Lightning in a Bottle (LIB) returned to San Antonio Recreation Area for a third straight year over Memorial Day weekend, serving as that perfect hangover cure for those still suffering from their post-Coachella blues.
Last year, we asked whether the “transformational” festival was undergoing a transformation of its own by shedding its boutique label to go mainstream (read the review here). Now, after paying another visit to Bradley, Calif., the answer to that question appears to be even clearer than before with LIB selling out once again, this time more than a week in advance. Vanessa Hudgens, no less, showed up!
But for as strong as this year’s artist lineup was, not everything went off without a hitch. In fact, there were enough logistical nightmares and bad vibes — believe it or not — to keep us from coming back next year.
So, with another edition of LIB in the books, here are our best and worst moments from 2016:
Best: Emancipator Ensemble
Portland-based musician Douglas Appling, better known by his stage name Emancipator, has been fusing hip-hop-flavored beats with downtempo electronica ever since he started writing his debut LP Soon It Will Be Cold Enough while attending the College of William & Mary. And in many ways, he’s still cooking up that same sonic recipe that borders on post-trip-hop with violinist Ilya Goldberg by his side, although it’s with his ensemble members that we get to see Appling serve as more than just an electronic music producer. At his Friday evening set on the festival’s main stage, Emancipator set the tone for the rest of the weekend, grooving to tracks from his latest studio album Seven Seas with a guitar in hand and a full band at his disposal, much like we saw at The Regency Ballroom last fall (see more photos from that show here).
Worst: The weather
Sitting more than 200 miles north of Los Angeles, San Antonio Recreation Area once again proved to bring hot days and cold nights to LIB. With temperatures peaking in the mid-80’s during the day and dipping into the low 50’s at night, adjusting to such a drastic change in climate is never easy, especially when you’re forced to brave the outdoors by camping in a dried-up lakebed. Whether you were sweating profusely or shivering in your sleep, it was nearly impossible to ever feel comfortable with the weather at LIB.
LIB has always leaned heavily on electronic music while assembling its lineup, but in more recent years, the festival has also found room to include eclectic, female-fronted indie bands. Last year’s example was Poliça, the Minneapolis five-piece led by vocalist Channy Leaneagh. This year’s case in point was Rubblebucket, the more obscure, yet upbeat Brooklyn alt-dance outfit fronted by Annakalmia Traver. Playing very close to the same time slot on the Lightning Stage as Poliça did the year before, Rubblebucket, nevertheless, got festivalgoers moving after a scorchingly hot day in the sun, setting the bar for the rest of Saturday’s lineup as day turned to night. What makes Rubblebucket such a catch is their horns section that’s made up by Alex Toth (trumpet), Adam Dotson (trombone) and Traver (saxophone), who knows how to charm a crowd with her quirky stage banter.
Best: The Russ Liquid Test
Russ Liquid (born Russell Scott) broke onto the scene back in 2013 with his debut LP Foreign Frequency on STS9’s 1320 Records, fusing jazzy saxophone lines over dance beats much like Colorado livetronica duo Big Gigantic, who also performed at LIB this year, do for a living. But his “Test” set on Sunday at LIB was particularly special, as he stepped on the main stage with guitarist Andrew Block and drummer Nick Mercadel flanked on either side of him. The New Orleans trio laid down one funky groove after another for an hour and a half, at times sounding reminiscent of GRiZ, another electronic producer now based in Colorado who has featured Russ Liquid on his record label’s mix series titled “All Good Radio.” We weren’t all that familiar with Russ Liquid’s work prior to arriving at LIB, but his performance certainly intrigued us enough to want to hear more.
With another sellout bringing more than 20,000 people to Bradley, LIB felt just as crowded as last year — something we never experienced at previous locations like Oak Canyon Park and Lake Skinner Recreational Area. After all, it’s no secret that part of the reason why The Do LaB settled on San Antonio Recreation Area was the fact that it could accommodate more “festies” and therefore, could sell more tickets as a result. But from a consumer’s standpoint, there are obvious drawbacks to that philosophy. Waiting for a shower, for instance, took as long as 2-3 hours depending on what time you got in line. Many of the food vendors had significant lines, taking as long as 15 minutes just to place your order. No one likes waiting in line in 85-degree heat, especially when your phone can’t get service. Part of what made LIB such a nice change-of-pace from Coachella was the sheer lack of crowds, but it was only a matter of time before big business won out, right?
Easily the most anticipated set of the weekend from this spectator’s vantage point, Moderat hadn’t toured since dropping a pair of EPs in 2014. But with the release of its third full-length album, aptly titled III, the Berlin-based supergroup comprised of Apparat’s Sascha Ring and Modeselektor members Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary were primed to make their mark on the final day of LIB — and that they did. Beginning with “Ghostmother” off their latest LP, Moderat ran through a good chunk of new material, but nothing ignited the crowd more than their new single “Reminder”, which remains one of our favorite songs of the year so far. As we witnessed a few days earlier in Los Angeles at The Fonda Theatre (read our show review here), the group’s dark, minimalist stage setup with psychedelic flourishes paired nicely with Ring’s ethereal vocals. Of all the other performances throughout the weekend, Moderat’s 90-minute set undoubtedly stood as one of the brightest moments of LIB 2016.
LIB has been tabbed as the “Greenest Festival in America” over the last five years, though you might not have known it while looking at the grounds this year. With the festival’s attendance numbers reaching an all-time high, trash has increasingly become a bigger issue at LIB. Sure, it’s easy to blame a bunch of inconsiderate festivalgoers for littering and not picking up after themselves, but a big part of the problem is simply a lack of trash cans and dumpsters near the stages and in the camping areas. Furthermore, LIB’s “pack it in, pack it out” motto just isn’t realistic at this point with the amount of attendees. Maybe that’s the reason why after leaving the festival, trash was spewed all over the street. We’re glad The Do LaB tried their best as they told us on the way out, but sometimes trying your best, especially after you’ve been running the same festival for more than a decade, just isn’t good enough.
Best: Chet Faker
I remember first learning of Chet Faker more than a couple years ago while researching the 2014 LIB lineup for this preview. At the time, the electronic-leaning singer-songwriter from Australia had yet to release a full-length album, which makes it all the more crazy to think that he has already reached festival headliner status in a little more than 24 months since then. But over that stretch, from his two-night run in LA at The Roxy Theatre to last year’s performance at FYF Fest, Nicholas James Murphy has grown his live show tremendously. There’s no question the full band setup has been the right call, affording the 27-year-old Melbourne native the opportunity to breathe new life into songs from his lone LP Built on Glass (read our review here), such as “Melt” and “Gold”. Yet, with only one studio album under his belt and a few festival headlining spots in 2016, including the spring edition of CRSSD Fest back in March, it’s just amazing to think where Murphy could go from here.
Worst: Leaving LIB
If the crowds and trash at LIB weren’t enough to leave a sour taste in your mouth by the end of the weekend, the disaster that ensued in the parking lot after the festival definitely was. Since I started attending concerts and music festivals years ago, I have never seen a bigger shitshow than the LIB parking lot by 9 a.m. on Monday. Taking five hours (yes, you read that right) just to leave San Antonio Recreation Area proved to be the ultimate test in patience for me as well as thousands of other festivalgoers. Of all the worst moments at LIB, this easily took the cake, so much so that after five times attending, this very well could have been my last.