Naked Underneath a Liquid Sky

Lightning in a Bottle 2017 is, simply put California’s best summer music festival.

I went to Lightning in a Bottle half-expecting a rehash of Coachella, and what I found was something akin to a dry-run for Burning Man.

“Dry-run,” that is, except in one crucial area: There was water for the first time in years, as Lake San Antonio had been refreshed from our rainy winter, so the bridges that connected the various stages and camping areas no longer went over dusty gulches. The Central Coast music and art festival, staged by The DoLab and sorta-kinda located in the town of Bradley, Calif., took full advantage of nature’s bounty. It was warm-but-not-too-warm every day — except on Friday night, when a mist arose from the lake’s rushy inlets.

But more importantly, it was probably the best music festival I’ve ever been to: less expensive than Coachella, less subarctic than Outside Lands, less oppressive-in-every-way than Bonnaroo, and with longer set durations that mean less frantic running around. Even though I camped on a south-facing slope and the greenhouse effect drove me out of my tent by mid-morning, I’ve never had so much fun on Memorial Day weekend. If you picked up an eight-pack of buns and went to a barbecue to listen to some John Philip Sousa marches instead of chilling by the Woogie Stage, you made a big mistake, buddy.

A charismatic guy fronting an otherwise all-female band, NoMBe — Noah McBeth — was the rare LiB act that could almost fall into standard pop-rock. The 26-year-old Angeleno is a prolific recorder who mostly drops songs one by one on the internet, slowly but surely accruing a fan base. That flexibility allows him to be more protean than the average bear, sounding like Jimi Hendrix here and channeling the xx there, and burning through some chord structures that wouldn’t be out of place in an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack. And, as on “California Girls,” McBeth is totally, unapologetically unafraid of guitar solos. (See SF Weekly’s interview with McBeth here.)

Backstage at Eagles & Butterflies (Peter Lawrence Kane)

I’ve seen RÜFÜS three or four times since their extraordinary set at Coachella 2016, and every time, they blow me away yet again. Simply put, there is something about this Australian trio that connects with audiences in their amygdalas or whatever the deep-seated section of our gray matter that we inherited from hedonistic lizards is called.

One solid method of categorizing acts at a DJ- and EDM-heavy festival is to separate them into people whose music you’d only listen to live — or recorded versions of their live sets — and people whose records you’d stream. RÜFÜS is firmly in the latter category, yet they built layers upon layers into tracks from 2016’s Bloom — like “You Were Right” or “Brighter” — to give super-fans something to go to pieces over. As ever, the climax was the nine-minute album-closer, “Innerbloom.” If you were lucky enough to float away on a chorus of “If you want me / If you need me / I’m yours” then you know how special it really was.

I could have left after RÜFÜS’s set and gotten my money’s worth for the weekend, but the dearth of neighbors and noise ordinances means that there’s plenty more action after 2 a.m. A walk through the Favela Bar — always the ideal meet-up spot once backup phone batteries are depleted — and a detour by way of Amori’s Casino and Burlesuqe for some delightfully random, avant-garde theater, and suddenly I found myself atop Meditation Lookout, awaiting a very chilly sunrise with some dedicated neo-pagans. By the time I fell asleep, I’d been awake for 24 hours.

Bass Tracks
Saturday began with a hilariously half-assed soapbox derby, in which half the D.I.Y. vehicles couldn’t even make it down a course lined with hay bales. Maybe the guys driving the Coors Light-clad Silver Bullet and the team behind the car shaped like a banana were only pretending to break into a brawl, or maybe it got a little serious for a second, but the crowd ate it up. I was rooting for the dude in the tiny cop car, anyway. He ate it in the grass.

Although Eagles & Butterflies sounded outstanding — and he knows how to rock a T-shirt that looks tailored — Saturday’s truly unconventional act was Brass Tacks, an eight-piece that sounds like Chicago (only without the cringing). With a trombone player and a trumpeter, it’s a unique set-up, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for them to close out on RL Grime’s “Tell Me.” At full volume, a trombone’s lower register has the impact of one of those 1980s Maxell cassette commercials where the guy in the living room chair gets nearly blown backward from the sound.

Bob Moses (Michael Roush)

Bob Moses
Allegedly named after New York City’s master planner — an egomaniac who built bridges and stadiums and who once proposed driving an elevated expressway through the Empire State Building — Vancouver duo Bob Moses does not want for confidence on stage. Their slick darkness is a great counterpoint to all the California sunshine, but unfortunately something was off about Bob Moses’ levels, and the bass cracked my sternum and shattered both of my femurs. I thought we were in a bad acoustic pocket in the crowd, but it was a pretty widespread conclusion. After opening with the nothing-short-of-haunting “Far From the Tree,” they cruised through “Tearing Me Up,” but that was it for me.

But back to that California sunshine: Monolink’s set in the Woogie at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday was the zenith of soft, afternoon light. All the better for him to play “New Morning,” in fact. All the people floating lazily on rafts came back ashore and must have trampled the grass just enough to eject the right amount of dust into the air, and when it was time for “Burning Sun,” Monolink managed to get that most elusive reaction: a hush. “I dreamt I had a dream out in the desert / Lying naked underneath a liquid sky / I had no past as time was moving backwards / Just the burning sun reflected in my eye” never felt more bewitching.

I saw Bonobo several months ago at the Fox Theater in Oakland, and his set suffered from the same problem as several of Coachella’s main-stage acts, in that it wasn’t sufficient to fill the space and the audience felt listless. His LiB set wasn’t hugely different, leaning heavily on Migration, but maybe a crowd that’s — shall we say — considerably less dance-averse was all he needed. It started out mellow, almost like a tonic, but then it got very, very big.

Bassnectar was almost too hot to handle, with tons of people shuffling and then completely going off to a set bursting with white light and 2000-style drum-and-bass, but rather than head back to Bonobo’s 2 a.m. DJ set, we made for the Favela Bar for L.A.’s Patricio instead. Too climactic to be a come-down, he opted to keep things at full strength for two solid hours. The pressure’s on for the last act of the festival to send you to happily into your dreams, and one good way to do it is for someone to cover all 15 minutes’ of Pachanga Boys’ “Time.” A song that works just as well at 3:30 a.m. as at 3:30 p.m., it was of the essence.

Beyond that, I sailed away on a massive float that could easily accommodate 20 people, saw mimes on stilts skipping double-dutch, stood mesmerized before foot traffic coming in and out of a gem-toned gateway made of translucent tetrahedrons, and only lost a single pair of borrowed sunglasses. I twerked for Satan with a dude whose sign said just that, my Facebook friend count went up by well over a dozen, and I took pics facing backwards on a ferris wheel just after the sun went down. You can’t actually bottle lightning, but you can have it strike you again and again and again.

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