Lightning in a Bottle 2018 Was the Best Festival We’ve Ever Been To

Scrutinizing for signs of impending Coachella-fication, we found almost none, and Fever Ray, tUnE-yArDs, Monolink, and ZHU rank as four of the best sets we've ever seen.

The Woogie Stage (Juliana Bernstein/Get Tiny)

I can’t go on, I must go on, I will go on, I did go on.

That’s the arc of crisis and satisfaction you have from time to time at Lightning in a Bottle, The Do LaB‘s official hello to summertime over Memorial Day weekend near the town of Bradley, Calif. For four days or longer, you’re on no sleep and it’s occasionally very hot  — but this year, the real culprit was the cold. A mad burst of hedonism in the middle of nowhere, it’s like a music festival with the corporate bullshit stripped away, and enough art installations to make it a dry run for Burning Man. Officially speaking, it’s an outgrowth of the Do Lab’s tent at Coachella with plenty of crossover from Dirtybird Campout and the Desert Hearts Festival (where Mikey Lion and the crew played a sort of festival-within-a-festival by the lake on Thursday). But most of all — it is an absolute blast, a pistol shot into the air to open the season. Here are the highlights of 2018.

Walker & Royce, Friday at The Woogie Stage. Totem by Chris Hieb

An insanely catchy single that came out just after L.I.B. 2017, Walker & Royce‘s “Take Me to Your Leader” was part of the 4-6 p.m. Friday afternoon set that felt like the de facto introduction to the entire festival, a riot of totems at The Woogie, a multipolar grouping of terraced, two-story alien butterflies that’s easy to get a little lost in. (“Which way was the way we came in again?” — you and all your friends, over and over.) The deep-house Dirtybird duo with a surprising degree of emotional depth closed out with “Role Models,” something you may have to listen to a few times before you realize it’s about drinking yourself into a stupor to get over someone who broke your heart.

Of all the eight stages, the one to make sure not to miss is the Lightning Stage at sunset. Friday, everything belonged to Merrill Garbus, the creative center of Oakland’s tUnE-yArDs, who. If most of the acts at L.I.B. are essentially entertainment, then tUnE-yArDs is unquestionably art. Her obsession with loops and whoops makes her live act all but un-replicatable, and I’ve been fascinated ever since I saw her open for St. Vincent at the Fox in 2012. “I cry my white woman tears, carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant / I smell the blood in my voice,” this former puppeteer and sonic dervish sings on “Colonizer.” At L.I.B., she went full-on cerebral, with a staggered crescendo that built as the sun hit the hills, all the while maintaining beats as precise as Caribou’s, so that you begin to suspect she might be one of those math-and-music prodigies. Garbus won the award for crowd growth, starting out her 75-minute set with scattered knots of people and drawing in hordes of the curious.

 

Then it was time for Sofi Tukker, the dance-splosive Brooklyn darlings of 2017 who’ve kept ascending peaks in 2018. The video for “Batshit,” released in April, includes Tucker Halpern on a payphone in the middle of the desert, but their stage presence reconfigures that spartanness into a percussive entrance and then abandons it for a hyperkinetic show — which everyone knows the words to. (Unless they’re sung in Portuguese, as on 2016’s “Drinkee,” but that’s hardly an obstacle to the fun.)

After 20 minutes at a loud GRiZ set with a slightly-too-crazy crowd, The Black Madonna took the helm at the Woogie, which undergoes a total day-to-night transformation. Instead of beach balls and giggly crowd-watching, it’s time for serious house music under the sway of the scene’s high priestess. The Black Madonna —a practicing Catholic — told SF Weekly at Coachella that DJing a party has an ecclesiastical dimension not unlike presiding over a Mass, but even the archbishop starts to mumble and go off-track sometimes, while her disco-inflected sets are uniformly excellent, with masterful peaks and valleys. Later, at the Favela Bar, Sasha Robotti closed Friday night out with a performance that included his new song, “Glide.” Thank you for the party, Mr. Robotti.

A DJ who plays guitar and sings during his sets, Monolink largely reprised his 2017 performance — another dusk-and-twilight killer from the oracle of trippy relaxation with a slightly gravelly, Teutonic voice. That his finest song is called “Burning Sun” only made his time allocation more resonant. We caught up with him the next day, unmistakable in his broad-brimmed black hat. Possibly unaccustomed to the mild awkwardness of Americans following a “Thank you” with “No, thank you!” he merely said, “You’re welcome,” an hour before he left for his flight back to Europe.

Divulging a few details of cerebrovascular ailment that left her in need of two brain surgeries, Jennifer Lee’s effortlessly winning project Tokimonsta took over Lightning at 9:15 Friday evening. (Moyamoya, the rare, progressive disorder she battled, is Japanese for “puff of smoke,” which would be almost beautiful if it weren’t so potentially tragic.) Launching into “Steal My Attention” and, later, “Realla,” she introduced Anderson Paak — who would close out the stage three hours later.

Described as “filthy,” by a trusted source — and meant as high praise — Lebanese-Nigerian DJ and producer Nicole Moudaber shocked the Woogie with some genuinely pure techno. The biggest error of judgment this writer made was leaving an hour into trek all the way to Thunder for a bizarrely low-volume Tipper set with Android Jones, quiet enough that you could hear people’s conversations about hitting traffic on Highway 101. But by the time the group got back, it was after 2:00, which meant a session with L.I.B.’s consummate workhorse, Patricio. The master of the Favela Stage, who played no fewer than six sets all weekend, a burst of activity that never wavered in its intensity. Ringed with treehouses, the Favela Bar has become more of a proper stage on par with the others. (But it’s a good place to grab a drink when you’re running from A to B with a big gaggle of friends, or to just wander around and make new ones.) Oh yeahh! and don’t forget about Treavor Moontribe’s unforgettable closing set Monday morning at the Favela Bar. 

Living in the perpetual now, it’s easy to overlook various other stages — particularly the Western-themed, hippie-centric Grand Artique. A mid-afternoon set by San Francisco’s own collective Afrolicious was fine to dance to, but also fine to sit down and drink an IPA along with, not that you don’t see people living their best lives and getting down. Avoiding media Twitter for four days, letting yourself be blissfully free of Jared Kushner and Ron Conway and all those people, is a genuine pleasure — and knowing that, Afrolicious interspersed some earnest entreaties to “take care of each other” amid the lyrics to songs like “Politricksters.”

Saturday was so good that Sunday felt like it had to be a letdown, but after the lubrication of an Oona Dahl set — a “channel to enter dimensions of color”  — The Funk Hunters managed to surpass tUnE-yArDs and Monolink’s performances for sheer sundown intensity. In a set peppered with samples like Major Lazer’s “Pon” and Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” they were the opening leg of one of the best runs I’ve ever witnessed.

Next was Fever Ray, a titanic rarity that made use of theatrics to a degree unparalleled at L.I.B. Accompanying Karin Dreijer — whose stage moniker comes from the 2009 album of the same name, after she first gained attention as one half of The Knife — were five other women, all of them witches, enrobed in smoke and bathed in various colored lights. It was a performance piece, not a performance, and an act of supreme confidence. Dreijer wore face paint slightly reminiscent of Heath Ledger as The Joker, and a T-shirt that said, “I Heart Swedish Girls” with “Swedish crossed out in tape. The thunderous suite of songs, each of them self-contained and ending with the stage going completely dark, was as cosmically terrifying as last year’s solar eclipse. You couldn’t take notes for this one, with melodic twists that didn’t even care to give pleasure. It was simply beyond anything else.

And then it was time for ZHU, a mysterious figure who seems far older than his 28 years, positioned on a high dais and flanked by a guitarist a sax player. Together, the three of them looked almost as though they were tethered to a war rig in Mad Max: Fury Road to keep the army’s enthusiasm up — except Steven Zhu is the one talking himself into keeping the party going. (“Baby, I’m faded / all I want to do is take you downtown.”) For raw maximalism, it was the essential closeout (not that we didn’t head to Favela for Treavor Moontribe’s final-final set, and then an impromptu DJ setup on an RV in the camping area until five in the morning).

Conditions are not entirely easy. The first several nights were very cold, and only Memorial Day was properly hot. Interior Monterey County might not be the Playa, but it sure is dusty. Lake San Antonio is a reservoir that supplies the region with agricultural water — or so I’m told — so the lake level fluctuates dramatically from year to year. Last year, after a wet winter, it was very full. This year, less so — although group-sized rafts and floaties appeared by Sunday. Trucks routinely spray the paths to keep the pulverized dirt clinging to the earth where it belongs, but you’re going to want to bring a bandanna. But dusty sunsets are wild, and if you happened to see the eve-of-a-full-moon set over the far hills, the particles in the air lent it that French vanilla cast. Cell service is erratic. Toilet paper is a precious commodity, as valuable by weight as mushrooms or printer ink.

L.I.B. has more than a few oddities, too. Why are most of the paths named for countries with authoritarian governments, like Qatar, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Russia, and Vietnam? Why are there so many children? (They’re going to grow up to be awesome, although I would have been wigged out if I’d been there when I was nine.) 

 

“Suicide Tuesday” isn’t the most politically correct phrase. Tens of thousands of people end their own lives every year, and you really shouldn’t make a glib comparison between the tragedy of mental illness and the rough comedown you experience upon re-entering civilization after a fun weekend. But when your job is to share your experience with people while it’s still near enough to be fresh in their minds and you can’t even get it together, that says something.

Of all of the festivals I’ve ever been to — seven Outside Lands, four Treasure Islands, three Coachellas, a handful of SXSWs, Pitchfork, Bonnaroo — Lightning in a Bottle is the craziest and the most enjoyable. Sure, it helps that you don’t have to pass through metal detectors and get your personal effects groped, and walking over from your campsite with a backpack full of beer to pass around saves a non-negligible amount of cash, but the spirit is so strong. Walking up and down the gullies and across the bridges from a faraway campsite among the most distant RV hookups, the entire festival looks almost like Day 2 of a zombie apocalypse, when all the survivors are so glad they got out of the city in time that they just want to dance their asses off with relief. To be at Lightning in a Bottle is to be relieved that you’re not somewhere else.

Thank you again Lightning in a Bottle and the crew for all your hard work, see you all next year! 

Check out the Top 10 Lightning in a Bottle Totems Here

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