Why Lightning In a Bottle Made Me Question My Undying Love of Mainstream Music Festivals

Photo by Connie Ha

I’ve never been what you’d consider a “hugger,” but it was around the fourth person I greeted with an embrace at Bottlerock Napa Valley over Memorial Day Weekend when I realized Lightning In a Bottle had rubbed off on me. That’s bound to happen when you squeeze two festivals with epically different vibes into one scorching holiday weekend.

Festival atmospheres are intoxicating and addictive — people swathed in all things flowy, sparkly and colorful, ready to dance to sweet beats swirling through the air; the immersive environments full of choose-your-own-adventure mystery; the fact that everyone is free from the slog of work; the lights and lasers blooming across the night skies. It all creates those vibes, man – the collective effervescence that we carry from festival to festival, and on to enrich our daily lives.

For years my life consisted of festivals of strictly the musical type. Lots of people clustered in fields worshiping deities on stage, double-fisting drinks, roving in packs from one stage to the next on the hunt for the next lineup gem. The vibes are the music, and that’s more than alright. I’ll take my music nerdiness to the grave and I’ll always go to a festival based on its lineup, first and foremost. But when transformational festivals came into my life – namely via Lightning In a Bottle (LiB) last year — the vibes were on a different wavelength. Not better, and certainly not worse. Just in a different stratosphere.

This year I got an Early Arrival pass for LiB, which was brilliant. Without the distraction of the music pulling me from Thunder Stage to Woogie Stage to Lightning Stage and back again, I zeroed in on the parts of LiB that place it on the bleeding edge of festival culture — things like the first night’s heart-opening cacao and sound-healing ceremony, or the huge and zany Rube Goldberg machine hidden amongst trees that looked like it was constructed by carnies. The late-night karaoke and movies in one of the ravines, the high-octane Frontierville realm full of overall-ed performers stomping their feet and singing epic Dust Bowl bangers. The dance parties and racy-but-tongue-in-cheek burlesque shows at Amori’s Burlesque & Casino. The serene Meditation Lookout, filled with talismans and chill spaces lovingly placed atop a hill overlooking the festival. The Gong Sanctuary, where festies could gather into the night and feel whole from soundwaves. The brain-itching workshops at the mighty Lucent Temple of Consciousness and Mystery School, where you could learn about anything from Conscious Eating 101 to Balinese Monkey Chants. The Village, a series of sun-filled canvas tents containing an essential oils learning lab, a sanctuary space, and a Witch’s Hut full of healing tinctures, among other zones. And that barely scratches the surface of all the gems that pepper LiB’s dusty grounds.

Although I missed all of the main musical offerings at LiB, I left with my head full of ideas, and memories of more sights and sounds I knew how to make sense of. My festival booklet became so dogeared and dirty it looked like an ancient map used by seafaring pirates to locate buried treasure. By the time I rolled into Bottlerock (which, compared to LiB, I would lovingly describe as basic) I had LiB’s vibes pulsing through my veins.

How did Lightning In a Bottle influence my experience at Napa’s music festival for the masses? Let me count the ways.

I Hugged

Festies at LiB. Photo by Juliana Bernstein

As I said off the bat, I don’t go in for an embrace immediately upon meeting new people. I’m not stiff or awkward or anything, and I’ll certainly hug if the other person initiates. I’ll just rarely, if ever, be the one to lean into someone I don’t know. But the fact that “I Hugged” is a big deal, because it speaks to how widespread embraces are at festivals like LiB, and how they act like the glue that holds festies together amidst the chaos. They slowly start to feel like second nature, an instinct, even to non-huggers like me. Handshakes are scarce here and hugs between strangers go a long way in erasing the whole “strangers” part of the equation. That is why festivals like LiB are known for their super accepting vibe. People meet in a warm embrace, walls go down, and collective effervescence is achieved.

I Craved More Than Just Music

A workshop at LiB. Photo by Jacob Avanzato

Music will always be my number one. But when you’re at a music festival, you’re in between bands you want to see, and you’re fresh off the transformational festival boat, suddenly, standing in a field drinking with your friends until your next favorite artist takes the stage sounds…boring. When you find yourself in those in-between moments at a festival like LiB, there’s no dearth of stuff to do. You could attend part of a workshop, have a reiki session, play giant skee-ball, or watch an artist live-paint. You and your crew might even get so delightfully lost in alternative programming, you forgo the music altogether. Isn’t that what festivals are for? To feel like you’re living in a choose-your-own-adventure book come to life?

I Drank Less

Festies at LiB. Photo by Juliana Bernstein

This is where Bottlerock and Lightning In a Bottle truly diverge. The idea of drinking is literally woven into the name of Bottlerock, while LiB’s atmosphere doesn’t really lend itself to a desire to have an alcoholic beverage in your hand at all times. In a word, hippies. I definitely imbibed at Bottlerock — it’s hard not to when A) you have access to any sort of VIP bar, and B) there’s world-class wine and top shelf this or that everywhere you turn. But in remembering how amazing it feels to not be hungover and have to trudge across blazing hot festival grounds, I never got buzzed enough to suffer the next day. Of course, different strokes for different folks, but I was pretty stoked to discover the joys of festivaling without the omnipresence of alcohol.

I Shared Newfound Knowledge

The communal fire pit in The Village at LiB. Photo by Andrew Jorgensen

In the midst of my wanderings at LiB I came upon The Witch’s Hut, an airy, canvas den full of tinctures and tonics, and festies gathered to learn about the powers of each one. The ladies who ran the booth asked me what my needs were, as well as answered all my bumbling questions about what each ingredient did. Enchanted by the healing powers of plants, I walked out with Brain Tonic (for daytime alertness) and Goodnight Mind (for insomnia, basically). Fast forward to Bottlerock a few days later, and I had babbled so much about my new tonics that I was dosing my friends with the Brain Tonic by day, and with the Goodnight Mind by night. It felt amazing to share something new I’d learned at a festival — where my usual end game has always been to simply party hard to music I love.

I Ate Better

Delicious food at Bottlerock. Photo by Brian DaMert

To be blunt, LiB is rife with hippies. To be a bit more refined, LiB is rife with progressively minded people who know how to fuel their bodies deliciously, and in a way that benefits not only themselves but the planet, as well. Put simply, LiB hosts awesome food vendors who serve fare — tagged with descriptors such as “high vibe,” “ahimsa,” vegan, gluten free, soy free, dairy free, etc — that is so good it made me almost dread the bone marrow laced burgers and gourmet fried chicken n’ waffles I knew lay in wait at Bottlerock. Beyond taste, LiB’s food made me feel light. Invigorated. Tuned in. Tuned up.

Lydia’s Organics’ Raw Coconut Curry Special. Photo by author

Bottlerock is a gourmand’s playground, tailored specifically for those who define “eating better” as eating the most mind-blowingly tasty food around, no matter what its aftershocks might entail. “Featuring more Michelin stars per capita than any other wine region on the globe, it’s no wonder that many regard Napa Valley as a must visit region for its culinary prowess…” boasts its website. I kept far, far away from the bone marrow burgers, but what tastebud-less heathen would say no to woodfired pizza? I sure didn’t. As soon as I gave in, my carb-comatosed mind drifted to the Lydia’s Organics tent and the raw Coconut Curry Special I fell in love with at LiB just a few days before, which had me more focused and energized than coffee.

It’s not often I’d squeeze two festivals into the same long weekend, but doing so with events with wildly different vibes reiterated that festivals aren’t for just one thing: partying. Tap into the vibe of a festival and learn. Allow those vibes to help you ditch your comfort zones. Offer yourself a chance to grow. No matter the festival experience, whether it’s targeted towards wine-drinking moms or hug-hungry hippies, we can take the lessons we find from each one and share them at the next — starting, of course, with a big, fat embrace.

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