If you build it, they will come.
That’s not just the substance of Ray’s hallucinations in Field of Dreams. It might as easily apply to Lightning in a Bottle Music and Art Festival, though the “they” to which this gathering appealed did a lot more than just come to California’s Central Valley. The crowds that assembled for the latest edition to Lightning in a Bottle (LIB) gave the festival its flavor and color while proving that its latest site could serve as something above a passing fancy.
LIB is an event of many hallmarks, but stability hasn’t been one of them. The 2019 edition brought LIB to its sixth different venue in the last 15 years. But that apparently inherent nomadic quality has opened up opportunities for the event to grow and improve in different ways through the years—just as it did in 2019.
Though the late change in venue and dates kept attendance under 20,000 people, the Buena Vista Aquatic Recreational Area served as a fitting landing spot for those whose calendars and modes of transport allowed them to spend Mother’s Day Weekend in Bakersfield.
Gone were the arduous treks across undulating hills from the campgrounds through the festival. Instead, navigating from place to place required little more than a leisurely stroll along (mostly) flat surfaces next to a lake filled with giant unicorn flotillas, festival-goers cooling off amid the daytime heat and, at night, fire dancers entertaining passersby on the beach.
More importantly, the new venue comfortably accommodated everything that makes LIB, in all its seemingly annual transience, a fixture of West Coast festival culture.
Ritual prayer? Check.
Killa Dillas? Check.
Talks about feminism through clean water, the science of sound, plant medicine, and the morality of combating climate change? Checks all around.
Film screenings, long and short? Check and check.
Food workshops on granola, taco salad, flowers and fermentation? Check, check, check and check.
More Dillas? You already know.
Drum circles? Dream hacking? DJing tutorials? Basket weaving? Knife sharpening? Bookbinding? Body painting? Japanese marbling? Crochet? If you can imagine it, you can probably do it at LIB.
And if none of that appealed to you, there was always plenty of music to keep the party going. By and large, electronic dance music dominated at LIB, as it typically does—with Flying Lotus adding in an element of psychedelic art with his 3D backdrop and Disclosure paring down for a DJ set. But while feet-bewitching DJs like Opuio, CharlestheFirst, The Polish Ambassador, Jan Blomqvist, Axel Thesleff, Luttrell, Lane 8, and Damian Lazarus, there was still ample room throughout the festival for acts across the sonic spectrum.
There were those who mixed EDM with a bit of live instrumentation, like Monolink’s surprise set on Thursday night, Gramatik’s highlight of Friday night, and BIG GIGANTIC’s gaggle of bangers on Saturday night. There were spectacular instrumental outfits, from the Fungineers and Frameworks to the unshakable grooves of Khruangbin. There were indie-oriented acts like slenderbodies and Toro y Moi, along with captivating vocalists like ELOHIM, Santigold, and FKJ, who guested during Masego’s set. And for those feeling a mix of Latin rhythms and hip-hop vibes, there was Ozomatli’s party-starter on Sunday.
The most important element of all, though, was the audience. That’s not to blow smoke up anyone’s alley, nor is it to state matter-of-factly that there would be no LIB without people to pay for tickets, schlep their camping gear to farm country and dance their way through up to five days of activities. Rather, it’s to point out LIB’s greatest strength: the opportunity it presents for people watching. Colorful hats and headgear weren’t just abundant in their sheer variety and visual stimulation—they were included on the festival’s official “Pro Packing List.”
Totems of all shapes and sizes—including bubble-blowing lamps, Pickle Ricks, Owen Wilsons and wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men in miniature—stole the show. Colorful party buses, palatial tents and meme-stamped flags filled the campgrounds (and guided some weary revelers home). And when night gave way to day and the waters warmed, the lake swarmed with people swimming solo from shore to shore, canoeing through the afternoon, and lounging on rafts as large as living rooms.
Indeed, for LIB to live up to its reputation as a lifestyle festival requires a panoply of people to do the living in every which way. To that end, LIB’s fans delivered (and then some) with a communal experience that was unified by a diversity of activity—one that celebrated the essence of humanity, with all its virtues and vices.
Now that this singular spirit has proved that it can not only survive, but thrive in its latest location, Lightning In A Bottle would do well to keep building its fantasy camp for daydreaming adults in the heartland of California—and many more festival lovers would do even better to come.