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Lightning in a Bottle 2015: A Sold Out Event That Still Hasn't Sold Out

California's Do LaB's army of dusty hippies is having its biggest year ever, leading the way for "Transformative" festivals.

After a nomadic period that saw Lightning in a Bottle migrate from Irvine to Temecula, California for several years, the crown jewel of LA-based artist collective The Do LaB has found what seems a permanent home for their festival at Lake San Antonio in the sleepy, central California town of Bradley. The grounds sit on a series of peninsulas that crown a dried-out lakebed, providing a vast plateau for the dusty, three-staged festival, flanked by campgrounds for miles. Attendance for this year's fest, May 22-25, peaked above 20,000 for the first time, more than a 33% jump from 2014, marking the festival's first sellout in its 15 year history.

Bigger crowds weren't the only changes for the fest's biggest year yet. Gone was the Bamboo Stage, LIB's home of bass, replaced with the Thunder Stage, a turtle-shaped half-dome that debuted at Coachella last month and functions as a multi-colored cauldron of heaviness.

Flume at the Lightning Stage was a trap-happy hitfest. (J.B)

The largest stage, named Lightning, has also undergone a number of design changes. The open-air setup of years past has been replaced with an enclosed, feather-topped auditorium that housed the majority of live acts including SOHN, AlunaGeorge, Panda Bear and Tycho. Though, perhaps the most game-changing production upgrade was the installation of two bridges that turned what had been a strenuous expedition through the ditches into a casual stroll during which hi-fives from crossing travelers were mandatory.

Live deep house duo Bob Moses (who also played Mysteryland later in the weekend), Desert Hearts leader Mikey Lion, and SF-based Burner favorite Atish set the vibes early on Friday at the always-alluring Woogie stage, but after a brief trop-house interlude that shan't be discussed, it was Mano Le Tough and Âme who captured that uniquely Woogie aesthetic, awash with spooky techno atmospherics and moody house grooves all the way out at the edge of the world. The crowd there was lighter than it should have been; perhaps all the new kids hadn't quite figured out how to trudge out to the Woogie by that time.

Thomas Jack at the Woogie dropping some very, very chill tunes.

The main stage was packed to the brim for caucasian electro-soul duo ODESZA, who have gone from performing at The Do LaB at Coachella to sub-headlining Lightning in a Bottle in a matter of 12 months. Griz, cap on his head and brass in tow, closed Friday night out at the Thunder Stage with a customarily crusty bass-funk bonanza that's very much at home around these parts.

Desert Hearts took over the Favela Bar on Friday night for seven hours straight. The SoCal house and techno party crew first conceived of at LIB itself and now a promoter of its own festivals, mobbed the stage en masse bringing their story to a full circle conclusion.

Already, many LIB regulars were commenting on the influx of bros upon their little corner of the festival world this year. Although I can't defend our shirtless, neanderthalic cultural cousins, I will say this: Even the most unrepentant of mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging bro types is just one visionquest away from admitting he's bisexual, WWOOFing on vacations, and pickling his own vegetables. So next time you get an elbow to the head at a Flume show, don't get mad at the guy, just offer him some of your mushrooms.

What if reality was just the projection of a dream by astral unicorns? Think about it.

Unlike at some festivals, the party does not stop when the main stages close. Lightning in a Bottle after hours swirls into a series of surrealist vignettes tacked together nonlinearly. In one crowded teepee, a shirtless man played didgeridoo to a bemused, if not rapt audience, only pausing to explain that the "didg" world is currently in a state of upheaval thanks to the discovery of a new playing that favors rapid pitch changes over the traditional low-slung warble. Who knew? Elsewhere, you could trundle into the gut of a giant wicker matryoshka and marvel at her insides, a blacked-out spire with LEDs drawing neon patterns up and down the walls.

However, the ditch parties beloved in past years are no more. LIB used to go renegade in the wee hours amidst the brush of the grounds' deep valleys until the sunlight, but in the name of (presumably) common sense, they have been replaced by the now all-night Favela Bar and a sizable late night silent disco that runs until 7 AM in which everyone from Deep Jesus to Jon Dadon popped up on the headphones of the wireless devices. At one point, the dichotomy of deep house on one channel and Melbourne bounce on the other led to a bizarre mash-up of hushed fist pumpers causing a stir on one side and casual head-bobbers from the other ducking out of the way in reasonable fear for their lives.

ODESZA at the Lightning Stage

The campgrounds themselves are full of surprises. On the main road, named Monkey Business, a brostep school bus blared jump-up bass music only a few yards away from a tech-house tent. A cavalcade of restless revelers, still fried from the sunshine (and substances), provided an ever-changing mingling of souls and every dark corner led to a new adventure.

Sunrise options at LIB are aplenty, but none are more serene than atop Meditation Lookout, a steep trudge up a hill at the northern tip of the grounds. There, a nearly-360 degree panoramic horizon and a patchwork of rugs is an inviting enclave to welcome the new day as it rises from all sides with the sun.

RL Grime at the Thunder Stage

On Saturday, the Thunder stage turned into a celebration of acts The Do LaB has had a hand in breaking as G Jones and the Opiuo Band sandwiched Stylust Beats in a heady collection of west coast bass. Later on, RL Grime's dark and twisted turn-up set was such a crowded clusterfuck that you couldn't even get a glimpse of the stage itself.

Although the Thunder set-up was a great addition to Coachella, its petite inside quarters presented a logistical problem for Lightning in a Bottle that will have to be addressed before next year. In general, the stage's programming was overly reliant on future bass and glittery, melodic trap. Reprieve came in the form of fast-maturing UK glitch-hop wunderkinds Koan Sound and the inimitable Chaz Bundick AKA Toro y Moi AKA Les Sins.

Anyone for spot of tea? (J.B)

Four fantastically large teapots, propped high on wrought iron stilts, peppered the cliff of the canyon next to the festival grounds. If your wavy legs could handle the ladder ride up, you could bundle yourself into a pot to join a random assortment of weirdos cramped inside, engaged in any number of ridiculous conversations. (I heard 12 fit into one at least teapot––more and the installation would begin to sway ominously.)

The programming at the Temple of Consciousness is a wealth of esoterica and runs from 8:30 AM to 5 AM. The subject of talks ranged from "Tantric Lap Dance" with Kamali Winter to a discussion on edible beauty products with Sarah Brewer to a performance by singer Mia Doi Todd. At 4:30 one morning, I walked into the performance of "Sacred Ritual" by Aya Serpent, a group of opulently and scantily-clad sirens who chanted incantations while wearing gold-plated candelabras atop their heads. Suffice it to say, it was trippy as fuck.

The Thunder Stage turn up in full force.

On Sunday, Fur Coat followed Dance Spirit and Shiba San by delivering a delectable and dark techno set that was the minimalist freakout the Woogie had been asking for all weekend. The stage ended the weekend with the eternal John Digweed, who roved from acid house to all corners of club sound with a studied and measured hand. And then it was time, one last time, for "The Cleanup Song."

Random Rab performed a surprise sunrise performance on Monday morning inside a large dome designed by and featuring the work of Android Jones. The exterior of the structure was lit-up by HD projections of warped patterns made by the vastly talented visual artist, and Rab's spur-of-the-moment decision satisfied the one thing LIB was missing this year: sunrise sets.

Sunset from the campgrounds (J.B)

Even before the weekend ended, the thousands of LIB neophytes had been converted to dusty acolytes in the name of getting weird and doing hippie shit. In many ways, the festival keeps the true, original spirit of rave culture alive. While most raves today are inundated with shallow EDM and hyper-sexuality, LIB maintains the renegade, community-based, transformative culture that was once a hallmark of dance society. "Transformative" festivals aim to be more than a party, and LIB's wealth of yoga sessions, discussions, and seminars challenge partiers to dig deeper than just having a good time, while providing enough of a good time to motivate people to actually schlep out to the dusty expanses of inland Monterey County in the month between Coachella and EDC.

The Do LaB has succeeded at the treacherous task of making desert-inspired counterculture palatable to more mainstream audiences without losing touch with its core ethos. Whether you just ate your first vegan hot dog or you've been practicing yoga since your past life, the LIB community is always in your corner. As Burner-inspired culture continues to move towards the mainstream, LIB serves as an entry point for many into the leftist culture that seems so distant to many when acted out on the playa of Black Rock City. As its numbers climb to match those of the corporate-owned big boys in the festival game, LIB presents a wholly unique festival perspective, one that is growing at an exponential pace.

This July, The Do LaB will debut Woogie Weekend in Irvine, a double-woogie'd all-weekend house and techno rager. Reports of a second big festival to launch later this year are as of yet unconfirmed, but the groundswell of support for the production company is reaching a fever pitch that threatens to upend the current west coast festival hierarchy. In case it isn't clear by now, you have been warned: The hippies are coming.

Jemayel Khawaja has been a practicing desert hippie for many years and is managing editor of THUMP.
Photos by Juliana Bernstein, courtesy of The Do LaB.