Trevor S. Lawson co-authored this article and significantly contributed to my Shambhala experience!
Shambhala Music Festival is on another level when it comes to electronic music events — that’s not up for debate. Over 20 years, the established gathering at Salmo River Valley in British Columbia has blossomed into an experience unlike any other. Those who call Shambhala home anticipated to go especially hard for the milestone event last weekend, as many others traveled to the Canadian raver haven from across the globe for the very first time only to be blown away.
The 20th anniversary event didn’t come without its complications, however. There were many ups and downs as Shambhala and the surrounding area faced the harsh reality of wild fires moving in rapidly. That sobering factor made every moment so precious and the entire weekend even more memorable.
My second Shambhala was one for the books, mainly because I experienced it with my best friends — the same friends who once told me I should travel the great distance to experience it in the first place. This is an opportune moment to introduce my eloquently spoken friend Trevor S. Lawson, a brilliant writer who can describe Shambhala in ways that match my feelings and senses, but exceed my vocabulary. Our experience was pretty much the same considering we were glued at the hip most of the time, so I’ll let him take it from here!
This was our unforgettable Shambhala experience… the story of the ravers’ rain dance!
“We were prepared to party like there was no tomorrow, even if it meant battling the elements.”
The trek from Michigan to the gorgeous Salmo River Valley in British Columbia for the 20th annual Shambhala Music Festival began with great trepidation as we received an alarming push notification from the official Shambhala app: “In the interest of public safety, we would like to inform our guests and the public that there is an evacuation alert near the festival.”
It was deeply troubling to think that the fest, which is in my opinion the best in North America (if not the world), might be cancelled due to the raging wildfires that had been blazing across British Columbia, ravaging the province for months. The possibility that the deeply cherished festival might be adversely affected seemed too surreal. My friends and I nervously exchanged glances back and forth, apprehensively viewing the news of looming fire danger on our phones as we shuffled across the airport to the flight that would take us to Shambhala. We had been eagerly anticipating the 20th anniversary of our favorite festival for some time and we were prepared to party like there was no tomorrow, even if it meant battling the elements.
We arrived at the festival much later that evening to a unsettling sight: the verdant, forested Selkirk Mountains that surround Shambhala at the Salmo River Ranch were obscured by thick smoke, and the overwhelming smell of burning foliage permeated the air. Visibility was reduced drastically by oppressive smoke that lingered low in the valley, and a somber mood had descended upon the Farm.
Festival staff gave us a rundown of the “pre-evacuation” notice upon entry, and they instructed us that we must be ready to leave on a moment’s notice if the nearby McCormick Creek wildfire took a turn for the worse. They calmly explained the need to have a sober, rested driver at all times in case of evacuation. Even still, it went without saying among our crew that we would not let the looming threat keep us from accomplishing our mission of having an amazing experience at Shambhala.
First up, we proceeded to get down at The AMPhitheater stage to the banging beats of um.. and Yheti. We were baptized in thunderous bass as the massive PK Sound subs shook the earth and cleansed the crowd of all our worries. Dancing together with thousands of our fellow revelers, all thoughts of the impending fiery menace were scoured from our minds, and it felt soooo good to be back home at Shambhala.
“Whipped Cream’s expressive face showed a look of disgust as if to say, ‘That shit is naaasty!’ — which, it was indeed.”
The next day, Friday, was the first official day of the festival and the smoke seemed to have diminished significantly. We started our afternoon with an absolutely insane set from up-and-coming Vancouver artist Whipped Cream, a spitfire who enthralled the massive crowd at the AMPhitheater with her uncanny stage presence. She literally bounced around behind the decks, focusing her boundless, perpetual energy straight into the music, which kept the crowd dancing tirelessly. Throughout the set, Whipped Cream’s expressive face showed a look of disgust as if to say, “That shit is naaasty!” — which, it was indeed. The crowd met her on her terms, eagerly lapping up every bass drop. The “go hard or go home” nature of the set easily made it the most unforgettable of the weekend.
As the night progressed, Dirtybird artist Justin Martin lit up the Pagoda stage, which had been remodeled from the previous year, built up to a height that matches its bass. Arguably the most iconic and recognizable of all the stages at Shambhala, the towering temple with clear Eastern architectural influences drew us in from afar. The shapeshifting projections across the face of the Pagoda were complimented by the many lasers that blasted outward into the inky darkness of the night sky, captivating our attention all weekend long.
Our first excursion into the Fractal Forest was to see Opiuo, as his funky beats reverberated throughout the forest. The mind-melting cacophony mixed with fog, lasers, and many trippy lights caused a sensory overload. It could only be described as a psychedelic playground with a Star Wars theme, because literally… massive images of Star Wars characters were sporadically placed throughout the forest. May the Forest Be With You.
We took our time visiting each stage, relishing the looks on our friends’ faces who were experiencing Shambhala for the first time. Then, we headbanged for hours to the intense, pumping bass of Excision at the Village stage, raging deeply into the night without a care in the world. We headed back to the Pagoda to witness the trio Black Tiger Sex Machine make history with their first ever Shambhala set, and stayed afterward to see the massively talented duo Ephwurd do their thing. Our Friday night, (technically Saturday morning) wrapped up with a Sunrise Sermon from Destructo — a sexy, downtempo set that held sway over everyone in the crowd. It was hard to pull away, but we wearily made the journey back to camp and fell into an exhausted sleep; our bodies spent from dancing the night away.
We awoke the following day to some tragic and sobering news: Shambhala was facing imminent evacuation and cancellation. The wildfire had jumped the river nearby and was edging closer, with no end in sight. The bone-dry conditions of the BC landscape were no match for the flames. Saturday would go on as scheduled, but we were instructed to leave the grounds Sunday. The news hit like a ton of bricks as we pondered the implications. Destructive forces of nature were threatening to ruin our good time, but much worse — were very capable of immolating the entire Salmo River Ranch and all of the amazing emerald forests surrounding it. Not to mention, the amazing stages that had been built up and expanded upon year after year for two decades. The thought of Shambhala being wiped off the map made my stomach turn, and our crew fell into a downhearte emotional state.
Still, we powered through the day… We had come too far to let anything keep us down. Indeed, a deeply somber mood had returned to the festival, but the artists lifted our spirits with more and more dope music.
“Subvert took the stage, invoking more prayers and drumming up a rain dance for the crowd to groove to. It was a shot in the dark for sure, but we knew we needed a miracle to save the final day of the festival and perhaps even the grounds themselves.”
ill.Gates told us to pray for rain, and we did. The Village stage stayed bumpin’ for hours with the quaking bass of Stylust Beats, followed up strongly by LA underground hip hop act Dilated Peoples, followed by glitch-hop legend Subvert (aka Jeremy Bridge, CEO of PK Sound, the founder of the iconic corporation and engineer of the speakers that changed the game). Subvert took the stage, invoking more prayers and drumming up a rain dance for the crowd to groove to. It was a shot in the dark for sure, but we knew we needed a miracle to save the final day of the festival and perhaps even the grounds themselves.
We half-jokingly referred to Saturday night as the “End of the World Party,” referencing an early GRiZ album in jest, attempting to bring some humor to the situation at hand. There was a palpable anxiety in the air, mixed with the undeniable smell of the nearby fires. It was to be our final night at the much-anticipated 20th anniversary of Shambhala, and we made it count.
Artists like Illenium, Datsik, Billy Kenny, J. Phlip, and Herobust kept the party raging til the sun rose slowly and languidly into the hazy sky. Despite an amazing night filled with lots of hugs, meaningful connections with strangers, and overwhelmingly positive emotions, our crew returned to our camp feeling deeply demoralized at the prospect of sleeping for only a few hours and then waking to break down our camp and evacuate the premises.
Grateful for the few days we were able to enjoy ourselves at Shambhala, I still felt very defeated as I crawled into my tent that morning. I drifted in and out of consciousness, but was suddenly reinvigorated when I thought I heard a gentle pattering upon my tent. I abruptly sat up on my air mattress, afraid that my ears might be deceiving me. But there it was again — the sound of rain tapping gently against the tent. Could it be that our collective prayers for rain were heard? Had the rain dance of 15,000 ravers caused the elements to bow to our will? I felt a wave of positive emotion wash over me as I drifted peacefully off to sleep, while still coming to terms that Shambhala was over. It just didn’t seem feasible that the rain could save the final day.
“Dude, the party’s still on.”
I awoke early in the afternoon before any of my friends had risen from their tents, and I walked over to our neighbors’ camp to have a chat. The ground and trees around me were still wet from the rain. Our new Canadian friend seemed somewhat perplexed when I spoke about packing up our camp, and he asked, “But you’re sticking around tonight, aren’t you?” I was confused, of course, since there had been the cancellation and evacuation notice the day before. “Um, I didn’t realize that was an option,” I said. He peered into my eyes silently, perhaps savoring the moment and waiting to gauge my reaction as a huge smile contorted his face and he said those magic words: “Dude, the party’s still on.”
Shambhala had been at the brink of evacuation and perhaps even destruction, but it was saved at the last possible moment when the skies cracked open and released the rains upon the thirsty land. I rushed over to wake up my friends and tell them the good news. Once again it was on, and our moods had skyrocketed to new heights after the dismal depths of the previous day. Many of our fellow festival goers had left early due to the evacuation notice, but those of us who remained were reinvigorated. We were truly on an emotional, weekend-long rollercoaster, which reached its zenith with this new, exciting revelation.
The overall mood of Sunday was filled with pure elation, despite the cancellation of some of the main headliners. Our crew was geeked to see Rezz perform at the Pagoda stage on Sunday night, especially with the recent release of her debut album Mass Manipulation; eager for our beloved “Space Mom” to abduct our minds and spirits through an intergalactic odyssey. Regardless, final day of Shambhala did not disappoint by any means. We spent our remaining time dancing extra hard as the PK subs rumbled the very earth that had only a few hours earlier been threatened by flames.
“Our bass-laden rain dance had somehow called forth the rains in the most dire hour, and breathed new life into the land and our community.”
We capped off the night at the AMPhitheater stage yet again as a back-to-back Truth vs. Stylust Beats set kept the party raging into the wee hours of the morning. There was a lot of talk amongst the crowd about the miraculous rain that had saved the festival. Our bass-laden rain dance had somehow called forth the rains in the most dire hour, and breathed new life into the land and our community. As these thoughts consumed us, suddenly we were blessed again by a torrential downpour. The crowd reveled in the rainfall as Truth and Stylust Beats threw down one of the best sets of the weekend. With arms stretched to the sky, we welcomed the rain as it poured over us. Tears of pure joy streamed down my face as I clutched tightly to two of my best friends, and we took it all in as the crowd around us raged wildly in a final, emotional rain dance.
The 20th anniversary of Shambhala was indeed one of our greatest adventures to date, filled with staggering ups and downs. They say that the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fire — and the bonds of love and friendship that we cultivated at Shambhala 2017 truly brought our crew closer than ever as we returned home feeling inexorably bound to one another. The community of Shambhala proves time and time again to be one of the most inclusive, community-driven gatherings of any festival that we have experienced — a reputation that is well-deserved after 20 years of throwing some of the best, most progressive parties on the continent.
As of this date, BC is reporting 2017 to be the worst year for wildfires in recorded history as some still rage across the province. Still, Shambhala stands stalwartly with its beautiful forests and incredibly elaborate stages unaffected by the voracious flames that have engulfed much of the surrounding countryside. The incredible memories of its 20th anniversary, however, will remain burned deep within our minds as a vivid dreamland that we can’t wait to return to next year.