I WAS TRULY IMPRESSED WITH THE LINEUP FOR LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLES 19TH INSTALLMENT- HOWEVER, I’VE ALWAYS REGARDED “TRANSFORMATIONAL FESTIVALS” WITH A CERTAIN DEGREE OF SKEPTICISM. In a super-saturated market of festivals with an ever growing corporate presence, I always thought that adding a transformational element to a festival was just one more clever way of accessing the wallets of young “burning man yuppie” types.
I didn’t agree that personal development could be bought, bundled in with the price of a wristband. I’ve been skeptical of the consumerism that has taken over the festival scene since I first saw Father John Misty play Sasquatch, making tongue in cheek references to Twix candy bars on the stage named after them.
However, I had only heard good things about Lightning In A Bottle, and Sasquatches flop of a lineup threatened to fragment my festival groups annual reunion. A friend of mine from California, sensing my curmudgeon-like hesitance to embrace the weekend said to me,
“It’s just a big party, Chris. A big party that happens to also have yoga and workshops. You can make it whatever you want it to be”
Hearing that was enough for me to at least temporarily suppress my stubborn ways. I bought the ticket, assembled the crew, packed my bags, and made the long journey from Minneapolis, MN to Bradley, CA.
Thank god I did. LIB turned out to be one of, if not, the best weekends of my life (and I’ve had some pretty wild weekends).
Upon arrival, jovial staff greeted us with “Welcome to Lightning in a Bottle, we are humbled by your presence”. I began to suspect that there was something different about this festival. When we finally landed in our campsite, I stepped out of the car and looked out onto the landscape, surveying the grounds.
photo by Alyssa Millikin
The festival site is expansive, to say the very least. Lightning in a Bottle hosts a number of stages, each distinct not only in the sounds that emanate from them but in the architecture and feel. This is because the festival employs artist experts to create the spaces, so the stage-builders vision shines through (quite literally, I may add- you can watch the sunset through the Thunder Stage walls).
photo by Madison Koufos
Another really awesome part of the festival’s layout is the fact that camping is interwoven throughout the festival grounds. The stage areas are definitely separate from the camping areas, but there are spots that are situated closer to the stages, areas tucked into the hills, or down by the lake.
This gives you a better sense of having a little community surrounding you. As opposed to one massive field block of tents, it also made navigating the campgrounds and finding friends camping areas a lot easier. It also made going back to your campground much less of a hassle. If you forgot something, you wanted a fresh drink, or you just needed to decompress for a moment- you didn’t have to worry about an hour-long line to get back into the show.
What makes LIB really unique is all of the extrasensory experiences it provides. The venue is a giant playground for adults and kids alike.
It’s full of crazy structures that anyone can climb (at their own risk). You can play giant skee-ball on a huge boat landing. There’s a constant puppet show, a speakeasy bar, or an old west style bazaar to hit up if you find yourself with extra time on your hands. If you dance till your muscles ache, but your brain is still awake- no problem- go sing some Karaoke under a bridge, or hit up the late night speed dating. Duh…
Because of all this, I found myself wandering and discovering- rather than hurrying and stressing. I missed some shows I wanted to see- oh well. I made it to some sets I never would have known I needed to show up for. I found myself dancing like a fool at the Woogie Tent on more occasions than I would have ever expected.
I realized that I understand why people find release in house music. I’ve always found it boring and repetitive. This was until I found great catharsis in its deep progressions, in the way it shifts and breathes like a living creature.
I found that house music turned me into a completely different creature myself. As it turns out- I just wasn’t ever listening.
Usually, if I were covering a festival, I would focus almost solely on the music itself: I would be writing about how Elohim projected equal parts euphoria and darkness. I would be writing about Brasstracks commanding the audience at Lightning to lose their minds as the sun began to sink into the desert horizon. I would be writing about Minnesota making me proud of my home state, and annihilating unsuspecting crowd members with explosive bass, or about stumbling upon Bomba Estereo’s electrifying tropical electronic rock and roll by dumb luck.
Photo by Alyssa Millikin
All of the above statements are abundantly true. The music at Lightning In A Bottle was on point, to say the least. However, instead of being the focal point of my memorial day weekend- it played out more like a soundtrack. When I listen to the songs that saw played over the weekend, I think back fondly on the memories that I made with old friends and brand new friends.
Music tells these stories for me, but it’s the stories that made LIB a life-changing weekend.
On the penultimate day of the festival, I lost my group of friends almost immediately after meeting on mediation mountain for the exact purpose of grouping up. As someone who suffers from mild to at times severe anxiety, this would usually cause me a degree of stress. Losing your friends at a huge festival with 25,000+ people and really bad phone service can be a scary situation.
Losing your friends at Lightning in a Bottle, it turns out, is an invitation to meet new friends. It’s a call for adventure.
So instead of heading back to camp and waiting for my friends, I made my way down to the water, as if by instinct. There, I settled down at a small pagoda near the Woogie tent, surrounded by strangers. I looked around and realized that I was completely calm. Not just calm, but happy to be in this spot, all by myself. Then, looking out onto the water, I was encompassed by a feeling of gratitude that I had never felt before. Some of it had to do with where I was, but mainly, I was realizing that, for the first time in a long time, I am happy to be where I am in life.
At that moment, I legit started crying tears of pure joy, which I can’t remember ever happening to me before. A kind and perceptive stranger near me sensed that something was going on with me. After asking permission, he embraced me warmly. I was having trouble putting into words exactly how I was feeling, but I let him know that I was having a “good cry”, and he already knew that. It turns out I really wasn’t by myself. It was powerful.
I ran into these kinds of interactions between humans just about anywhere I went last weekend. While LIB is a place where a person can indulge just about any hedonistic endeavor one can imagine, it’s also a place where people look out for one another. That manifested itself in countless offers of water or sunscreen, in hugs and in light shows, and in conversation and, above all else, laughter. One late night, I brought a big bag of grapes into the festival, and fed them to strangers, unable to control my giggling as I told each person “hey, man, it was so grape to meet you”.
As much as I attempt to capture its essence on this page, I could never do it justice- the aptness of its name is not lost on me- and had I been focused on capturing it rather than experiencing it while I could, it would truly be my loss.
Lightning In A Bottle isn’t a music festival as much as it is a celebration of life and love and beauty and silliness. It’s a flash in the pan- a completely singular experience. Inimitable, it almost becomes it’s own little universe, if only for five heartrendingly short days. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. When I hear my friends talk about Burning Man, or Symbiosis, etc. and how much “it changed their lives”, I’ve always scoffed.
One of the many new friends I made over the weekend told me, shortly after we first met, that I was one of the most “aggressively positive” people he had met. I took this label and ran with it for the weekend. After the festival, when we reconnected over drinks in Hollywood, I had to admit to him that it wasn’t necessarily true. That’s when I realized that the only person holding me back from being that person all the time was me.
Lightning in a Bottle helped me find a better me, one that was always there.
It’s a never-ending process, but I left Lake San Antonio with a new sense of myself- someone who cries tears of joy. Someone who dances to house music. Someone who feeds grapes to strangers and laughs until it hurts. Someone who wears glitter to excess. Most importantly- someone who doesn’t care about what the negative little skeptic within has to say about all of it.
Featured image by Madison Koufos;