A creatively curated three day adventure into a playground of house, bass and underground music equipped with immersive, thought provoking art – Lightning in a Bottle has had a special place in my heart for almost as long as I can remember. When I went to school in Santa Barbara, I heard fantastical fables of a land so close, yet worlds away. For my first few years in Los Angeles, I chased the dragon of a dream, coming in a day late and a wonderful weekend short. When Lightning hit Temecula’s Lake Skinner Recreational Area I finally dove in and experienced firsthand what was so highly revered about the event. Breathing in feelings like fresh air, I floated through the festival on Cloud 9 – forging bonds and breaking barriers, I reveled in my newfangled oneness with the world as I fell in love, over and over again on the grassy nooks and crannies of the grounds. Watching as beautiful souls ordained in otherworldly outfits lost themselves to dance, I fell back in love with the moment. Joining in, I could feel a shift in the senses, an emotional evolution mirrored with a social revolution, inspiring me to fall back in love with myself. As the festival evolved, I grew in tandem – learning to find my place within this novel conscious community as Lightning in a Bottle manifested from a boutique music festival to a staple of the West Coast’s festival scene. Even with a migration to Bradley’s San Antonio Recreation Area, the magic was never lost – it was only magnified as serendipity met synchronicity. Masquerading under moonlight, long lost and new found friends became family as we were initiated with glitter blessings and hugs, laughter and jubilation.
Since its inception, Lightning in a Bottle has been an artistic catalyst where personal growth and spiritual renewal unfold infinitely into themselves. Senses stream towards overload as colors dance in time with elaborate harmonies emanating from every corner of the fields. The weekend celebrates much more than musical talent and artistic prowess; it’s the reunion and synergy of souls energized by the sunshine and their dancing feet; it’s the church where we revere our minuscule yet infinite place on this rock that’s spinning through space while we’re born again through the bass; it’s the home away from home where we feel so very safe, and so very loved. Over the last three years, for one spectacularly extra-special weekend – I felt the pull, heard the call and knew where I belonged so it should be no surprise that I found myself back there this past Memorial Day Weekend, for another journey down the rabbit hole.
But unlike previous years, it didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there – my energy wasn’t focused on a festival, it was focused on my family; my mind wasn’t lingering on lineups or salivating over set times. For the last decade, I’ve found sanctity and solace in festivals and on the dancefloor – my sweat, my hips, my feet, my heart and soul, and sometimes even tears were taken by the beat, and eventually I had to wonder: with all that we give to these events, our emotions, our headspace, our physical body, our money, our sobriety – what exactly are we getting in return? In a 31 going on 13 moment, I called the only person who could make heads or tails of a spinning situation – my dad; and I caught myself…because who in their right mind would deprive themselves of beautiful experiences, wonderful vibes, fantastic people, ethereal music and an otherworldly weekend? Most certainly not I – so last minute packing became a thing once again while I mused about the upcoming adventure ahead.
Since leaving Temecula, Lightning has been on the Central California Coast in Bradley and now that the event has found a more permanent home, it’s grown roots – both with the outlying community over it’s Permaculture Awareness Day with The Polish Ambassador, as well as implementing permanent infrastructure within the park. Between the water stations and the bridges between areas, seasoned festies were overheard in galvanized conversation about what the very first year at the campgrounds was really like. For the first time, the grounds opened on Wednesday for select ticketholders and offered an extra day to set up, get comfortable and explore many of the non-musically inclined opportunities that the festival has to offer participants. Yes, the world that the Do LaB has created there has massive amounts of music for those that want it – but for others, the festival also has beautiful spaces between the notes and serene silence between the music; the moments and love experienced outside of the stages were tantamount to the lucid dreams and delectable drops created on the dancefloor. There’s something to be said for the experience when the music is turned off, and the community vibes are turned all the way on – each and every one of us was operating at the highest possible frequency, making connections, forging bonds and cataloging moments that last a lifetime.
Rousing ourselves for an early rise on Friday morning, we left right on time – which for us is exactly an hour after we promised we’d have the car packed and be on the road. Perfect. After meeting up with some friends along the way to trade stories and party favors, Danny and I were off, off and away – celebrating our fourth Lightning together and our three year anniversary of saying ‘I Love You’. After a quick entrance, which I can only assume is one of the few benefits of arriving almost a day after most participants, we were onto the next challenge – finding a camping spot. With how much fun we had as just the two of us without a squad at Shambhala, we were excited to set up shop and create ‘Camp New Friends.‘ Claiming a site near the corner of Monkey Business and Croatia, we felt like it was left there just for us; as we began to set up our shade structure and tent – Danny took one look around and exclaimed to our neighbors, “Hey, you – yeah, we’re gonna become really good friends this weekend.” And let me tell you, I love it when he’s right. Cody and Dane from the camp behind us had our backs with the tent, and while we were setting up our shade structure – it felt like parallel worlds collided: slowly and sweetly, a couple waltzed up into our peripheral view. Under his breath, Danny started stammering ‘That guy looks like Mickey….I can’t wait to tell Mickey that I met his doppelganger….’ until….we realized that the doppelganger was Mickey! A well kept secret and wonderful trickery only became more meaningful when we realized how organically we had all just found each other.
As Danny gathered his camera gear to head out to a quick shoot for the LIB Promo Squad, my cell phone vibrated with a silent intensity. My step mom had been back on the East Coast for the last week helping with a family emergency, and I’d gotten to the point that seeing her on the caller ID was equally warming and disheartening. A short breath and two words into the conversation, and I already knew the direction things were headed. With a late stage cancer diagnosis, we knew my aunt’s prognosis was bleak – none the less we’d been hopeful; after all – she’d been stable, she’d been laughing, she’d been being; but now we knew, that whether it was an hour, day, or a week – that was unequivocally all she had. Forgetting where I was for a second, I sank into my skin and the feelings I had before we left, quietly begging me to stay, latched back into me. How would you live your life if you knew your own expiration date? You would push, dare and defy your ego to grow instead of denying yourself of the will to live.
Settling into our surroundings and cracking a cold beer as the sun descended from the sky, we were finally ready to head into the grounds. After wandering through Camp Altered States and catching up with friends over Mija’s basslines, we were off to catch Big Gigantic on the Lightning Stage then slowly sauntered our way around towards the Woogie – I thought. The Favela Bar, which was once a smaller side stage had blossomed into a full on party brigade, fully equipped with all of the bass and all the vibes. The music in there was so good that I could have easily forgotten about the Woogie itself. Taking a break from the massive crowds, we found ourselves on a seemingly spiritual pathway to the Do Art’s artistic arena.
After spending a solemn moment reflecting on what turned out to be my favorite piece of art at the festival -the powerful and poignant depth of this cascading collection of twisted wood and tangled emotions, we stumbled right into the delicate and deliberate strokes of Negne Mwuara‘s mural from this last Coachella. One of the pinnacles of the event for me has been the live art on the grounds, in between the trees and near the stages but this year it felt more scarce and hard to come by. Taking a lengthy lap between the easels, we literally walked right into our camp neighbors as we were exiting towards the Woogie’s booming techno vibes.
Delectable cucumber jalapeno margarita in hand, we wound our way around the Woogie’s dancefloor – trying to come to a conclusion on how we actually felt about the new stage design. The treehouse DJ booth and whimsical color creations that oscillated like sound waves towards the sky, two facets of the festival that I thought were an iconic staple, were missing and replaced by industrial, neon piping which made me feel more like I was at a warehouse party in a technicolor boiler room than prancing in a magical forest among the faeries. In the mood for the less traveled path, we headed around the back of the stage, down the abyss into the Grand Artique, cartwheeling into the emotive, instrumentation of LAPA. Truth be told, for the first few minutes we weren’t sure who we were seeing – but we knew it made us feel a lot better after collectively missing Emancipator Ensemble; and then after a few minutes, we realized it kind of was Emancipator – it was Ilya Goldberg, Emancipator’s violinist, giving the most intimate of performances in a magical location. Heading back across the expansive grounds to our tent, pockets of after parties popped into existence – but none with the eclectic talent, lasting power or super awesome disco ball of Camp Altered States.
The next morning, thousands of house heads and festival lovers flocked to The Woogie for a beautiful tribute to the musical legend of Pumpkin. The hearts in our community have weighed heavy since his passing, and for really the first time since – the entire LIB community was together to celebrate the life he led, and the life he had inspired within all of us. Per usual, the heat beat its way into every daytime activity, making it necessary to have a water bottle in hand, a bandanna around your neck and a mister or fan in the friend group. Taking our leisurely time, we meandered across the grounds to the food court near the Pagoda Bar to level up on some food. Unlike previous years of LIB, the vendors this week had more to offer than just vegan and vegetarian offerings and we were excited taking full advantage of the situation and then head back to the sanctity of the campsite. Two days into LIB, and we’d already overused our joke about “Camping in a Bottle 2016” – there were literally some moments that it just seemed too hot to do stuff; blame it on our age, blame it on our psyches or willingness, but mostly blame it on the heat – all we could seem to do was sit around camp and share stories in the shade, which is an honest highlight of my weekend.
Saturday night we were on a mission, and found a perfect place to plant ourselves for the Lucent Dossier Experience. Transfixed in the moment, the crowd almost ceased to dance, move or breathe until the tantalizing performance came to an emotive close – only to erupt in jubilant cheer. As we sat on the ground, patently waiting for the Jamie XX to take the stage we found ourselves involved with what I still consider one of the most impressive glow stick ropes of all time.
It started small, with our neighbors sitting in front of us gleefully funneling the pieces down a supply chain of silliness and we couldn’t help but join in once the chain reached us. Once the people around us realized what was happening, it felt like all hands on deck as the glowing snake wrapped itself from the lighting booth and up to the front row – and back again before the start of the set. I wasn’t familiar with Jamie XX before his set but I’ve easily been converted into a believer after watching him effortlessly move between three different equipment set ups and what sounded like all of genres: disco, house, funk, industrial, and some groovy warehouse tracks with heavy bass that were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We felt the pull of the mindwarping, brain melting bass coming from Minnesota and G Jones B2B set at the Thunder Stage but after a few tracks, found ourselves back at the Lightning for the genius that is Jamie XX to finish our night.
Both a festival and a nature adventure, Lightning in a Bottle was rich with reasons to ditch the cell phone and live in the moment, harmonize on your serendipity when you find long lost squad members and create new bonds when you can’t. And for the most part, I’d left my phone on airplane mode all weekend less talking to my parents when we set up shop on Friday, but Sunday I had a gut feeling that never left, and a last text to reaffirm my unfortunate suspicions – it was Sandy’s final night, and full of light and love, her life’s candle was snuffed out as her soul dissolved back into the collective unconscious.
With little sleep in our veins, the whole camp was up and at’em early on Sunday morning, and with good cause – with all of our powers combined, we pulled off some epic bacon bagel sandwiches and finally had a family meal in the shade as we geared up for our last hurrah. Gathering our bearings, we were excited for a day outing with just a little less heat. Making last minute wardrobe changes in the middle of a champagne campaign, I mused about the circumstances that brought us together and the friendships that we’d curated. And for the first time all weekend, all the camps that we’d bonded with were making it out to the dancefloor together; five camps that had fused into one – ten life trajectories that were tangled in all the right places for one a beautiful weekend.
Dancing our way over to the Russ Liquid Test, the beat controlled my body as I giggled and grooved to this modern day jazz experiment, a funky side project that was perfect for my Sunday Funday get down. We ebbed over to the ethereal temple built from cans and upcycled materials and took in the final sunset while Desert Dwellers effused a tantalizing, tribal set that sent waves of euphoria through my veins. Drinking in the moment, and a tasty margarita, our inner spirit animals came loose one last time, howling in delight as the sun made it’s last LIB descent, pulling a curtain of galaxies closely behind her.
After a quick rendez-vous at the camp site, we gathered our squad for one final hurrah as we tromped through the festival grounds. We drank from a giant spoon as we gleefully gallivanted over to cacophony of carins in the shadow of the Ferris Wheel. Heading to the Favela Bar, B.R.E.E.D.’s tantalizing brand hip shaking, booty popping, soul writhing bass music was calling us and made it was easy to forget that anyone else was playing, let alone Mr. Carmack and Moderat.
One of the only sets that caught my squads’ attention for it’s entire duration, B.R.E.E.D. had the entire side stage engulfed in the masterful, musical moment. A perfect segue to closing the festival out with pantyraid on the Thunder Stage.
Over the last decade, Lightning in a Bottle has evolved from a benevolent birthday celebration to a 20,000 person festival and growing. As long as the Do LaB has operated their stage at Coachella, there has been a technicolor wormhole that sieves rave babies and bros towards LIB. In turn, the festival as no choice but to grow at an exponential level – and with those growth spurts come growing pains. Now featuring a sold out crowd, almost every space feels cramped for the night time sets as stages filled with neon totems that in mass essentially block the stage. Within the five or six weeks between the two festivals, it feels near impossible to inform thousands of fist pumping, neon Sparkle Ponies on the ethos of LIB’s ‘Pack in – pack out’ and ‘Leave it better, leave it beautiful’ mentalities though they’re certainly hit over the head with reminders to buy their ticket and take the ride. Beach cleanups pair up nicely with events they’ve paired up with like Subtract On The Pier while block parties and BBQs with street cleanups, and I believe there are ways to implement their green mentalities year round and in their home communities of Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. But a place to buy extra trash bags, or a location to collect recycling and donate funds to the community or back into the event are also viable options albeit outside of the original ethos of the event.
The magic and music of Lightning in a Bottle will always pull an esteemed crowd of audiophiles and art fanatics, merry makers and music lovers, festival families, LIB virgins and seasoned veterans – all coming together to celebrate this thing called life. Put together with love and passion by the team at the Do LaB, this year’s festival boasted an immaculate range of talent and a community thirsty for Lightning’s transformative power. If you couldn’t get enough of the Do LaB crew at LIB, try out their Summer sister festival – Woogie Weekend just a few days away! Soak in the sunshine while you bounce around to International House legends and locally loved Techno talent.
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All photography courtesy of Daniel Leist Photography