A whirlwind of divergent and reverberating energies surrounded the behemoth festival, Lightning in a Bottle, during her 2017 incarnation, an alchemy that made the event’s cultural and artistic achievements all the more remarkable. Venerable LA conglomerate The DoLab is an ever-evolving force of nature — the minds, body, and soul of Lightning in a Bottle — realizing the festival and its ethos and vision into fruition each and every year. With a dedication to art, progressive social movements and justice, community, the environment, yoga, and education that rivals any other gathering of its kind, Lightning in a Bottle has established itself with such impact that The DoLab has pivoted to more contemporary, gen-pop events like their wildly-popular presence at Coachella.
Some chatter in recent times threw a little shade at The DoLab, thinking that its Coachella influence has invaded or pervaded Lightning in a Bottle. One cannot deny the sense of a community’s lowest-common-denominator, or maybe that’s just the radical inclusion that The DoLab mined from its Black Rock City genetic code and inspiration. The assembled twentyish-thousand ravers, hippies, revolutionaries, shamans, ex-patriots, b-boys, and b-girls certainly included some low-hanging fruit, and a brief peruse around the festival grounds revealed more than a few bros and sparkleponies, too. It seemed that the brand-new, shimmering lake filled with water for the first time since the festival has resided in San Antonio Recreational Area made for more than just an oasis in the formerly dusty expanse; it brought people together, along with their floaties and an abundance of good vibes. All things reconsidered, the congregation that decamps to Bradley, CA each Memorial Day weekend for Lightning in a Bottle is among the most compassionate, colorful, vibrant, open, forward-thinking, tolerant, sexy, and enjoyable festival communities that this writer has had the good fortune to enjoy.
The Official Lightning in a Bottle 2017 Aftermovie!
At Lightning in a Bottle, so much can be told and written about the plethora of cross-cultural ceremonies, culinary art, and holistic awakenings. Roaming around the enormous venue, one could simply enjoy all the non-musical options for the duration of the festival and depart full and happy. Among the most treasured and powerful gatherings is around the Sacred Fire, a wonderful communal space for humans to connect, pray, or just be. On the fun and games side of the equation, there’s the Soap Box Derby; giant Skee-Ball; Sitcommune, which is a hip-hop puppet show presented by The Fungineers; late-night speed dating; Highlove Vitality Elixir Lounge, a burlesque/carnival/psychedelic/steampunk/circus elixir bar with live music and dancers; the infamous Amori’s; an interactive lysergic hotel called The Lightning Inn by Imagine Nation; Android Jones Samskara VR experience; and those are just the tip of the proverbial lightning bolt, if you will.
In a sort of controversy that I am neither informed enough nor remotely inclined to discuss (but as a reporter simply must acknowledge, The Temple of Consciousness, a beloved spiritualized, educational space for many years at Lighting in a Bottle, did not return for 2017). There is a deep divide (and legal entanglement) between the brilliant, passionate people who gave birth to the festival and created its Temple. This year, the superheroes of Living Village Culture, along with many other collaborators, unveiled The Compass in place of the former Temple. The results were, in a word, astounding. Look out for a feature on the inaugural Compass at Lightning in a Bottle 2017 from renowned journalist Maria Herrera.
Beyond all of this and so much more, Lightning in a Bottle is still a music festival, first and foremost. And this is Live for Live Music, which is what I do, and why you’re here. Last year my mission was an ambitious one, as I attempted to “review” the entire festival; an exercise in futility as Lightning in a Bottle is too enormous of an undertaking for any one writer or article. Nonetheless I did my best to paint the full portrait, and you can check that out here. For Lightning in a Bottle 2017, I am taking the inverse approach, especially since our trip was short, we raged, raved, and readied ourselves for revolution in all of about 75 hours onsite. Sadly, we were forced to miss most of Sunday; that meant FOMO for flaming hot sets from Naughty Princess, MORILLO, and Bonobo, both the live band and a festival-closing DJ set at the Pagoda Bar. For these aforementioned reasons, and in the spirit of brevity and potency, the forthcoming review is merely one version of an LIB excursion; here is but a smattering of the fantastic music we encountered at Lightning in a Bottle 2017. I encourage readers to seek out the dozens of other accounts of this incredible festival available all across the interwebs.
Thursday night at The Beacon Stage
As Lightning in a Bottle 2017 got going in earnest, there was a flurry of under-the-radar sets that had the dancefloors buzzin’ deep into the evening. Bass culture mafioso ChrisB. (LA) and an-ten-nae (Bay Area) tested new joints in back-to-back sets at Pagoda Bar, a side-stage that saw the cutting edge in low-end theory all weekend long. Yet it would be the new Beacon Stage that played host to a carnival of color and style for a lengthy Thursday night run, beginning just before 7 p.m. with the celestial Yaima and flowing all the way ’til the delectable deep-house duo KMLN pulled the train into elevation station after 4 a.m.. Between those bookends, the Beacon saw three diverse sets forwarded by some of the newest NorCal sheriffs in town. Nevada City world music adventurer Brian Hartman threw down a global groove with help from Kr3TURE on sax, while the steeziest hip-hop krewe to come through since who knows who, Jumpsuit Records phenomenon Ultimate Fantastic, showed and proved with a slammin’ live set, stealing hearts like thieves in the night. However, consensus would have the night belong to the man they call Aabo. The Oakland-based producer/multi-instrumentalist Aaron Bortz continued to stay three steps ahead while laying back in the cut with his feet on the dash. The future is bright for this fresh talent who slayed on opening night. On Friday evening at The Beacon, a similar cast of NorCal characters showed up to support and sit-in with Jumpsuit’s resident vibeologist saQi, as frequent collaborators KR3TURE, Pharroh (of Ultimate Fantastic) came through, along with Nevada City style queen and femcee Deva Carolina.
Climbing Poetree, Friday afternoon at the Lightning Stage
Over several performances, crowned by a powerful ceremony on the main Lightning Stage, revolutionary hip-hop goddesses Climbing PoeTree reached deep into the hearts and minds of those assembled. Spitting flows fantastic, educating and elevating with potent themes of awareness and justice, co-creators Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman made their presence and messages felt with hip-hop authority through multi-voice spoken word, beats and rhyme play, along with a hybrid live band throwing the urban riddims alongside world music. Vocalist Gina Breedlove brought an element of royalty to the proceedings — a humble yet commanding stage presence regal in voice and spirit. These wonder women were augmented by keyboardist Kevin Njikam, Audiopharmacy’s Teao Sense (musical director, DJ, multi-instrumentalist), Desirae Harp (vocals), and killin’ drummer Ahmed Regab. Zena Carlota played the kora, and Ross Plunkett trumpet. Berkeley-based activist/musician Lydia Violet sang beautifully, plucked clawhammer banjo and coaxed tear-jerking tones from her violin.
CharlesTheFirst, Friday afternoon at the Thunder Stage
Psychedelic bass grommet CharlesTheFirst‘s ascent to the proverbial big time has more than just his name in lights; it could be described as rapid, meteoric, and most definitely deserved. The young Jedi took the decks on a splendid, sunny Friday afternoon and delivered a confident set that was rich in his trademark atmospherics, with hip-hop cadences and rumbling roots underneath subaqueous synths and sampling — a British woman whispered of being lost, but she knew nothing of our descent. A transfixed Thunder Dome trusted this touched sonic philosopher to navigate this vessel as he saw fit; we followed Sir Charles on a ravenous run through a forest with no name. Key track: “Versicolor.”
Elephant Revival and ORGONE, Friday evening at the Grand Artique
Nederland, Colorado folk family Elephant Revival put on a glorious performance at The Grand Artique, over in Frontierville — a cowboy town revisited. The group’s ornate instrumentation was a welcome respite from the gobs of EDM bass droning into the sky, and their vocal harmonies soared majestic throughout a set that included covers of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. Immediately following, LA garage-funk stalwarts ORGONE stormed Frontierville and sauntered through a spicy, sizzlin’ set of 70s smooth grooves. Despite the absence of founder/guitarist/swag institution Sergio Rios, ORGONE soldiered through and sent us off for sunset with a slug of the vintage.
Barclay Crenshaw, Friday night at the Thunder Stage
Last year, it was Jamie XX who came out of left field and socked me good (admittedly, I had been living under a rock). This year, that holy shit! set came courtesy of one Barclay Crenshaw. The kitchen-sink alter-ego of Dirtybird mayor, Claude Von Stroke, Crenshaw detonated the Thunder Stage on Friday night with a chunky set of bangers. Leaning heavy on the golden-era of NYC hip-hop, Crenshaw flipped Busta Rhymes’ ginormous “Woo-Hah, I Got You All in Check” over the iconic DJ Premier’s nebulous, neck-snappin drums and sample chop (Funk Inc.’s “Kool is Back”) on Jeru the Damaja’s 1994 classic “Come Clean.” I mean…. Seriously?! Respect to the dude for bringing the ruckus twenty years later, as he continued the Big Apply bully squad with blends from A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, and more. He mixed in originals too — electronic-leaning rap music from his self-titled debut LP. Later, Crenshaw deviated into some lush, jazzy jungle of the same 90’s era, a smidgen of Bukem breaks and Cujo styles. There were trunk-rattler 808s and booty-bass rollers that would see Masta Ace reborn, and Barclay winked at footwork and juke but never gave up the digits. To bring his magnanimous set to a close, Barclay Crenshaw did the unthinkable: he cued up the everlasting Slick Rick narrative “Children’s Story,” released on Def Jam back in 1987. Thirty years! The cops ‘n’ robbers action flick gone nursery rhyme was older than two-thirds of the kids raging the Thunder Dome. No remix, no edits, not a bell or nary a whistle. This DJ played the OG record, and let that shit hoo-ride out into the night, and then he rat-a-tat-tatted, and all the peeps scattered. On the straight and narrow, our soul was cast.
TroyBoi, Friday night at the Thunder Stage
British trap-warlord TroyBoi and his “world fusion trap hybrid” was among the most anticipated sets for many at Lightning in a Bottle 2017, and the teeming masses that showed for his just-after-midnight marauding at the Thunder Stage were clearly ready to rumble. The bombastic bloke’s set was a futuristic fury of colossal drum patterns and atomic bass, dialing up nuclear tunes from behind the board, then running to the front of the stage to get hype. Mixing in his own “OG,” “Grimey,” “Du$h,” and “7th Sense,” and utilizing a snake-charming Japanese pan flute in “Sensei,” TroyBoi’s unique concoctions embody the globalization of electronic music on hydroponic steroids. The robust DJ is on record that his heart and now his home, are in the States, and Troy has been taking a deep dive into the U.S.’s bottomless well of Black Music history. This was evidenced with “Wallz,” a juicy jam based off Michael Jackson’s swaggadelic “Off the Wall,” three minutes of hyper-sexualized heaven. With collabs from dubstep emperors Flosstradamus (“Soundclash”) and Dirty South hero Waka Flocka Flame (“Too Turnt Up”), TroyBoi was deep in these streets and had the kids wylin’ out with a reckless abandon that would have even the cagiest ragers quivering in their LED Air Yeezys.
Saturday morning, as I ambled homeward bound in a blissful, if somewhat dissociative malaise and the purplest of hazes, just before the sun rose, I stumbled upon the most grandiose, theatrical karaoke stage and studio one could ever imagine. After Dark Karaoke was the Disney World of karaoke joints, and was literally under a bridge downtown. Shout out to the dude who, at the stroke of 5 a.m., donned the requisite pink apparel and attitude and mighty-morphed into Harlem hero Cam’ron. A circus-tent Cameron Giles spit a method-acted perfect rendition of the Dip Set champion’s huge call-and-response hit “Hey Ma!”, complete with his honey in the front row answering every “I smoke” with its “me too,” every “let’s slide” with its requisite “alright.” Granted, they had the words right in front of them, but still, they sure as hell got it on toniiiiiite!
Late Saturday night, on a similar wander’bout though of different geography, we came upon a full-blown rap cipher going down in the middle of town. I recognized one of the emcees voices immediately: Jackson Whalan, who is no stranger to a freestyle battle or a SNAG situation. Whalan was in the company of emcees Narayan from Zion, J Brave & Guido from Luminaries, conspiracy king Truth Now, and the beats and rhymes were powered by a bikrophone sound system (bike powered) pedaled by none other than the ubiquitos Cello Joe. Members of this very same rap krewe were on hand when Guayaki hosted a hip-hop throwdown Sunday at sundown and the Yerba Mate masters played host to the essence of the culture in a peculiar, if not perfect, location.
deLphi, Saturday afternoon at the Lodge
Sometimes you find the spot, the vibe, the soundtrack and the krewe in the tiniest spaces when the lightning strikes; such was the case for deLphi‘s simmering set on Saturday afternoon. Tucked into the cozy confines of the former village, Nevada City’s ethereal empress returned to her rightful place, lording over the people and weaving sexy magik for the West Coast dancefloor shwirl. Super steezy in her special lane, salacious 90’s R&B over future-fresh bass textures, deLphi built a steady head of steam with one banger after the next. Some of the jams that still stick out in my mind: Phoreyz’s luscious short-pause edit of the dearly departed divine dimepiece Aaliyah and her sensual sayonara “Rock the Boat,” former Bonobo siren Andreya Triana’s “Gold” (Fakear remix), The Polish Ambassador’s rewiring of Blackstreet’s omnipresent come-on “No Diggity,” and the mighty Mos Def’s early, hungry, verbose gymnastics on “Habitat” off his classic solo debut Black on Both Sides. Badd, badd gyal, deLphi was keeping it thorough; look out for madame and her forthcoming mixtape Love Notes.
Sunset Spanking, Saturday evening at Favela Bar
This annual disco-house swag-a-thon is on my personal can’t miss Lightning in a Bottle itinerary each and every year, and for good reason. The resident servants-in-swerve are Lovelife/MusicIS4LOVERS OGs DADON and Jimbo James, and these fellas now-legendary sunset joyrides at the Favela Bar are fantastic voyages guaranteed. This year would be no different, as San Diego invaded the Brazilian ghetto with a packed neighborhood hoe-down and a jammin’ dance floor wave of deep house and disco funk, a merciful fate from the deepest of crates. As the sun raced over the horizon, we popped our collars and strutted our stuff, beckoning the arrival of one more Saturday night live.
Dimond Saints, Saturday night at the Thunder Stage
I was first introduced to Dimond Saints in the live element at Lightning in a Bottle 2014, where they torched the now-defunct Bamboo Stage with the promise of a new tomorrow. I declare with conviction that I have not been the same boy since. Three solar turns further into the abyss, we’ve watched, danced, and shook our collective heads in awe as an-ten-nae and Releece have mined the heart of darkness, leveling up with every high profile performance. This writer has journaled extensively about their live excursions, from Envision to Bicycle Day, Symbiosis and beyond, and I can say unequivocally and without hyperbole that this Lightning in a Bottle set was indeed their finest hour. From the opening notes and gossamer vox of Yaarrohs “Innocence”, the Oaktown voodoo alchemists finally harnessed the sparse percussion, erotic elements, 808 mindstate, and just the right amount of heartbreak. Their future-moon muzik delivered a focused, cohesive vision that was matched in execution; they finally got it all dialed.
Employing the services of Releece’s childhood homie Matt Silberman on sax and MIDI flute, and CL Behrens‘s on bass trombone, the dynamic duo piloted the pilgrimage into the portal. “Hirohito” transported us back to the opium dens with its Persian perfume and minimalist instrumentation, “Way Down” was a deafening dirge equal parts New Orleans and Nostradamus. Reece and Adam brought back a couple beloved edits, “Hard Time” (Seinabo Sey) got mashed with “Sum Luv,” and their third remix! of Lorde’s Tears for Fears cover “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” An-ten-nae’s medicinal mayhem courts the frayed ends of sanity, Releece’s beats the perfect foil; together sharp as “Ginzu” the “Saints” howled “What the F*ck?” at a “Crunk Moon.”
Despite a penchant for the heart filling and emotional (Yaarrohs’ pensive “Find a Way” and ghostly, longing “Stay”), it would be their larger-than-life take on Kendrick Lamar’s colossal “DNA” that “destroyed” Lightning in a Bottle. “They got dark, and then got evil, It’s inside their DNA!“ Dimond Saints reminded us all with a ten-ton sledgehammer that they still can uncork blood-curdling cannon blasts of conscious anthem-trap, when they find themselves with a few extra f*cks to give. The Saints and their squadron were rewarded with an eruption they won’t soon forget. With that, these Oakland avengers theatrically unmasked, embracing their vulnerabilities, writing the first notes of their next chapter, and boldly revealing themselves as the true rhythm stars.
Bob Moses, Saturday night at the Lightning Stage
Immediately following the Saints séance, we hustled to the massive Lightning Stage for the groovy live house of headliners Bob Moses. Originally a minimalist deep-house duo from Vancouver, Jimmy Vallance (keys) and Tom Howie (vox and guitar) have fleshed out their live performance into the realms of rock gods, without sacrificing a sliver of vibe or aesthetic. Having seen them on a recent club tour, I found myself curious about how the enormous scope of this stage and their Saturday night primetime slotting would transmit into their set. This was lost on neither the group or the shimmying thousands who had assembled, and both factions rose to the occasion with hella pomp, given the circumstances. With the addition of powerhouse drummer Joe Zizzo, Bob Moses has successfully transmutated into a full-fledged band, their meditative deep-house ocean dives spiraling into fits of arena rock bombast. From the opening jam “Like it or Not”, to the early era’s reflective reverberations within “Far From the Tree”, the duo plus Zizzo mainlined the vibe from a loaded-rig dripping in sultry. Highlights from this raging rock concert of four-on-the-floor frenzy included “Days Gone By,” “Winters Song,” the haunting gamesmanship within “Grace,” and the swaggering hit single “Tearing Me Up.” Nothing but pride and admiration for the fashion in which these boys have navigated Mt. Zeitgeist, and damn if they don’t look real cool doin’ it, too.
Kaytranada, Saturday night at the Lightning Stage
Somehow, we mustered up the intestinal fortitude required to rage the final stage of this night’s legendary Vibe Olympics. The stretch run arrived in the form of Kaytranada‘s ninety-minute, slow’d n’ throw’d journey into the bountiful bosom of House n’ B. The Haitian-born (by way of Montreal) “Dilla of House” managed to up the ante, delivering a fun yet ferocious dance party of prodigious proportions. Beginning with “Despite the Weather”, an orgasmic slab of stutter step electro rare-groove, Kaytranada was a sorcerer of smooth, unveiling one luscious slow house heater after the next. Rihanna’s “Kiss it Better” and Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl” were souped up with vital ingredients and given the Kaytra treatment. The homie brought the CHI-town vibes with some Roy Ayers and had a look through AlunaGeorge’s “Kaleidescope” taboot.
As the set pulsated its way into the night, Kaytranada was nothing if not careful about having “One Too Many,” but a “Meditation” led to otherworldly “Vivid Dreams.” Funky guitars and a First Ave groove unleashed half-time arpeggiated analog synths — this was a “Breakdance Lesson” ten thousand strong. By the end of this mouth-watering set of the sexiest music heard all weekend, just about every last dancer looked like a pharaoh. The mad scientist manning the decks must have seen the same, because he forwarded a titanic version of the Anderson. Paak collab “Glowed Up”, a herculean housequake that threatened to decimate the entire premises. In a classic example of last night a DJ saved my life, Kaytranada last-responded with a flamethrower; calling out to rhythm nation and the ghost of The Ummah alike with his torrid, damiana scented remix of Janet Jackson’s tantalizing come-on “If.” Lightning in a Bottle may tout itself a Leave No Trace event, but as the sexy trifecta of Dimond Saints > Bob Moses > Kaytranada came to a close, there were more than a few pairs of panties dropped, strewn about the lawns as far as thine eye could see.
Too Many Zooz, Saturday late night at The Grand Artique
The remaining hours were but a blur of sound art, movement, and colors in the void. New York City subway kings Too Many Zooz enthralled a capacity crowd at The Grand Artique beginning at 2 a.m. going nearly til the morning. If Manhattan 50’s hard-bop hit a base pipe, scarfed down a muffalata in New Orleans, and then beamed to Berlin’s Love Parade, that would possibly hint at the artistic intestines of Too Many Zooz. For almost two hours, the trio of Leo Pellegrino (baritone saxophone), Matt Doe (trumpet), and David “King of Sludge” Parks (drums) brought their aggressive brand of brass-house and sonically cyber-bullied their way into Frontiersville, sending every last reveler home happily tarred and feathered.
Vokab Kompany, Saturday late night at Amori’s Casino and Burlesque
At the tail end of this adventure, a tradition like none other scored by the avant-garde and hosted at a mecca of progressive, psychedelic culture, we happened upon a late-night, speakeasy burlesque casino. The joint was outfitted with a live music venue and fine dining, its inhabitants partied deep into the night. The proprietor and establishment’s namesake Amori was a balloted mayoral candidate in Los Angeles. Vokab Kompany, a San Diego live hip-hop krewe, torched a packed Amori’s til the wee hours. Bringing a decade-deep catalog of poignant, emotional raps and funky, bass-heavy EDM jams at a transformational music festival in Northern California. Vokab Kompany, fronted by emcee/vocalists Matt Burke aka Burkey Baby and Robbie Gallo aka Rob Hurt, are a definitive SoCal institution, all the cool, genuine parts of Linkin Park rap-rock chemistry, and devoid of the Hot Topic queso. The amber-hued energy and sophisticated Spicoli surfer-steez called to the ghosts of Bradley Nowell and Andy Irons. Vokab Kompany was powered by a robust backing band; Vikingo Burkhiser (Bass Guitar), Tyler Olson (Drums), Geoff Nigl (Keyboards), Jesse Molloy (Sax), and Richard Galiguis (Guitar) were nothing short of a clinic in synergy. A perfect resolution to an epic ten-hour stretch of dancefloor adventuring and human connection.
Brian Hartman, Sunday afternoon at Favela Bar
Nevada City, CA is home to many a superb selectah, yet Brian Hartman brings a special brand of blessed. When I first encountered him, he was pretty entrenched in playing choice, succulent deep house. Over the past four-ish years, Hartman has renewed his fervor for live instrumentation and world music of interest to him in his halcyon days discovering music, then back-burnered a bit as he settled into a certain lane. Travels around the globe to perform at a diverse array of music festivals has brought his focus back to world music flavors, and it has revolutionized his sound and setlists, making him one of the more in-demand DJs in the region. Boy, can this man move the crowd! On a beautiful afternoon at Patricio’s phenomenal hang Favela Bar, Brian Hartman returned to a perch he knows quite well.
On the final full set I took in at Lightning in a Bottle 2017, the NorCal dance floor arsonist found that perfect balance, that delicate ratio of bliss to bump that he’s been seeking. Between the global riddims and cross-cultural consciousness, Hartman delivered a soundtrack intertwined with the sensual, frenetic energy, and bottom-end oomph inherent in his (former) blend of deep house. Yet he sacrificed little world music aesthetic whilst pushing the subs with authority. Like Dimond Saints the night before, Brian Hartman finally got it all dialed in, and the people responded purposefully and vigorously — the only way we know how.
Big thanks and gratitude to Lightning in a Bottle and it staff, volunteers, and tremendous community. The artists, the speakers, the chefs, and the tweakers, you are what makes this festival flow. The DoLab, please don’t ever change — the Flemming brothers’ dreams and dedication are appreciated and celebrated, all the way around the globe. Respect.
Photos: Alyssa Keys, Karl Baba, Michael Roush, Eric Jon de Leon, Krauss, Juliana Bernstein, Jacob Avanzato, Sherman Wellons