Every year, I feel like I don’t necessarily need to return to Lightning in a Bottle. Every year, I feel like maybe I’m getting over it. Every year, I feel like it’s there more for the new crowd, and not so much for me. Every year, I’m ever-so-slightly hesitant to go. But every year, I do go. And every year, Lightning in a Bottle absolutely blows my mind to smithereens, and I come home thinking, “Damn, that was incredible.” But this year, Lightning in a Bottle took it to another level. After this year, I feel like I won’t be hesitant to go anymore. After this year, Do LaB has proven that Lightning in a Bottle is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to producing an awesome large festival. After this year, Lightning in a Bottle has once again cemented its status as one of the best festivals in California.
Alas, Lightning in a Bottle returned to Lake San Antonio the other week for another edition of one of California’s most popular festivals (and rightfully so). For the uninitiated… Well… If you like festivals and you live in California, then you should probably get your ass to Lightning in a Bottle. Let me say that again. If you live in California, like festivals, and have never been to Lightning in a Bottle, GET YOUR ASS TO LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE. Even if you’ve been before. Perhaps you fell out of love with it. Maybe you haven’t been to it in a few years. Well, give it another chance. Yes, it’s different. Yes, it’s outrageously huge. But don’t see that as a bad thing. Embrace how different and huge it is. Mark my words: LIB 2017 was the best one yet, and it’s not just because of the lake.
First of all. Yeah. There’s a lake at Lightning in a Bottle now. Like, a HUGE lake. Like, Lake San Antonio is an actual lake. Who knew? There was a LOT of water, and apparently the lake was only 50% full. And you could swim in it. Mother Earth decided to ditch the classic LIB formula of “holy shit it’s so hot” every day. This year, the weather was simply perfect. It was pretty hot on Sunday, and that’s it. “Pretty hot on Sunday and that’s it” is like a dream come true for LIB veterans who have been enduring this dry, hot, dusty landscape for years. Oh, and did I mention there was a lake? Pretty hot out? No problem. Jump in the lake. Float to the Woogie if you feel so inclined. To call the lake a game-changer would be the understatement of the century. Daytime at Lightning in a Bottle has never been such a relaxing, fun, and stress-free experience. It’s 2017. Donald Trump is president, and daytime at LIB is cool and refreshing. Welcome to the alternate reality that we now live in.
Every year, I hear complaints about how Lightning in a Bottle isn’t what it used to be. I hear that it’s too big now. It’s too corporate. It’s mainstream. It’s changed. Well, there is a problem with that logic. The way I see it, the fact that LIB has grown so much is a good thing. The amount of resources Do LaB now has to play around with new ideas is a GOOD thing for the festival, and for festivals as a whole. These guys are pushing the boundaries when it comes to what a festival can look like. Stand at any point on the festival grounds and your jaw will drop from just looking around at the grandiose wonderland that Do LaB has built from the ground up. For years, my favorite characteristic about Lightning in a Bottle has been that it creates a vast environment filled to the brim with exciting scenery and endless potential for exploration. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger this environment is, and the more populated it is with interesting structures, environments, people, and activities, the better. To scoff at the festival for its growth, and for now being accessible to more people, is an asinine way to think about LIB, and it does a disservice to the truly impressive feats that Do LaB pulls off year after year.
But none have been as impressive as what they pulled off this year. This year, Do LaB clearly elevated their game to the next level. The production value has always been through the roof, but in 2017, the roof that they blew through was built twice as high to begin with. Enormous, intricately crafted, and downright beautiful structures littered the LIB landscape. This has always been the case with LIB, but they really took their structure game to the next level this year. Do LaB added an astounding 10 new large-scale structures. Among my favorites were the enormous Beacon and the upgraded Pagoda Bar, known as Liliquoi (both pictured below)…. And believe me when I say these structures are masterful works of artistic engineering. And… They. Are. Everywhere. EVERYWHERE. The sheer size and scope of the massive Lake San Antonio recreation area is really brought to life by these huge structures and art installations, many of which are full-on stages, that densely populate the rugged terrain. Yes, it’s great to have 3 HUGE main stages with world-class musical talent of all styles. Yes, the lineup is on point. But you really don’t need to look at the lineup or schedule a single time to absolutely fall in love with this festival.
As always, bass-heavy music was featured at the Thunder Stage, house & techno at the infamous Woogie, while Lightning Stage acted as the “main stage,” if you will, featuring many live and headlining acts. I will not go into the specific lineup, as fantastic as it is, because for me, this festival is so so so much more than the lineup. Again, Lightning in a Bottle is densely populated with epic art installations, huge structures, and a seemingly infinite number of interactive environments and interesting places to hang out. There were more stages than I can count on two hands, and it’s a pure joy to be able to just hop around and feel the vibe at each one, particularly at night, when this festival comes to life. The production value of all of these interactive environments, like the mystery maze hotel, The Lightning Inn, full of secret rooms, interactive characters, a hidden speakeasy, and countless interesting things to interact with, was upgraded this year. Or, perhaps my favorite spot at the festival, Amori’s Burlesque and Casino, a place of romantic vibes, fire performers, electro-swing, burlesque, and other fun and games. Honestly, each of these “small” environments have now grown into worlds of their own, legitimately worthy of being their very own festivals. It’s just mind-blowing that Lightning in a Bottle now has the resources to pool all of these large individual parts together and build it into one epic universe of its own for a weekend. It really doesn’t even make sense how smoothly this festival operates, considering how ambitious it is in its final vision. I am grateful to be able to experience that vision, because they pull it off excellently, and they make it look easy. The experience they curate is a quintessential example of top-notch event production.
Despite my journalism degree, I’ve never been too fond of politics. This year, LIB had some of that going on when it was revealed that Do LaB and LIB co-founder Dream Rockwell are involved in a lawsuit. I won’t go out of my way to pick sides or poke my nose where it doesn’t belong when nobody but the involved parties actually knows the whole story. But what I do know is this: this first LIB without Dream Rockwell was by far the best LIB yet. I can’t deny that some of Dream’s ideas (particularly her astounding performance troupe, Lucent Dossier Experience) have had overwhelmingly positive effects on the festival community. But at the same time, there are also some ideas that are not ok to be spread, and it is my understanding that Do LaB shares the same sentiment, and that her Flat Earth panel at the Temple last year was somewhat of a “final straw.” I’m sorry (wait, no i’m not), but in 2017, there is no place in modern society for belief in a flat earth, and a place as great as LIB is certainly not an okay forum for spreading those ideas to a large number of people. I won’t go any further, and I won’t pick any sides, but from what I can tell from my own experiences, LIB is moving forward in the right direction. Do LaB, for years, has insisted that Lightning in a Bottle is not a “transformational festival.” Good on them. Good riddance with that ridiculous, meaningless buzzword. Lightning in a Bottle is a festival. It does not cater to a specific crowd. It is here, and it is open to all who wish to enjoy it.
And you know what’s annoying? This “transformational festival” crowd likes to hate on LIB because it is open to all who wish to enjoy it. They hate on LIB for adhering to the FIRST of the Ten Principles of Burning Man: Radical Inclusion. To call this festival “mainstream” because it is popular is laughable. Just look at it. Lightning in a Bottle does not look or operate like the default world. It does not look or operate like a corporate, mainstream festival. People are beautiful, smiling, approachable, and open. You can walk up to any given stranger and hold a friendly conversation for any amount of time. Does that happen in mainstream culture? You can walk to the furthest corner of the festival and enter the exuberant Amori’s Burlesque and Casino and participate in a “tickle fight” at 4am on Monday morning. Mainstream? Not even close. At a mainstream festival, you don’t get to float along a lake on an inflatable pizza, wash up ashore, and climb the towering masts of a pirate shipwreck. A mainstream festival in California doesn’t absolutely pummel you with psytrance on a monstrous Meyer sound system at one of the main stages during the headlining slots on Saturday night. LIB is mainstream? Preposterous. LIB is incredible. LIB is a reminder of why I got into this scene to begin with. LIB is a highlight reel of everything that I love about festivals. LIB has undoubtedly held on to the essence of what made it special to begin with. Just now, that essence has grown and multiplied into something bigger– and objectively better.
I’ve called this festival magical in the past, and though I am a firm believer in science, I cannot deny that this shit is still pure magic. I have nothing but love for what Do LaB does year in and year out, and every year they get a little bigger, and every year they get a little better. During my time at LIB this year, I was awestruck. I can’t remember the last time I went to a festival and felt like that during the weekend. Yes, I always come home and reminisce about how awesome the event was. But this time, every person I interacted with had something to say about how absolutely fantastic and impressive Lightning in a Bottle was while they were experiencing it. Lightning in a Bottle is just that– an experience. And if you’re a festival-goer in California, you owe it to yourself to have this experience. It’s only going to get better.
*All words & photos by Babak Haghighi