By Phil Merkow and Jennifer Larsen Merkow / Photos by Phil Merkow
Orange County’s Irvine Lake was transformed into a living, breathing wonderland from May 28-31 as Lightning in a Bottle descended upon the pastoral lakeside setting of Oak Canyon Ranch in Irvine, Calif. Formerly held in Santa Barbara, the festival’s new location is just miles from the gated communities and suburban lifestyle of Orange County. LIB lit up the days and nights with music, art, workshops, and some of the most mind-blowing people-watching this side of Burning Man. Security was relaxed, space was plentiful, we never saw a line form anywhere, and in our 3 days we never quite figured out where the official entrance to the fest even was. An estimated 90% of the 5,500 or so festival attendees camped on site and gave themselves wholeheartedly to transforming the OC into something all their own.
The Do Lab, which you may know from Coachella or other major festivals, produces, hosts, and curates the three-day Lightning in a Bottle festival. The three stages and other art installations they built were incredibly fanciful and otherworldly. Made from recycled and renewable resources, the stages were as durable as they were imaginative. Looking out on the festival grounds felt like walking into an alternate reality, with the festival-goers adding to the circus-like wonderland atmosphere. With nearly everyone donning their most outrageous fuzzed out, steam-punk, and rasta chic outfits there was no shortage of eye candy.
In an interview with Rawkblog which will run in full next week, Festival Executive Producer and music programmer Jesse Flemming described headliners Booka Shade as the biggest music act that the fest has yet booked in its existence. The group’s Arno Kammermeier and Walter Merziger took the stage looking the part, too, donning sleek headset mics and leather (pleather?) jackets. They tore through their set of warm and steady Kraut grooves, seemingly designed for an ultra club like the Avalon with their brightly angular pop star sheen. The main stage sound mix was both pristine and heavy; I would soon realize the same would go for all 3 stages.
One of the greatest surprises of the weekend came from a group totally off my radar. EOTO is Jason Hann and Michael Travis of the Bonnaroo-friendly band String Cheese Incident. The spin-off is their totally improvised dubbed out breakbeat side project. The live drums and jerry-rigged beat pads were used and abused till a sonic eargasm worthy of Low End Theory’s famed back patio was conjured. Dance music that was as dynamic to the eyes as it was the ears! These dudes move from drum to gadget with the confidence that only comes from the sort of endless touring they have endured.
Although the biggest acts and crowds were at the main stage, the slightly smaller Bamboo stage hosted some of the liveliest scenes of the weekend. LA’s Mad Hatter of electro, Daedelus, always has new tricks up his sleeve and his sheer mastery of the monome is of legendary proportions. Each one of his sets play like a storm of schizophrenic snowflakes raining down into the open mouths of the audience, whose jaws have undoubtedly dropped to the floor. He is incredibly gifted at playing to his audience, on this occasion queuing up some newer deep house audio cocktails featured on his stunning new Dublab Future Roots mix. The masses could not be contained and the front of the stage was quickly enveloped by dancing feet. All the energy from the impromptu soul train session was great, though I couldn’t help but feel for the folks who would be missing the storm of dramatic button pushing at the heart of Daedelus’ allure.
Next up on the Bamboo was Mimosa, fresh from his much hyped Coachella and Low End Theory sets, solidifying his spot as a contender for the next URB Magazine coverboy. While his stage energy surpassed any unique sonic accomplishments, the crowd was still locked in for every warped blip and beat he served up. To be fair, Daedelus is usually billed as the final act of the night for a reason — most any attempt to top him is futile.
One of the more high profile acts of the weekend, The Very Best, became so caught up in their egos that they threw a wrench in the breezy vibe of the weekend. They repeatedly barked orders at the obviously competent sound mixers to “TURN IT UP!” Dead set on poaching the massive crowd across the lake, the The Besties neglected their existing crowd and came off as whiney jerks out of touch with the harmonious air blowing across the grounds. They eventually manned up and ended on a high note, opening the flood gates and allowing the crowd to hop on stage for a Girl Talk esque dance party to their mashup hit with that dude from Vampire weekend via pre-recorded vocals. They finished their set with an awesome remix of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” and, finally, everybody felt the love. Perfect for the last night of the festival.
The Glitch Mob closed out the festival on the main stage with their newly buffed-up live set, fleshed out with drums, guitars, live key tickling and countless tech toys. Incredibly ambitious with passion and showmanship that sucked me right in. The crowd swelled to a size seemingly double that of any previous act. So contagious was the energy, a transfixed wandering singer even joined (uninvited) to “help” the trio out with some backup vocals. These guys play the Music Box in Hollywood on Friday and I would not be surprised to hear it sells out before then. A big moment for them and Lightning alike.
The accompanying visuals featured on huge screens across the ranch added greatly to the experience, as did countless sculptures, and paintings being colored to life throughout the weekend. These paintings and a New Belgium bicycle were all being sold and auctioned to help fund Sonic Muze, a non-profit organization that helps supply musical instruments and art supplies to local schools in need.
The fest left me inspired and enchanted with the hope that the festival planners of tomorrow were wandering the fields amongst us taking stock of the countless details that add up to equal a brilliant event.
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