The best way to describe last week’s Lightning in a Bottle, held at the Buena Vista Aquatic Recreational Area, is not as a festival but as a destination.
I went on Saturday and I found it a funky, positive, immersive experience that only got more engaging — and sprawling — the more I explored it. It was a lit-up, cross-culture, counterculture bohemian Disneyland; bold and transformative, and as lingering and colorful as glitter.
For all the negativity and hand-wringing prior to the event, there was very little drama at all, if anything I got a true sense of abundant community. Within the first five minutes of entering, I got high-fived by a young woman for no reason at all, passing by a stilt-artist dressed as a colorful griffin while some great music was playing. This is as good an analogy for the whole event as I can think of.
Attendees were all smiles and in various colorful states of dress and beach-like undress to best deal with the Kern County heat that was thankfully muted. The only evidence of Thursday morning’s rain were the occasional small pools of water in the dirt.
Every age was well represented and all eras of music as well. I saw entire families there. And for a forty-something like myself having plentiful seating located around the grounds — including huts, benches and even mats to lie down on (shoeless, of course) — was a boon.
Bakersfield resident Noelia Citialin, who has been to almost every Lightning in Bottle since its inception, said she was happy to cut down on travel time.
“(The biggest difference) for me, personally, was to have it 30 minutes from my doorstep, which normally I’m spending hours getting there, which was always worth it," she said. "(And) of course having my child there, my 7-year old child. This was the most special LIB for many reasons. I’m still in the clouds.
“To see when everybody starts howling when the sun’s coming down, and as you’re hearing the howls you can see the lights start coming on gradually. So you get to not just see but feel the transformation from day to night.
"I told (my son) Lucier, I actually said this to him, ‘This is the playground for adults. This is the playground for Mami y Papi but you get to play in it too.’”
There were the several main stages, each with their own vibe. Inside and in between those, there were many smaller activities to participate in. Including a makeshift roller rink compete with the requisite disco ball, spaces for meditation or yoga, an area with motivational holistic speakers, as well as various open mics happening throughout, making participants out of the spectators.
There was even a “Lightning Without A Bottle” area for those wanting to enjoy the festival without sacrificing their sobriety.
Rows of vendors were lined up throughout the grounds (with matching rows of ATMs as well) as well as a healthy variety of food was there to sample — locally represented by Vida Vegan — and truly something for every taste. I haven’t seen so many different varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches for sale since I visited Portland.
A singer on the Beacon stage said it best: “This is like a New York-Oakland-Portland mashup.” She might as well have added Paris, because once the sun went down the festival really came to life, not to mention being able to witness a beautiful view of Buena Vista lake at sunset.
At dusk, all of the random erected art installations, both big and small, started to light up, illuminating the dark recreation area into a hazy, multi-colored playground, kind of like a funky, freaky Kern County Fair. It also made maneuvering through gopher holes in the dark a bit less tricky.
If some of LIB's calmer areas reminded me of the rustic, elven middle-earth from “Lord of the Rings” then the Thunder stage was straight-up Thunderdome. Think of Zion from “The Matrix.” The dance floor was consistently full, moving and unstoppable. The mood only got more intense once the lights — as well as massive outer black lights — turned on. It was controlled, ecstatic pandemonium.
The highlight of Saturday, by far, was Santigold on the headlining main stage, Lightning. She was a revelation. Rising Appalachia, who performed earlier that evening, was also a wonderful discovery.
Flanked by two dancers, and backed by a keyboardist and a drummer who switched off on guitar and DJing, respectively (at one point, both playing the drums), the Philadelphia-based singer was fierce and pitch-perfect; her brand of hypnotic dark astro-synth pop compelling and magnetic. No one was immune to her.
At one point, she invited the audience to get closer to the stage and jump the metal barricades positioned at the front of the stage and they gladly did so, ending up with a huge crowd of people dancing on stage and dancing on the speakers.
Once they all got offstage by the next song and the roadies tried to figure out how to fix the barricades (solution = sledgehammer). Santigold, thrilled by the reception and even giving Bakersfield a shout-out said, “You guys are crazy and amazing.” She was right.
As for the cost, tickets weren’t cheap ($185 to $430 with RV and onsite camping going between $150 and $3,030) but if you thought of it more as an investment in memories than a concert ticket, it makes more sense.
This is a world-class global event that stopped here, in Bakersfield. That’s huge. I honestly hope it comes back, since the convenience of it being here cannot be emphasized enough. I think it would be a truly great time for those open-minded enough to understand that what some find weird or freaky shouldn’t necessarily have a negative connotation.
And that’s really the biggest takeaway from it all: We’re all different, we’re all unique and we’re all in this together. That’s something we all have in common.