Photos by Juliana Bernstein, courtesy of The Confluence
Everyone at Lightning in a Bottle is a weirdo in some sort of way. It's like the hottest people from Burning Man and the strangest people from Coachella all converged on the moon with the intention of starting a temporary musical space tribe. Getting weird is encouraged and there's an implied social contract to offer positive vibes.
This past weekend, May 23-25, The Do LaB hosted their event for the first time at the San Antonio Recreation Area in Bradley, CA. Prompted by friction with local law enforcement in Temecula, CA last year, promoters moved for the fourth consecutive edition, this time halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in California's Central Valley. It's a sprawling chaparral tract, with deep valleys separating all of the main areas. The sight of sunburned and tired hippies trudging up steep and dusty slopes was ubiquitous by the third day, but the scope of the land added to the feeling that Lightning was a whole different world.
When I finally nestled in on Friday night, Moby's set at the Lightning Stage was like flashing back to an early 90s acid house rave. He came out swinging with some uptempo old school beats and was masterfully in control of the vibe for his whole performance. Afterwards, the Bamboo Stage sucked me in. It was the smallest of the three stages, but was happening all weekend. From Cashmere Cat to Sweater Beats and What So Not (aka Emoh Instead by his lonesome), the place had people working that ass non-stop. The intimate setting, beefy sound system and sky of lasers gave the bass-centric programming some heavy experiential weight.
Ryan Hemsworth was a revelation. A friend described his as hard-thug/sad-boy. It's an intelligent and adventurous take on hip-hop-inspired bass music. While the world could likely forever equate him with the Harlem Shake, Baauer has quietly moved on to some next level shit: He worked footwork and even some dancehall into his set. Still, I think Baauer would reach new heights if he went to a desert island for three months, wrote a bunch of new tracks and moved away from dropping hits. I'm pretty sure I smelled DMT in the crowd during his set. Baauer would not be my first choice as a soundtrack to a dimension crossing mind journey, but hey, you only LiB once, especially if you crossover into the other-sphere and never return.
After hours, the party descends into two of the valleys, The Drift and The Ditch, where DJ setups nestled into tree trunks went until the sunrise. In the mornings, people were raving about sunrise sets by Desert Dwellers and Random Rab. I spent the daytime checking out some of the extra-curricular activities. A major aspect of The Do LaB's mission is using music and the festival setting as a portal for information about alternative modes of thinking. There are lectures and workshops taking place all day long in grandly designed amphitheaters. They range from meditation seminars to talks on the dangers of mercury poisoning in the dental industry.
I watched a man named Bashar give a lecture. He claimed to be a medium for an alien species and advised the crowd on better living techniques. Afterwards, he took a Q+A and gave advice about vegetarianism and job hunting before snapping back into his embodied self in a dazed state. It was during this speech that a friend of mine met a young dreadlocked man for the first time with whom, at the time of writing, she is currently driving up to Santa Cruz to marry. No kidding.
All the cups and cutlery aren't just recyclable, they're compostable. This is the greenest festival in America and all the kids chomping down on veggie burgers and potato knishes while holding on to cigarette butts in their pockets and packing trash into their cars stands testament to the ethos. It's really nice to see people able to retain rowdy levels of rage while also maintaining some semblance of responsibility.
While at Coachella it can feel kind of weird to see young kids, at Lightning in a Bottle, even though the environs are significantly wonkier, the presence of children somehow feels natural. Around midday, sitting by the glow-in-the-dark art wall, I hung out with a toddler named Cosmo. All the kid wanted to do was pick things up and throw them, but I found nurturing his destructive instincts to be a touching exercise.
Then it was night again. I was intrigued to see Amon Tobin on the Lightning Stage because I had no idea what to expect from a DJ set by him. When Tobin dropped some heavy neurofunk drum 'n' bass, I was so jazzed that I ended up on the peripheries of the stage skanking out while dressed in a blanket and a hat pulled down low over my dusty mop of hair. Eventually, security figured that I was having way too much fun for a "photographer" and wrangled me off. After the set, I wandered the night until I found a hammock strung up a tree in some gully. I lay down in it for a moment and then suddenly it was the next morning.
By this point, I had lost everything. My cell phone, the remainder of the contents of my pockets, my friends, and whatever loose grip on reality I had entered with. I figured that was par for the course, ate another knish, and wandered around the expansive campsite. Just walking around the little worlds people create out there is a journey within itself.
Eventually, it was time for music once again. The Woogie is one of the most unique stage designs I've ever seen. It's a colorful, pineapple-shaped treehouse built in to a massive oak tree. The programming focuses on techno and house and it sits on a precipice on it's lonesome at the far end of the grounds. Sets from Claude VonStroke, Woogie mainstay Lee Burridge, and Simian Mobile Disco kept the vibe on point all weekend. One rad aspect of LiB is that DJs enjoy lengthy sets; it's a great chance to go deep into a selector's collection.
It was at The Woogie that Max Cooper surprised with my favorite set of the whole weekend. I had no idea who he was when I stumbled my creaky legs up there for the last time, but I was enraptured for two whole hours. The set was techno based, with a focus on sonic contrasts, crisp mixing, and tangential stylistic forays. A lengthy jungle segment towards the end didn't hurt either. While the crowds were at Beats Antique getting all futuro-middle eastern, I found The Woogie to be an apropos ending to the weekend.
While a lot of electronic music festivals tussle to outdo each other while playing the same game, Lightning in a Bottle has quietly developed into a supremely unique festival with some deep character. It's not about being the coolest. It's not even really about raging the hardest. It's just about being your weird ass self, smelling of campground and fumbling your way through a dutty wine while staring at some trippy lights. People talk about Mysteryland returning to the spiritual home of Woodstock, but the community that populated LiB seems more attuned to what those flower children laid those many decades ago. Props to you all, strange and beautiful people of LiB. You're a special breed. That said, I'd really like a steak.