Jose Andres Wins BottleRock. Festivals Return, The Same But Different.

Jose Andres, chef extraordinaire was, in my opinion, the most compelling performer at BottleRock 2021.  Andres appeared at the Williams Sonoma

WSM
Culinary Stage on Sunday afternoon, partnered with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.  Their performance had the audience engaging repartee which we saw from other successful pairings there: Todd English and Derek Hough, Michael Mina with Adam Sobel and James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem to name a few.  The gig is simple:  30 minutes of stage time to make silly comments and demonstrate s relatively simple way to cook a unique dish.  Mina and Sobel made filo dough crusted halibut with a beure blanc sauce and caviar, English with his daughter Isabelle, who runs Williams Sonoma’s test kitchen, made a single giant ravioli filled with an ostrich egg yolk, a pesto mascarpone and finished in a truffle butter.  Andres pan fried eggs and delivered a poignant lesson in community and empathy.

Andres, founder of World Central Kitchen is well known for going into disaster sites and setting up kitchens to feed the displaced and the humbled.  His work has been profiled everywhere including 60 minutes, and World Central Kitchen just received a  $100 million donation from Jeff Bezos.

Andres’ dish was eggs fried in oil to which he added potato chips, sliced jamon Iberico, caviar and uni.  As Andres added ingredients, one by one to his fried egg filled pan he spoke about how the eggs took some time to get used to the idea the potato chips were added to the pan, then that the eggs and potatoes had to adjust when the jamon came in.  It became quickly clear this was all a parable for mixing races and cultures.  Andres himself made the point the items in the pan came from different places, had different backgrounds and didn’t share the same religion, but they could still find a way to come together. 

This bravura performance took place on a hot afternoon before a giant crown who mostly showed up to see America’s new favorite rock n roll Dad – Dave Grohl.  Grohl who fronts the Foo Fighters is no slouch when it comes to commanding attention from a crowd.  However, he was rapidly sidelined as comedy relief while Andres delivered his lesson culminating when he opened his button down shirt to reveal a T shirt below which read: Immigrants Feed America.

Imagine, in this day and age, when highly affluent crowd people who call the Bay Area home, and those with the capacity to travel for luxuries like music festivals will hear the truth about how people from different socio-economic statuses, religions and places of origin can mix like the ingredients Andres put into his pan.  

BottleRock went through the ringer on the way to putting on their 2021 event.  They lost scheduled dates in May of 2020 and 2021, and October 2020 before actually being able to go forward September 3-5, 2021.  During the shutdown their team faced moving Covid targets, weather, wildfires, changes to consumer behavior, the cancellation by one of their headliners who was afraid of the growing threat from the Delta virus and the complete shut down and restart of ticketing.

However, the show went on as scheduled, on a beautiful weekend.  Oh, except this thing: on Friday morning, as the show was about to kick off, Chris Stapleton the headliner replacing Stevie Nicks called in sick and canceled, leaving the show with no headliner.  BottleRock scrambled and pulled together Brandi Carlyle and Marren Morris who were playing sets on the big Jam Cellars stage to play their individual sets and also to headline in their alter ego band the Highwomen.

Beyond that, the festival went forward.  This is my fifth time to BottleRock.  It’s one of my favorite festivals.  BottleRock has a careful focus on bringing in good food, excellent wines and curates a lovely festival in a tight footprint so the walk between stages is never more than a couple of minutes.  Walking back into the festival felt exactly like it did in 2019 – the last iteration before the pandemic.

Well, there was one difference.  This time we were very aware of crowds and Covid.  What amazed me was the absolute lack of masks.  There were more children there under five than there were people wearing masks.  Here’s what I saw more than frequently than masks: senior citizens, pink hair, tattoos, vintage concert T’s, underboob and vapes. I’d estimate the percentage of people wearing masks to be less than 5%.  It was startling and for the first time at a festival I was not in the mix of the people, I was toward the edges at the back.  

There was something else I noticed:  the festival sold out quickly when put on sale, but in the four weeks running up to the kickoff, ticket prices crashed.  People afraid of the Delta virus spread were dumping tickets on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and of course the resale market was cratering.  By show time on Friday, after Chris Stapleton canceled there was near zero interest in tickets from potential buyers outside the festival grounds.  

I watched a tightly organized resale crew working the boundaries of the festival.  BottleRock is essentially a rectangle in the middle of city streets with two main entry points.  At every street leading to those entry points, both at the entry point and strategically back along those streets, on both sides, were a team whose job it was to purchase wristbands as cheaply as possible, offering $100 per 3 day ticket on the first day of the event, and $50 per ticket on the second day, then reselling them for double or better if they could.  The brilliance of this strategy was that anyone who had an extra ticket they wanted to sell simply caved and took the low bid because there was almost no way to fight them for a buyer.  All the traffic of potential buyers walked past several of these guys before anyone trying to sell their own extra ticket at the gate could get near them.  Because they were organized, this crew had fairly consistent bid prices for tickets and there was no ability to work one seller against another as they were all on the same team.  It’s a brilliant strategy, running into the hole left when StubHub abandoned pop up last minute ticket sales offices at major events.

The crowd seemed light on Friday, but swelled noticeably on Saturday, likely a combination of the weekend arriving and the two headliners: Guns n Roses and Miley Cyrus.  GnR started on time at 7:30pm, an hour before Miley.  They both finished at 10, although I noticed a substantial movement to the second stage as Miley’s set got underway.  Miley finished with Wrecking Ball and Party in the USA.  GnR finished with P!NK making a surprise appearance on Patience, followed by Dave Grohl joining for most of Paradise City before the sound system was cut off at 10pm. BottleRock is adjacent to a residential neighborhood and their team is deadly serious about adhering to the sound curfew.

For me, Sunday was the best of the three days.  There is an adjustment process involved when going back into a festival space, and I say this as someone who was just in NYC for half of their Central Park concert before it abruptly canceled due to dangerous weather coming from tropical storm Henri.  The Napa weather on Sunday was hot, but the sky was a brilliant blue and there were not shortages at any of the beer or wine outlets.  One small irritant:  BottleRock allowed sealed bottles of water to be brought in on Friday and Saturday, then confiscated every single one on Sunday.  Why? On the hottest day of the festival, it makes more sense to keep people hydrated.  They’ll still buy beverages.

I also really liked the closing lineup, which for me went: Black Pumas, Cage the Elephant and Foo Fighters.  My intention had been to wander more, to also catch Jack Harlow, Jon Baptiste and Megan Thee Stallion, but the beers were 19 oz and the music was so good I just stayed put.

Over the past couple of years I’ve inadvertently begun following the Foo Fighters, having now seen them at least a dozen times in the two years prior to Covid, and again now at BottleRock.  They played with a particular urgency last night.  It was such a nice way to the end the weekend.  As I left the grounds I remembered why I went to 11 festivals in 2019.  There’s something about the collective cathartic energy of a crowd.  I’d missed it.  There’s a buzz from the crowd, even if this year there’s also some dissonance from being Covid cautious among the unmasked.

Ultimately, an expensive music festival weekend is a frivolity. As Taylor Hawkins said from the main stage during the Foo Fighters’ set: “are you enjoying your wine and cheese festival?”  But, if there are any lessons to be learned from the past year and half of Covid, perhaps they are these: the objective of life is not more money, possessions or status.  None of those mattered when we were all sequestered.  What mattered was community.  That’s a lesson which could be well learned by our embarrassing political class and one which was perfectly taught yesterday by an immigrant chef from Spain who recognizing the privileges afforded by success  simply took it upon himself to feed the needy during crisis and now to provide a reminder about humility and power of human connection.

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