Lightning in a Bottle 2018: For five blissful days, reality can wait

TOKiMONSTA, with Gavin Turek, at Lightning in a Bottle 2018. Photo by Jess Bernstein
TOKiMONSTA, with Gavin Turek, at Lightning in a Bottle 2018. Photo by Jess Bernstein

Returning for its fifth year at the San Antonio Recreation Area near Bradley, about an hour north of San Luis Obispo, the once-humble Lightning in a Bottle festival reached a staggering crowd of nearly 35,000 this year. To say that this festival has exploded into the mainstream would be an understatement.

The Memorial Day Weekend festival had all of the eccentricities veterans have come to love — an eclectic lineup, a wide array of unique and psychedelic art installations, diverse educational programming and lifestyle activities. Classic experiences like the Grand Artique’s live shows and swap-or-shop Trading Post, the Favela and Pagoda Bars as alternatives to the main stages, and installation art like this year’s standout — The Zoa, a psychedelic glowing gummy molecule created by Chromaforms Art Collectives — all were favorites. As were new additions this year like the ’80s-themed roller skating rink, the Fungineers funky freestyle roaming ice cream truck, the ArtClave’s interactive art space and art tours, and the Dirty Beetles’ artcar soundsystem at Boogaloo City.

While these experiences certainly left attendees in awe of what the Do LaB has managed to create in about a decade, the burgeoning “consciousness” festival started showing signs that the organizers’ intentions to maintain the ethos that first gave life to their modest beginnings were being left in the dust.

The first example of this predicament was likely met by everyone that failed to purchase an Early Arrival pass to enter the grounds Wednesday, prior to nearly all of the scheduled entertainment. Perhaps attempting to arrive early Thursday morning to catch the Desert Hearts Lakeside Launch Party was a naive thought, but I was still mind-blown to sadly be greeted by a standstill line of cars 12 miles long at 10 a.m. Although there isn’t much you can do except be patient when there is only one entry point for thousands of cars, scheduling a must-see special event one hour after doors probably isn’t the wisest decision. Upon entry we were placed in the car camping section in neat rows by clearly already-exhausted and annoyed employees, frighteningly reminiscent of the car camping situation at Coachella. While fitting 35,000 people into a venue is no small feat, the attitude and ambiance of your patrons’ arrival cannot be disturbed.

The saving grace of the parking debacle was that we were all in this together. The core vibe of Lightning in a Bottle has always been community, and it has never felt more real and alive than in the shared quarters in no-man’s-land. While many of our neighbors were LIB virgins, they were excited to experience an event billed as “the most fun you’ll have in your entire life.” The little camps created amid the chaos truly reduced an event of this magnitude to its original intimate feel. Friendships were forged and challenges that previously took us out of our groove were soon forgotten.

It is important to also point out that the Do LaB is doing more each year to protect its vision and keep veterans returning. The first page of the welcome booklet clearly states their intentions and outlines their five principles — a few paying homage to the highly effective tenets that have kept Burning Man going decades later as it has increased to nearly twice as many people as LIB. Perhaps most importantly is that this year the Green Team seems to have been beefed up to an insane degree, and it showed. From offering free garbage bags and blue recycle bags, to grassroots efforts walking throughout the camps, and to having additional and larger waste stations on-site, the garbage piles of past years actually appeared to be reduced.

For all of the complaints of explosive growth, newcomers failing to adopt the core values and an evolution unmistakably similar to Coachella or Electric Daisy Carnival, Lightning in a Bottle still offers a transformative experience like no other. Nowhere else are the frat bros and party girls bombarded with the constant reminders to “be green,” “pack it in, pack it out” or “leave it better.” Burning Man and its very relevant principle of Radical Inclusion comes to mind. While the scale of veterans to virgins is obviously tipping towards the latter, the newcomers stand to learn the most important truths.

Life outside of these five days seems like a distant, boring memory.

Year after year, the one thing the Do LaB does better than anyone else is transporting you to another world. Whether you want to stand before a massive stage of flowing fabric towering over the audience at the Lightning Stage, or enter an intimate Middle Eastern dinner party-inspired enclosure with carpeted floors like the Crossroads Stage, whether you want to get lost in the sea of oddly moving youth in the alien spaceship-shaped Thunder Stage, or enter the hyper-colored extraterrestrial forest in front of the beloved Woogie Stage, you have many mind-altering options. Sprinkle in the larger-than-life art carefully placed throughout the massive venue and the wandering costumed human works of art, and life outside of these five days seems like a distant, boring memory.

While the event grows, expands, evolves and adapts, the most important thing I took away this year was the communal safe space that Lightning in a Bottle has always provided is still very much alive. If teenage girls like my friend’s daughters can feel safe and experience the event side-by-side with the twisted and inebriated partiers without fear, then the Do LaB and its devout followers have continued to do their job. Call this festival what you will. It might bring in EDC candy ravers and countless Coachella bros, but it spits them out on the other side just a little bit better. For all of its challenges, LIB has never backed down and its soul remains intact. In the words of Chino — the stage manager for Woogie, my home away from home for the weekend, “Lightning in a Bottle is what you make of it. Essentially it’s the experience you seek out. If you want ‘conscious,’ it’s there for you. If you want to rage, there’s that too.” And perhaps that choice is the beauty of it all.

Top musical experiences

Lonely Boy at Woogie, Friday afternoon

Dressed like a technicolor funk conductor, L.A.-based Lonely Boy brought the Woogie train to full tilt on Friday afternoon. Lonely Boy’s music is the eclectic embodiment of his flamboyant dresscode — tight, sexy and bombastic. His Woogie set ignited the crowd of dripping heathens, all that LIB needed to push the hot and sweaty beats to ungodly levels.

KMLN at Crossroads, Friday late-night

Entering Crossroads on the way back from the Thunder Stage is mind-altering enough. From a surreal spaceship to an organic terrarium of otherworldly sentiments, there is no place more perfect for this international shape-shifting Italian-Canadian duo. KMLN is the chameleon in plain sight, bending time through sound, blending elements of deep tribal house and minimal techno, and moving through tempos with layers and layers of synthetic colors.

Tipper and Android Jones at Thunder, Saturday night

While Tipper’s sound is very much meant for Thunder, a stage likely birthed out of the NorCal bass scene, the juxtaposition with the visuals of Android Jones’ acid-robotics future dystopia round it out in a way that feels at home nowhere more than at LIB. Tipper possesses an inhuman ability to manipulate sound to his will with glitchy superhero perfection. The beauty of this festival is that this set could just as easily exist eight years ago in Silverado as it does today in Bradley. The duality of the two worlds and the two eras was not lost on me.

Patricio B2B surprise guest Patrice Baumel at Favela, Saturday late-night

I went to Favela to support a local LA favorite, Argentina-born Patricio, and to feel the thick Burner vibes known to pulse throughout the Favela commune in the wee hours, only to be rewarded by a surprise B2B set with Patrice Baumel. This is the kind of gift you are only granted once in a festival lifetime. The gift was made even sweeter by the fact that I had sadly missed Patrice Baumel’s solo headline set at Woogie earlier that evening. The smile on Patricio’s face could be traced across every proselyte in the crowd. We were now their disciples, bowing before the great P squared.

SAAND into Oona Dahl into Yokoo into Rampa at Woogie on Sunday Afternoon/Evening

No other eight-hour segue all weekend long deserved the hype as this one. If you were only able to attend one sequence of sets all weekend, this absolutely without question was the one. The combination of downright humility coupled with their ethereal and otherworldly soundtrack perfectly paired up with the extraterrestrial forest they sat before. This was the one true soundbath of the weekend, and I was comfortably situated against an alien tree stump for eight hours straight, wondering how I would ever readjust to reality.

Beats Antique at Lightning, Sunday evening

With the departure of Dream and consequently the Lucent Dossier Experience, Beats Antique is left as the clearest example of what it means to fully display the true heart of Lightning in a Bottle — electronic world fusion beats, sexy tribal dancing and peculiar performance art. Beats Antique has become an LIB institution, with Zoe Jakes as the shamanic priestess. Your Lightning in a Bottle experience will never be complete without their sweet serenade exciting your senses. They will truly revolutionize what you think you know about music.

Rodriguez Jr. live set at Woogie Sunday Night

Once again placed comfortably nestled in the psychedelic alien foliage of the Woogie stage, I was transported back to a month earlier at Desert Hearts. Rodriguez Jr.’s Woogie live set was so blissed-out with bass-heavy vibes, that the crowd erupted into a scene formerly only witnessed at SoCal’s best intimate festival. Props to LIB for capturing the vibes of an event one-tenth its size at a stage with twice said festival’s capacity. The sheer talent spilling over the edge of the stage was infectious, sending every last one of us out into the deep corners of the grounds on the last night begging for more.