Why is it that, in the case of music festivals and events, some experiences easily fade into the abyss of forgotten moments in our minds, while the marvelousness of others can continue to grow clearer with time? Is the quality of the event’s musical offerings the one true factor that defines the way the experience is imprinted in our memories? Or is it the crowd and the people we experience it with? Maybe it’s the venue and production? Or maybe it’s a combination, and those special events that embed themselves in our memories as the most gratifying are the ones that are able to tap into excellence in all these areas.
This certainly seems to be the case with transformational camping festival Lightning in a Bottle, which over the past several years has solidified itself as a favorite for many West Coast festival addicts. The dance music weekender, produced by Do LaB (the team behind the eponymous musical structure at Coachella), descends upon the shores of California’s Lake San Antonio during Memorial Day weekend each year, bringing together an eclectic mix of underground scenesters, Burning Man disciples, and neon-clad kandi ravers.
While at other festivals these cliques couldn’t seem more at odds with each other, LiB’s extensive program of music, art, local vendors, and family-friendly activities—all set amongst the backdrop of Do LaB’s iconic structural aesthetic—result in a sense of cohesion and seamlessness not found elsewhere. Further, these offerings are responsible for the formation of LiB’s own unique festival culture, which has grown to encompass some of the best qualities of the aforementioned groups: the musical intellect of the underground, the promotion of self-reliance and sustainability rooted in Burning Man, and the colorful friendliness of California’s thriving rave community. All were on full display at this year’s LiB, ensuring that the festival’s 2018 edition will be remembered as one of the top events of the season to date.
Although the festival officially began on Wednesday afternoon, the bulk of LiB’s performances and activities ramped up on Friday after most attendees had arrived and settled. Despite the arduous task of setting up camp, which was made more difficult this year due to uncharacteristically strong winds and moody security staff, festival goers were full of excitement as LiB’s three main stages—Thunder, Lightning, and Woogie—kicked into gear. Do Lab organizers seemed to expect this: the musical programming for Friday was by far the most upbeat of all three days. At the house and techno-oriented Woogie (a cult favorite within LiB’s confines), Dirtybird mainstay Will Clarke quenched the crowd’s thirst for party tunes with a mix of sample-heavy tech house bombs. Across two bridges at the Thunder stage—which came to life this year as “Wapiti,” Do LaB’s newest and most frenetic structural creation—Bay Area-born producer and Counter Records signee Giraffage dropped a fusion of disco and trap while the sun disappeared behind the distant hills.
By nightfall, swaths of electronic pop lovers were gathering at the main Lightning stage to catch a performance from crossover duo Sofi Tukker. While the Ultra act’s two sold-out shows in LA the week prior were met with acclaim, their LiB performance was marked by collective feelings of mediocrity; even the duo’s ridiculous(ly) popular song “Best Friends” seemed too relaxed for Friday’s crowd. Back at the Woogie, funky-house pioneer Purple Disco Machine played the first of many highlight sets of the weekend, blending fresh gems like Disclosure’s recent “Ultimatum” with nostalgic tunes such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s iconic “September.” While the set was an ideal precursor to the lovely tapestry of techno and disco woven by The Black Madonna, the real focal point of Friday evening was Modeselektor’s closing DJ set at Thunder, which opened with Vril’s “Torus XXXII,” released on Giegling sublabel Forum. The Ninja Tune duo’s appearance was some of the most forward-thinking, intense music we’ve ever heard at LiB, distinguished by extended emotional breakdowns and deliciously mind-melting bass (standout tracks included Jon Hopkins’ recent album cut “Emerald Rush” and the FJAAK remix of Missing Channel, Robert Hood, and Claude Young’s “Onslaught”).
On Saturday, the overcast weather of the previous evening had shifted, making way for clear blue skies and smooth, crisp beats. Teeming groups of attendees (“LIBers” as they’re often affectionately called) gathered at the rocky shores of Lake San Antonio for some rest and relaxation before the day’s festivities, donning massive popsicle and bird-shaped floaties and gulping beer. One glance at the convivial lakeside atmosphere induces an immediate appreciation for the festival’s venue and surroundings, with Do LaB’s simple yet detail-oriented structures complementing the beauty of the site. By around four in the afternoon, the energy at the stages had already kicked into high gear. Mira, a resident at Berlin's Kater Blau, serenaded crowds at the Woogie with a low BPM, groovy mixture of evolving melodic house cuts. Over at the Favela Bar—a quirky after-hours spot curated by Southern California selector Patricio—Dadon and Jimbo James, the minds behind LA-based blog Music Is 4 Lovers, dropped a satisfying journey of minimal tech house. The LA duo’s slot proved to be the perfect segue into a set from Yotto back at Woogie, with the Finnish Anjunadeep favorite displaying a powerful mastery of progressive house mixing and production (the forthcoming Yotto track “Katsu” was especially thrilling as the golden hour ensued).
Next, at the breezy, cloth-draped Lightning stage, German live electronic act Monolink’s performance was a huge improvement from earlier West Coast appearances, but still not at the level of other indie crossover projects like Bob Moses or Jan Blomqvist. Back at Woogie, Canadian DJ/producer B. Traits whipped the crowd into a frenzy with an eclectic set of exuberant techno dotted with old school rave elements. Patrice Baumel followed with a deeper, more impressive sound than the big room vibe we’re used to from the Amsterdam-based producer and DJ—this was perhaps due to his focus on setting the tone for Saturday’s closing act, MOOD Records boss Nicole Moudaber. Despite Moudaber’s reputation for all-encompassing explorations of smooth, metallic techno, her LIB appearance felt disjointed and out-of-place, sounding more like a broken dishwasher than a techno set from a seasoned, heavyweight DJ. The musical quality of the night, however, was saved by a surprise back-to-back masterclass in melodic techno from Patricio and Patrice Baumel at the nearby Favela Bar, where loaded, totem-holding LIBers gathered around Subtract’s hard-hitting Danley system until the music ended at around four in the morning.
Sunday’s arrival brought rising temperatures and a blazing sun, resulting in lakeside revelry well into late afternoon. Oona Dahl helped jumpstart growing crowds during her set at the Woogie, with the All Day I Dream affiliate exhibiting a penchant for diverse selections not often seen in melodic-leaning circles. The reliable YokoO came next with a euphoric set of deep house before French pioneer Rodriguez Jr. delivered a solid performance (fast-paced edits of 2016 track “Mistral” and Baobab album cut “Monticello” were notably good.) While hoards of LIBers cleared Woogie to catch Zhu’s closing set at Lightning, Stimming capped a weekend of stellar tunes with a virtuosic live set of glitchy, emotional electronica.
All in all, the musical programming was top-notch throughout the whole weekend; not only did organizers succeed in the diversity of the festival’s bookings and the quality of the sound at each stage, but their attention to timing and scheduling was also on point.
A quick look back at the lineup for 2018’s Lightning in a Bottle Festival indicates that Do LaB’s 13th annual edition was not meant to be the festival’s most memorable or spectacular. Bookings from the likes of The Black Madonna, Stimming, Modeselektor, and Sofi Tukker were all solid and reliable choices, but not even close to the level of last year’s program, which included globally-renowned heavyweights like Richie Hawtin, Stephan Bodzin, Sam Gellaitry, tINI, and Kaytranada. Despite this, the LA-based production house demonstrated that for LIB, having the most stacked lineup is a nice feature but not always necessary. As long as there is substantial care and thought placed on the festival’s musical offerings, activities, production, sound, and venue—factors obviously important to Do LaB—a diverse, energetic crowd will converge and a great weekend will ensue. Upon reflection, it’s clear that all these elements played key parts in forming the wonderful memories of 2018’s Lightning in a Bottle; memories that, instead of fading or blurring, will actually ripen with time.
Photos by Jess Bernstein and Marko Prelic.