Driving down Interstate 5 last Thursday night, Lightning in a Bottle attendees got to witness something you don’t often see in Central California any time of year, let alone mid-May: thunderheads.
Held at Buena Vista Lake outside of Bakersfield after three years at Lake San Antonio near the town of Bradley, L.I.B. saw a few changes for 2019. For starters, it took place two weeks earlier than the usual Memorial Day weekend, so the overall crowd (17,000 warm bodies, plus 3,000 artists and support staff) was significantly smaller — and with fewer college-age people, who were stuck at home studying for finals. The terrain was much shadier and flatter, too. Gone were the ups and downs of crossing from the campgrounds to the main festival — not the worst thing for your calves, but all that amiable hand-slapping as people passed one another on the bridges was always fun. The ridiculous afternoon soap-box derby, where people in rickety homemade cars ate shit or crashed into haystacks, was also no more. (But at least there was a roller-rink, with a Coolio/Clueless reference in neon on one wall: ROLLIN’ WITH THE HOMIES.)
Beyond that, what we got was a reminder that this truly is North America’s premiere independent music festival, and The Do LaB has pretty exceptional curatorial judgment when booking acts, from the obscure to the increasingly well-known. The perennially mellow German artist Monolink, who DJs while playing guitar and singing, has been a staple of the festival for the last two years — and this year, he played a surprise Day 0 set from 1:30 to 3:15 a.m., as a sort of bookend to his mesmerizing sunset show from 2017. Some people sound noticeably better at one time of day more than the other, but not Monolink. “Rearrange My Mind,” indeed.
Then disaster struck — sort of. There had been intermittent raindrops all evening, but around 4:45 a.m. on Friday morning, a full-on thunderstorm erupted directly overhead, flooding anyone who hadn’t brought a rain fly or a canopy out of their tent. It’s the kind of circumstance where you have to make a choice: Get irritable or let it bring you closer together with your friends, some of whom are probably acquaintances of only a few hours. As a rule, L.I.B. attracts the kind of people for whom the choice is obvious.
Overall, it’s a little bit Burning Man, and a little bit Coachella, capturing the best elements of each with just the right balance of participation and spectatorship. You don’t need to bring everything you need to survive for 96 hours, but the more you carry with you, the happier you’ll be. Unfriendly, Los Feliz-based wellness influencers weren’t present in huge numbers, and the dust was at a minimum. You can party until 4 a.m. or later, or you can be up with the sun — not mutually exclusive approaches, to be fair — to attend yoga or workshops with titles like “Earth Democracy” or “Empath: Intuitive Readings as Performance Art.”
L.I.B. is simultaneously for people who treat their body like a temple and for people who treat it like a dead mall where the anchor tenants were Mervyn’s and Circuit City.
Muddy and fresh-smelling, Day 1 of ‘Lightning in a Puddle’ meant a lot of wandering to get the lay of the land, which, framed by mountains, was undoubtedly prettier than Lake San Antonio, which is basically a reservoir for Monterey County agribusiness. Most of the stages remained intact from years past, with The Stacks replacing the Pagoda. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t done with us yet, and in the middle of Dirtybird phenom VNSSA‘s afternoon set, the headset brigade nixed everything and urged people to seek shelter. If you’re not a California native and you miss summer storms, it was electrifying to see the breeze stiffen. But it was also a false alarm, and everything was back to usual.
The back-to-back sets of Escapade (a mini-supergroup consisting of Walker & Royce and Ardalan) and Shiba San from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Woogie constituted a programming block that set the template for the rest of the weekend. Incidentally, Walker & Royce had effectively kicked off L.I.B. 2018, and at the same stage. The unmistakable bass line of Shiba San’s “Okay” is enough to get elevate the party into the ionosphere.
Afternoons at the Woogie, one of the more compact and visually stimulating stages, are ideal — and not just because you can run over to the lake and cool yourself off as needed. (There are misters, too.) During Doc Martin‘s Saturday afternoon chillout party, people roamed from the bar to the oversized integrated-circuit chip sculpture, then under and among the trees. Hula-hoop artists, art cars, handshakes that pull you into a hug, the act of rummaging around in your bag for chapstick for someone to borrow, getting spacy-feather patterns sprayed through stencils onto your exposed upper arms, the trading of sunglasses that do weird things to your vision — it’s all there. Hardly anyone is feeling particularly well-rested, but everyone is ready for the evening as the heat of the day crests and relents. It’s the most beautiful hour.
As with Friday’s back-to-back sets, S.F.’s own Luttrell and Denver’s Lane 8 own Saturday night at the Woogie Stage. As he has done since time immemorial, The Do LaB’s good friend and frequent collaborator Patricio closes out the night at the Favela. (SF Weekly checked into L.I.B. right behind him, and as it turns out, he drove to L.A. and back several times over the weekend for work. At one point, we saw him backstage with his infant child, keeping hydrated with some boxed water.)
Sunday starts of far mellower. It’s the coolest day, and everyone’s ready for one more push (although more than a few people are grumbling about the intermittent cell signal making it hard to see the Game of Thrones finale. Y’all are in the wrong place.) Jan Blomqvist, plagued by an out-of-tune Moog at Coachella Weekend One, brought his band with at least six synthesizers and tears into one of those magical, two-hour sets that begins during daylight in a nearly empty field and concludes just as it’s almost pitch-black with thousands of people in attendance.
Just as it is on the released-in-three-segments album Disconnected, “Synth for the Devil,” Blomqvist’s mad and moody cover of the Rolling Stones, is certainly a high point of an otherwise expansive and atmospheric set. He isn’t liberated enough to move freely about the stage, but for a guy who’s tethered to a minimum of one instrument throughout, his energy level is pronounced. Anyone looking for a bit of a palate cleanser on the Lightning Stage might have thought they had it in Khruangbin, a psychedelic trio who work out of a barn in a flyspeck of a town in Texas midway between Austin and Houston, but that set morphed into a series of shredding guitar licks from the last 40 years of pop hits, some of them (Spandau Ballet’s “True”) seriously out of left field. Mysterious and totally bizarre, they were the weekend’s No. 1 discovery for more than a few attendees.
At the tiny Crossroads tent, the final set of the weekend belonged to London’s Kerala Dust, who could easily be placed on a double bill with their spiritual twin, Monolink. Then it was time for one last grilled cheese before food service cut off at 4 a.m. on what was technically Monday morning. Lightning in a Bottle had a lot of lightning and no bottles, and it is truly the best festival you’ll ever find yourself at. We’ll see you next year.