Lightning in a Bottle 2024: Finding sparks in every corner of the juggernaut festival

Woogie Stage at the Lightning in a Bottle festival 2024 (Photo by Leonard Donjuan)

Kicking off the beginning of their third decade over Memorial Day Weekend as the preeminent immersive festival gathering in Southern California (a feat that can’t be understated), the Do LaB has solidified Lightning in a Bottle’s home at the Buena Vista Lake Campground — a location that seems coincidentally pre-conceived and designed to host this very event.

After 12 or so years of attending this sprawling temporary psychedelic metropolis, I chose to do LIB differently this year. Deviating from my normal jaunts at the Junkyard and Woogie stages where I typically spend 90% of my time, I wandered into the nethers of this fractaled neon womb in the heart of Bakersfield, and got lost again like a first-time attendee, awestruck by the novelty of their carefully orchestrated spontaneity.

It’s hard to describe all of the various attributes that set the Do LaB apart from other festival promoters without sounding like an advertisement, but suffice to say that it is a combination of their storied history of integrity and commitment combined with an almost madman-level of hyper-detailed stage design, omnipresent ambiance, rabbit-hole experiences,and diverse programming on both the micro and macro levels. They prove time and time again that the proverbial lightning in a bottle is in fact something that can be harnessed in a world that often can seem devoid of art.

This also may have been the first year in half a decade that I spent a significant amount of time at the main stage, drawn to the juggernaut Lightning Stage, hilariously adorned with giant googly eyes, turning the massive metallic tetris junkyard into a spirit animal that could either laugh you to exhaustion or maybe devour you unexpectedly. The talent at Lightning this year was impossible to pass up, with heavy hitters like M.I.A., Skrillex, Bomba Estereo and James Blake, just to name a few. The Thunder Stage even surprised me this year, sometimes departing from its often more aggressive sounds to feature one of my favorite chill sets of the weekend, Tycho, on one end of the spectrum, as well as Moontribe’s Drum & Bass darling, Dela Moon, on the other.

When not at the main stages, I was journeying with no real direction into the multiple other destinations amidst the vast festival grounds, continuously blown away by the talent at these oft-neglected side stages. The incredibly artistic performance art & live acts found at Grand Artique and Unicorn Palace might just eclipse the talent inflating the schedule at the main stages, but alas, all artists deserve their well-earned praise & recognition. Even the cosmically spontaneous, vibrant Martian Circus 5D Experience — a glowing post-nuclear fallout celebration of candid collaboration — seems more normal in today’s post-apocalyptic future than one would think.

For all of its massive successes, I only have a few select suggestions for the Do LaB’s future. As mentioned a couple of years ago, the festival should give out LiB-branded bandanas to combat against the high winds and dust. This became even more evident this year, as the rumors of Valley Fever again spread. I’m also curious if there is any reasonable situation where lifeguards could man the most frequented parts of the lake during the busiest hours. I was heartbroken to hear of the drowning of Steve “Man in the Mirror” MacWithey, a larger-than-life fixture in the Las Vegas entertainment and Burning Man scenes. While rare, these tragic events unfortunately happen when attendees are exhausted and dehydrated, but we have a responsibility to our community to question what more could be done to avoid such tragedies in the future. Let us do better in his honor.

Sad news aside, I would pivot to also mention that this may have been the year that the Junkyard outgrew its relatively small space nestled against the water along the main path between Thunder and The Stacks and Woogie stages. With Patricio’s well-thought out lineup consisting of international talent as well as SoCal staples like Jeremy Sole, Ali Farahani, Armen Miran, Patrik Khach of SBCLTR, Anton Tumas of Subtract, Ray Kash of Temple, ARYA of Definition, David Scuba, Ejagz, Miss Javi and Kana Hishiya, just to name a few, plus pounding ChinoSound in all directions, it’s not hard to see why this stage has quickly exploded in popularity. While countless people are stoked that they made it through the insane mainstage-sized crowd to witness Rufus Du Sol drop a surprise set at the Junkyard, it was an odd call, forcing the entire festival to bottleneck in all directions. Perhaps it’s time to expand the dancefloor for LIB’s growing beloved Junkyard and give them the space that they have earned in a relatively short time with grit & determination.

Memorable sets in no particular order:

Fatboy Slim at Woogie

One of the grandfathers of modern electronic music, British DJ and producer Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) engineered his set like the polymath he is, as if he was Da Vinci reincarnated, his epic track selection painting the Woogie forest like an ethereal cathedral of undulating faux fauna in some sort of AI-induced hallucination that simultaneously highlighted our nostalgic longing for raw familiarity with in-the-moment wanton celebration. Under the spell of his masterful direction, we danced like the first men and women to lose ourselves under the full moon.

Tycho (Live) at Thunder

Witnessing San Francisco-based Scott Hansen’s full-band Tycho expertly play through his incredible library in front of a giant screen playing visuals (resembling Alexandro Jodorowsky’s psychedelic masterpiece, “The Holy Mountain”) was a juxtaposition planned perfectly for a festival of attendees uniquely poised to appreciate its significance. I’m not sure if the visuals were part of Hansen’s ISO50 design project or actually shots of “The Holy Mountain,” but either way, it felt as if he was untombing sacred artifacts before our eyes, revealing the secrets of the universe, melding a feast of the senses with his sonic gifts married to his visual compositions.

Ofier (Live) at the Grand Artique

This marks the fourth year in a row that one of my favorite sets of the weekend was at the Grand Artique. L.A.-based musician, DJ and producer Ofier performing live with his guitar while DJ’ing is something to behold. His unbelievable talent is showcased with musical poetry — fitting because probably the best track he played is his song “Maz Amana” featuring a poem by him and Mads Paige written specifically for LIB: “I went to the desert to feel alone, but instead I felt it all… a tear formed on my face, but the wind hugged it away… it was music that brought us together, like the branching of the trees… it was loud like a tumbleweed on fire… it was like lightning, pure fucking lightning… it was lightning in a bottle.” This Israeli artist’s call for peace and unity couldn’t come at a more relevant time.

Patricio at Junkyard

L.A.-via-Argentina DJ Patricio — the master curator of the Junkyard lineup — consistently has big shoes to fill after booking a weekend chock full of talent, especially since he has the fest’s closing set. Even with all of that pressure, Patricio didn’t disappoint, rocking the dilapidated dystopian spaceship with ease and finesse. His prowess and confidence shows in his stature, bathed under the glow of the last lights of a weekend no one will soon forget. It doesn’t hurt that he seems to have a gift of finding remixes of classic tracks so important to history, that he’s literally summoning the hypnotic spell of the ear worms.

Alexis Tucci on the People’s Banana artcar

Finding the afterparty located somewhere on LIB’s massive festival grounds can at times be a fruitless journey, one I’ve embarked upon countless times over the years. However, the times that you stumble on one bursting at the seams will live in your cherished festival memory bank for a lifetime. St. Louis based promoter and DJ Alexis Tucci towering over us atop the People’s Banana artcar on the last night was absolutely one of those moments. Her humble smile, just shy of a knowing smirk, while throwing down a disco house set so perfect for the moment, had our tired feet and exhausted bodies dancing until sunrise. It still brings me all the joy I need to wait out the ticking clock before next year’s Lightning in a Bottle.

Photos by Leonard Donjuan