It wasn't the booming sound, that sent powerful waves through your pores every time the bass hit.
It also wasn't the alluring art, from mind-bending paintings and sculptures, that seemed to follow your wandering eyes as they danced around the festival.
Nor was it the exceptional performances, by envelope-pushing DJs, bands, and resilient dancers who visibly spilled every piece of their hearts into the music.
When I sat down to speak with the co-founder of Lightning in a Bottle Festival, Dede Flemming, I asked him what it was - what is it that truly makes a 'great festival'? Was it the variety of activities, the yoga and art? Was it the top-notch sound, lighting, perhaps the eclectic lineup?
No, it wasn't the "spectacle" that makes it a success, he told me. "It's the people that come. Your audience."
I was initially surprised by his answer, after researching how much effort The Do LaB puts into their festival production, specifically with the grandiose 5-day event that is Lightning in a Bottle. With all the talent and meticulously hard work that the performers and producers bring to the event, I would never think that the most important thing about making a great festival is the spectators.
Yet as I explored the massive grounds of LiB 2015, bag packed, boots strapped and camera in hand, admiring the thriving atmosphere and positive energy that surrounded me with every step I took.... I realized what the festival creator was talking about. The magic that has made LiB so special lies within the participants, who bring warmth, excitement, and adventure into the experience.
It's as if The Do Lab planted a seed with their creative vision into the ground, forming roots that spread out to various spiritual, environmental, and artistic organizations. These "grassroots" organizations, along with the promoters, provided the foundation for a magnificent tree to grow (the festival), while artists, musicians, performers, yoga teachers, made up the sun that shone over the seed and gave it nutrients (talent) to flourish.
Yet the missing element that replenishes all life is water -or in this analogy, the people. Without water, the tree cannot grow.
"I've been to a lot of shows that were a spectacle, they were mind- blowing. And the audience was kind of... bleh." Flemming explained to me. "They were looking around, unamused, under-stimulated, desensitized, and they're not just letting themselves go and enjoy it. Then you have this void where the festival is missing its soul."
At LiB, you can see that the people are not mere spectators. We ARE the soul of festival. There would not be a Lightning in a Bottle without these people that make it what it is, and you can notice it in three aspects that are unique to this event: the movement, the beauty and the adventure.
From watching the videos and pictures of LiB beforehand, I perceived it to be a fun weekend full of creative music and art, with a strong spiritual vibe. What I didn't expect was the enormous movement that the people bring to the event.
As I ventured toward the Temple of Consciousness, I witnessed the amazing work people are doing to help our planet and further our society. While speakers provided the platform for discussion and wisdom, the audience contributed by sharing their ideas and progress toward global issues.
To list some examples, at a talk on permaculture, a young man told us his progress in starting organic food forests to help end hunger as a non-profit. At a different panel that essentially discussed steps to preserve the human race, "Toward Regenerative Society", someone in the audience suggested we use Facebook as a tool for providing useful information to its 1.8 billion users, to fully incorporate these efforts into our daily lives. Around the corner, people were brainstorming ways to influence social change in their hometowns at a leadership panel. I don't think I've ever been so impressed with a crowd at a festival.
The point is that LiB is much more than just a party; it's a breeding ground for some powerful, powerful knowledge that can and will change the world. The Do LaB and the San Antonio Recreation Area provide a safe sanctuary for learning about important universal issues, problems, and potential solutions, but the people that come are truly the backbone of the movement, as they practice these changes throughout the year, beyond the festival. It wasn't just a bunch of people listening or watching, it was a collaborative effort from the audience, and it's awesome that this culture of knowledge and change is continuing to spread and develop.
In short, I really felt like I was part of something meaningful, even though I probably only scratched the surface of the festival schedule. As I left, I felt extremely optimistic about the changes that individuals are making, and started thinking about how I could contribute in my own way.
Another unique aspect of LiB that the people bring is the ability to create your own adventure. Never in my life, in daily "reality" or at a music festival, have I felt so free. Forget about your plans for the day; you're going on a journey!
The adventure can begin in the main area of the festival, or at the campgrounds -because it's all the same. Once you're in, you're in.
Wander off with a pal to Oasis camp, and you'll find some renegade stages, perhaps one that's complete with a living room, couches, and a DJ spinning all night. Maybe you're not a night owl -go do some sunrise yoga at the corner of Namaste camp, breathing, moving and reflecting in peace. Venture off towards the Learning Kitchen to taste and understand how to make organic desserts.... buuuut you run into your friend who pulls you over to the Grand Artique, where you find yourself square dancing and trading stones for jewels. Walk into the front row of the Thunder stage, while there's still space in the daytime, and just close your eyes and let the bass overwhelm you. Get a break from the mainstream and grab a drink at Favela Bar, running into the Desert Hearts crew, and perhaps you don't leave for 3 hours. Join the HeART Walk mid-way through and listen to studio artists talk about what inspires them. Sit on the edge of Meditation point at sunset... and just sit.
"We wanted people to have an experience that was more than just music," Flemming told me, when I asked him about the The Do LaB's mission. "We're creating these other worlds that we lose ourselves in." With a dozen campgrounds spread across the massive venue, and several unique areas and stages within the festival's center, The Do LaB truly fulfilled this vision.
If you haven't been to Lightning in a Bottle, you might assume that you can create your own adventure at other festivals - which may or may not be true. But in my experience, the difference between LiB and other festivals is like the contrast between a playground and a carnival. At the carnivals, you are watching a spectacle, waiting to be entertained, buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume. At the playground, however, it's just a bunch of structures, until you use your imagination, your body, gather some friends, and label it your pirate ship. (Or, slam a speaker on top of that pirate ship and blast drum n' bass until 5am, whatever floats your boat.) In a sense, it wasn't your typical "music festival"; perhaps better terminology would refer to it as "creation land" for dreamers, artists, thinkers, dancers.
I would give some advice to fellow 'Libbers' - take some time to wander off alone (assuming you're safe and prepared). Not only is there a lot to do at LiB, but there are so many people to meet that have incredible stories, that come from all over. Part of the adventure is joining other people's adventure, and if you're alone, you'll likely be thrust into a group who tag you along. More importantly, you can stay as long as you want or run off to a distant land. Again, I've never felt so free in my life.
It's important for a festival to leave you wanting more, if they want to be successful in coming years. That being said, even if LiB was 365 days a year, you could always choose a different adventure.
Photographers, beware - walking into Lightning in a Bottle will give you sensory overload. There are just way too many beautiful things, people and moments to take pictures of.
Why is LiB so beautiful? Why did I find myself using the world "beautiful" so often, while I describe other dance music festivals as "crazy" and "insane"?
Perhaps it all ties into what The Do LaB sought to achieve with the shows they first produced fifteen years ago. "It was to put on a visually-stimulating show and performance," the co-founder explained. "We put a lot of the energy and focus on the visual element, not necessarily the musical element."
As you can probably tell from the pictures, The Do Lab's production is strikingly colorful, vibrant, warm, psychedelic. Everything looked like art rather than a structure or a stage. But is beauty only visual? What defines beauty anyway?
Coming back to my point, and tying in with Flemming's, the people that come to LiB bring this creative and poignant energy to the event that creates the "beautiful" atmosphere. Whether it's the voluntary high-fives every time you cross the bridge, the inviting nature at the campgrounds, the willingness to give, give, give and share with fellow Libbers, the thoughtful ideas shared during discussions, the genuine act of 'putting yourself out there' during a class or workshop, the interaction between performers and participants, the impressive creations and stages built at the camps, or simply, the record-breaking amount of smiles I saw in a weekend (smiling at every individual who walks by, not just with friends), I was overwhelmed by the beauty.
Maybe it's the society we live in today, or the fact I'm originally from Los Angeles, city of the "who do you know here?" attitude and self-centered lifestyle, but I'll be honest - I was surprised (and impressed) by the beautiful minds, hearts, and actions at LiB. Although the attendance count neared 20,000 people over 5 days, I saw no foul-play, not even pushing through the crowd. I thought the rave crowd might oversaturate the vibe (no hate, I'm part of the rave community too, but let's be real) but LiB successfully maintained the soul of the festival, the water that makes it grow, the incredible people - whatever you want to call it.
Oh, and I've never seen so many beautiful girls in my life... but I digress...
In conclusion, why is Lightning in a Bottle so successful? Because it is a sustainable festival, and by sustainable I mean it accurately represents what you can and should do every day: learning, growing, creating - whether it be art, music, friendships, thoughts, ideas, business plans, food, communities, or whatever makes you tick - and ending the night with a party.
I didn't feel the "guilt" associated with other festivals that just involve seeing which one of your friends can dance for days straight without stopping, and probably not eating or sleeping either. On the contrary, there was a sustainable system in place that we can apply to our daily life, and it involves drinking water from the earth, eating and growing healthy food, laughing and loving, exercising through yoga or dance, being green (pack it in, pack it out), finding your passion, watching others be passionate, de- stressing (this is a big one), learning about our planet and society, strengthening relationships and spending time in nature. Unfortunately, LiB is not 365 days a year, but you can apply these practices beyond the festival.
This festival is precious, a shining, glimmering star in a dark universe. We just have to remember - as people - that we are all made of stardust.
Watch a brief video recap by Anissa Cunningham: