News Column

BottleRock: How 2 Napa businessmen launched a major music festival

May 5, 2013

YellowBrix

May 05--Gabe Meyers takes in the stillness in a sprawling field in Napa. The tractors and other heavy machinery have been shut down for the day. Most of the workers have gone home. The impending rock 'n' roll invasion known as BottleRock Napa is still days away.

All is remarkably silent at the Napa Valley Expo center. But all Meyers wants to think about is the coming noise.

"I can hear it," he says.

Actually, he's already made some. Meyers, 42, and his partner Bob Vogt, 63, are doing what some would consider unthinkable -- staging a four-day BottleRock Napa music festival that will bring some 60 acts and as many 35,000 concertgoers a day to the Napa Valley Expo, despite having almost no experience in the concert

business.

Big names

It's not just that the lineup is a doozy, featuring the Black Keys, the Zac Brown Band, Kings of Leon, Jane's Addiction, Alabama Shakes and scores of other acts that remind one of such A-list festivals as Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and San Francisco's own Outside Lands. It's also that the star-studded bill was assembled not by a major national concert promoter like AEG or Live Nation, but by a grass-roots team led by Meyers and Vogt, two businessman who got their start in the coffee trade.

"It's a little bit of an underdog story," Vogt says.

It wasn't easy, Vogt said, enticing big-name bands to a first-time festival in the middle of the busy summer concert

touring season.

But somehow it happened.

"The potential is amazing," says Dawn Holliday, who, as the booker for the mammoth Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, knows something about luring top-line musicians to a festival run by a concert business outsider (it was founded by venture capitalist Warren Hellman). "The variety (of the lineup) is just wonderful. I think it was just very tastefully and, probably expensively, booked."

Ah, yes, money. Meyers and Vogt

won't say how much they put up to pull in the BottleRock talent as well as hire the veteran concert firm Delicate Productions to handle such logistics as lighting, sound and staging. They said the festival is being funded through a combination of equity and corporate sponsorship.

Setting a plus

And when it came to luring talent, Meyers and Vogt said they said they had an ace in the hole -- Napa itself. They were banking on the idea of performing and hanging out with family, friends and fellow artists in lovely Napa Valley would be an enticement. They were right.

"BottleRock was the perfect reason to get the band back up and running," says Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, who is bringing his side-project RNDM to Napa. "All of our friends are playing on Saturday too: Ben Harper, Jane's (Addiction), the Kings (of Leon), Bad Religion and Donovan (Frankenreiter). And Sharon Van Etten is one of my new faves."

Although Vogt and Meyers have kicked around the idea of putting on a rock festival in Napa for years, the two originally bonded in 1993 over coffee, not music.

Meyers, a Napa native, was working at a local cafe and "slinging espresso" for a living. Vogt, a Santa Clara University graduate who moved to Napa in 1981, was working in real estate and ready to launch a drive-up coffee kiosk chain. Meyers was Vogt's first hire at Caffino -- a company that now has multiple locations in Northern California -- and they've been working together off and on ever since.

In 1998, both got involved with the revitalization of the Uptown Theatre, a historic 1937 Napa venue that had fallen on hard times. The Uptown is now in full swing, with Vogt as one of its owners, and will host acts as Cheap Trick, Lily Tomlin and Berlin over the next few weeks. (The Uptown's booking agent, Sheila Groves-Tracey, played a crucial role in securing the acts for BottleRock.)

Finding a home

Vogt and Meyers began seriously considering a Napa music festival last year. They thought at first about staging it at various clubs and venues downtown, a la South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Then they considered, and ruled out, Sonoma Raceway.

"It might be a hell of a lot bigger," Meyers said. "But it would be a festival at a racetrack." They settled on Napa Valley Expo, a scenic spot that has hosted the annual Napa Town and County Fair, and which has the infrastructure and the space needed to host a sizable music festival.

But things have not gone without a serious glitch or two. Organizers learned last week that Thursday's headliner, the Grateful Dead spinoff band Furthur, has canceled due to Bob Weir's illness. Meyers and Vogt say they are considering replacement options (a running joke is, "Hey aren't the Rolling Stones in the Bay Area that day?") but might have to elevate an existing band, the Avett Brothers, into headliner role. No refunds are planned.

Plenty of other challenges will no doubt confront the organizers before BottleRock is over. But Meyers and Vogt still see it as a embracing a dream that some believed could never be fulfilled.

"People are asking, 'What will it be like when it's over?'" Meyers says. "Well, it's going to be a bummer. But we're going to enjoy it while it's happening.

"Then we will start planning for next year."

Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.

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(c)2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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