling ticket packages on Thursday, with single-day tickets to go on sale at a later date. The daily lineup has not yet been announced.

Physical improvements at BottleRock Napa Valley 2016 will include a larger (if you could imagine) main stage in all dimensions and larger video screens. There will also be a bigger culinary stage with an expanded cast of chefs, musicians and other celebrities. The VIP Village will be expanded and have a larger viewing platform, and the Skydeck will have views of both the main stage and the culinary stage.

Other changes include a new Platinum Lounge located next to the main stage, an expanded Kids Zone, increased merchandise offerings, more wine tasting/purchasing locations and new art installations.

Last week at his Latitude 38 office, CEO Dave Graham talked about booking the 2016 festival, particularly the challenge of signing what he calls “bucket list” acts like the Chili Peppers and Stevie Wonder.

“We started to make offers for 2016 in March of 2015, prior to our 2015 festival,” Graham said. “It’s an extremely competitive marketplace for bands in the Bay Area. You have AEG, Live Nation, Another Planet, the independent promoters, all vying for the same bands, the hottest bands.

“We wanted to let the agents and agencies know who we were thinking about. We wanted to get ahead of the game. And if there was any question whether BottleRock was here to stay, well that answered it, because we were putting out offers for 2016 before our 2015 festival. That implied that things were going well with our business model, which we knew at the time.

“The first headliner that we signed for 2016 was Stevie Wonder, and then Florence and the Red Hot Chili Peppers happened at about the same time. With regard to the Chili Peppers, we’ve had an offer essentially out there since we took over the BottleRock brand. It’s been one of those bands that we wanted to have. They are iconic, they are a bucket list band.”

According to Graham, “when we first put in our offers for 2014, we had zero chance of getting them. We thought we did, but we didn’t because we didn’t have the credibility to attract a band of that caliber, especially given what had happened in 2013.”

Latitude 38 took over the BottleRock franchise in 2014 after the original promoter, BR Festivals, plunged into bankruptcy after the inaugural festival in 2013.

“It’s taken us a lot of time and a lot of effort to build credibility with the agencies and agents and managers that represent bands like the Chili Peppers,” Graham said.

“We’d gone through a series of I don’t know how many offers for the Chili Peppers. This one came together at the last minute. We thought they were out, that they were going to go straight to Europe for their summer tour. It turns out they wanted to play a few gigs before leaving for Europe. I think we signed them in October.”

Latitude 38’s patience and perseverance were rewarded. Graham returned repeatedly to trust as the indispensable ingredient for booking artists of headliner caliber. “You begin to build credibility (with) an agent, whose job it is to not only maximize revenue and profitability for an artist, but to protect the brand,” he said.

“Once they believe that you are not going to screw up their franchise brand — the Chili Peppers is a franchise brand — then you can actually talk seriously about the possibility, then you can get to the table to have the conversation.

“Until you have that credibility and trust, no amount of money is going to convince an agent to put his reputation on the line to recommend to his franchise band that they put their brand at stake to play a festival just because they’re getting a couple of extra bucks.

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bluenote new york

For many who have been following the continuing saga of the Napa Valley Opera House and the news that the famous Blue Note Jazz Club is about to be its new tenant, it may seem that this is deja vu all over again, a straight swap of one New York City-based entertainment chain (City Winery) for another. That is true as far as the lease is concerned, but doesn’t take into account the fundamental redesign of how the historic building will be used.

Backstage at the Opera House last week, board chairman Bob Almeida described the changes that are about to take place. “While Blue Note is renting the entire building, their primary focus is operating a venue downstairs,” he said. “This turns the Opera House into a performing arts center with two separate venues.

“Downstairs (the Blue Note Napa Valley supper club) will have a seven-day-a-week focus. This is very important to us because it frees the upstairs (the Margrit Mondavi Theater) from the tyranny of having to do seven days a week. For the dates that the Opera House will be presenting upstairs, we won’t be pigeonholed into Tuesdays and Sundays, which was the case in the past and which made it very difficult for us to book artists that we were interested in. And it means we can do consecutive days, runs which are important for theater.”

Almeida described Blue Note as “the top dog in jazz,” but added that its reach goes beyond traditional jazz artists and audiences. “In addition to having the clubs (New York, Honolulu, Japan, China, Italy and now Napa) that give them a critical mass in jazz,” he said, “they also run B.B. King’s blues club and the Skyline Ballroom (rock) in New York, the Howard Theater (R&B, rock and soul) in Washington, D.C., and they book for other venues as well. They’ll do the rainbow of things that go into jazz clubs — that goes from blues to folk to New Orleans and smooth jazz, world music — you’ll see that kind of variety downstairs.”

The food in the supper club is described as “farm-to-table fine dining,” and will be served in a redesigned space. “That partition with the barrel staves that’s there now, while it’s very pretty, just chops the room,” Almeida said. “That will go or at least come down. On the wall opposite the bar, the southern wall, from the two pillars back to the wall, they’ll build a stage with a girder above between the pillars for the stage lighting and the sound.

“Because they’re not going to do a keg wine program as City Winery did, that area behind the bar might come out letting the room go all the way back, and that would give them the ability to capture a few more seats. The capacity will be about 150. One thing that Blue Note is clear about is that they want this to have the feel of an intimate club and that the entire room has to be part of it.”

Almeida described the spectrum of events that are projected for the Mondavi Theater, including the Transcendence Theater Company (produces Broadway Under the Stars in Jack London State Park), Napa Shakes, Napa Valley Film Festival, a vintage film series, an indie film series, VOENA, a Mozart festival and possibly Lamplighters for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. As in the past, the Opera House will have the right to produce, rent-free, a minimum of 75 calendar dates a year.

Blue Note itself may, from time to time, book the Mondavi Theater for large audience jazz shows, and Latitude 38 Entertainment (the producer of BottleRock) is currently negotiating directly with Blue Note and hopeful that they will produce as many as 20 to 30 shows in the upstairs theater and host festival after-parties in the Opera House.

Almeida said that the hard opening of the jazz club will probably piggyback off BottleRock. “They’ll want to to launch right after that with big buzz. My guess is that there will be a soft opening in April-May downstairs. We will definitely have shows upstairs in the Margrit Mondavi Theater as early as April, maybe even earlier.”

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