BC’s notorious summer saturnalia thrives in the face of adversity

If 19 is your teenage years’ last responsibility-free hurrah, then 20 is when things start to get complicated. It’s fitting, then, that Shambhala Music Festival, now going into its second decade, is starting to wrestle with bigger challenges, tougher questions, and higher expectations.

Challenges are both an opportunity for growth and an avenue for other weaknesses to emerge, and to assert themselves. This year’s iteration of one of Canada’s (dare we say the world’s?) most beloved music festivals has cemented their commitment to the former, with very fleeting instances of the latter. Shambhala’s 20th anniversary kook-out felt like Shambhala as usual – a sentiment echoed by its grizzled veterans and younger, fresher denizens alike.

Hazy evening strolls through Metta. © Concertsocks

Hazy evening strolls through Metta. © ConcertSocks

“It has that sexy ‘we-might-be-evacuated’ vibe”

Hot on the heels of Bass Coast back in July – another gathering that was threatened by one of the fieriest summers BC has seen yet – everyone wanted to know whether Shambhala year 20 was in danger of being shut down. With varying reports spreading throughout the site – and the province – the danger seemed like it could be very real. However, the notable absence of haze on Wednesday morning served as a good omen.

Event staff remained optimistic and coordinated exhaustively with local and provincial authorities. Seasoned wildfire-fighters and search-and-rescue teams were constantly onsite to advise. While the rest of the province watched on in disbelief, the show went on with a healthy dose of cautious optimism and constant vigilance. However, it wouldn’t last.

Conditions worsened dramatically until Saturday afternoon. Reports again trickled in, this time insinuating that the fires had jumped the river – the festival’s last line of defence. The pallid flurry of ash and smoke had by now inflicted wicked cases of Shambhalung on just about everyone, fuelling a pressure cooker of uncertainty.

By that evening, the official call was made to cancel Sunday night’s programming, and so things started to degenerate. Attendees began packing in anticipation of leaving the next morning; dedicated partiers tried to cram two nights of reveling into one and artists were taking off in every direction.

Sunday morning came, and people started leaving in droves. But at noon sharp, thousands of smartphones chirped simultaneously. Sitting cheekily at the top of everyone’s notifications, a message from Shambhala read: “The party’s back on.” Like on cue, a frenzy of cheers erupted across the farm, and for a moment, the inmates were running the asylum. Everyone fell into a sort of passionate mania – including a certain dubstep luminary who hijacked an ATV in full rave regalia, ripping recklessly up and down Main Street, announcing the un-cancelling to anyone who would listen.

Despite the looming uncertainty, the mood onsite was as infectiously positive as it always had been, and the execution was world-class. As festival founder Jimmy Bundschuh put it when asked about Shambhala’s future – “we’re not going anywhere.”

Setting the stage

Venturing into the grounds for a cursory examination, it became clear that the broad strokes were in place. The Pagoda, the Living Room and the Grove had all gotten massive upgrades, the Fractal Forest was looking as good as ever – things were coming together nicely on site. Nevertheless, each and every crewmember toiled until the eleventh hour, ensuring that not a detail was out of place – an endeavor that would only conclude on Friday morning, when all seven stages opened for business.

On Wednesday morning, right at the stroke of 7am, the farm’s gates opened to the public. Every year, the spectacle grows as each and every ticket holder comes up with new and ingenious ways to get the best campsite. Enter the dude in his boxers, sprinting towards Metta, covered head-to-toe in caution tape to secure a clearing in the woods; the girl blasting down Main Street on her bike in a bejeweled rave bra, carrying her tent bag with her teeth and two more tents on her back; crew members moving entire campsites, already set up, from Metta into Starlight. It was like an episode of the Walking Dead featuring overtones of LSD.

SkiiTour serenade the AMPhitheatre. © ConcertSocks

SkiiTour serenade the AMPhitheatre. © ConcertSocks

If there’s a better way to start a party than with a back-to-back set from The Librarian and Mat the Alien, we haven’t seen it. The two Shambhala alumni delivered an incredibly fun amuse-bouche to a completely full Amphitheatre, bolstered by The Librarian’s cutting-edge track selection and Mat’s surgical turntablism. SATURATE! Records delegate Zeke Beats then took over with his own tried-and-tested combination of laser bass and scratching. Young phenom Holly rounded out a solid four hours of carousing at the Amphitheatre, before the blazing heat chased everyone into the river.

When the sun started to dip behind the mountains, the Amphitheatre sucked everyone back in for another round with 20/20 LDN protegé Shield, avant-garde spaghetti bass slingers Um.. and production mastermind Yheti. The stage’s star-studded Thursday lineup, plus the addition of a viewing platform, all but confirmed their team’s commitment to coming into their own, after an outstanding 2016.

Tucked away from the action, with its own swimming hole, a shower and a few ‘beds,’ the Living Room was a home away from home, offering a little respite from the insanity that seemingly permeated every other yard of the festival. Heavily vibey, inviting and classy sets from West Coast fixtures Dubconscious and Lorne B were an excellent complement to an inspiring first night.

The rebirthed Pagoda in all its glory. © ConcertSocks

The rebirthed Pagoda in all its glory. © ConcertSocks

If the clouds of haze that lay heavy over the farm Friday morning had any silver linings, it’s that they kept the climate onsite balmy and comfortable. It was dangerously easy to oversleep in the mornings, lest you miss all the energizing afternoon programming the festival had lined up.

Perkulat0r sucked us into the mosh at the AMP again, enticing downtown Shambhalites into a bass-fuelled trance. From there, Barisone, PRSN and Shiny Things took over the Grove, unleashing the sounds of the Pacific Northwest on an unsuspecting crowd and setting the stage for another highly-anticipated set by the Librarian. Endlessly versatile, Graham opted for a typically boundary-straddling set, with heavy inflections of grime.

At the stroke of midnight, Excision took over the Village for his keystone slot. The man’s come a long way in the last decade, and in a sense, he’s played a significant part in molding Shambhala into what it’s become, much like it’s molded him. Opening with a stylish and unapologetic mish-mash of his greatest hits, cobbled together into a manifesto, he then launched right into the no-nonsense aural assault that he’s become notorious for.

Anyone who’s been to Shambhala knows the struggle of dealing with scheduling conflicts. While Excision nailed revelers to the floor of the Village with hundreds of thousands of watts, Stickybuds was one block over in the Fractal Forest, effortlessly shunting genres together. Meanwhile, Max Ulis offered up more mellowed-out, intimate and classy house and techno at the Living Room, a welcome respite from the frenetic energy that had started to consume the farm.

Returning to the Village for the final portion of Excision’s set was cathartic. Joined on the decks by Firepower Records labelhead Datsik, the two icons lobbed classics back and forth at each other like some sort of twisted sonic tennis match. It was a harkening back to the early 2010s, a slice of time from the era that yielded tracks like “Blue Steel,” “Swagga” and “Nuke ‘Em” – a treat for veterans and virgins alike.

Ivy Lab and Ganja White Night wrapped up the evening nicely, putting their own spin on intelligent yet party-facing music. Ivy Lab curated an immaculate 90-minute show of force at the Grove, while Ganja White Night’s unexpected, then hotly-anticipated, appearance served as an eloquent exploration of the YouTube-era dub that put them on the map – an occasion that’s been many years in the making. One five-year veteran described it as the most purposeful demonstration of pure, minimal dubstep they’ve witnessed.

CloZee tries to top her notoriously feel-good set from last year at the Grove. ©ConcertSocks

CloZee tries to top her notoriously feel-good set from last year at the Grove. ©ConcertSocks

Saturday afternoon felt like a reality check, as news reports filtered in about the increasing danger and air quality. Yet the mood never soured, and by later that evening things had started to clear up. One can only imagine how challenging of a year 2017 was for first-timers, who deserve a round of applause for trucking right through it.

In typical Saturday fashion, the river was packed to the gills with merrymakers reminiscing about their Friday nights. Spending any amount of quality time with strangers from far-off places – which is arguably one of the defining characteristics of Shambhala anyway – and the stories that emerge really pull at one’s heartstrings. Steven, a first-year Shambhalite and journeyman welder, was offered an opportunity to build the Village, and left a secure job behind to pursue it. “You think rig pigs work hard? You should see what goes on here before the show. That’s hard work,” he says, shaking his head knowingly.

Stories like Steven’s are a trope. Mat the Alien put it best when he said “Shambhala is about what people bring to it, the antics.” It’s not just about putting together a ridiculous outfit or pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone – it’s about bringing something to share with others, no matter how abstract. That might just be the secret ingredient that’s kept the festival running for so long.

Speaking of what everyone brings to the table, the massive overhaul of the Pagoda was awe-inspiring. Revamped for all-over video-mapping and borderline-decadent use of lasers, the result was as stunning as it was bad for one’s retinas. Genesa Project head Kali Yuga threw down one of the most fun sets of the weekend at the Pagoda that afternoon, playing all manner of party jams for a crowd of friends in a way that felt intensely personal and contagiously invigorating.

Lucent Dossier alumnus turned DJ KNGSPRNGS was first on at the Cedar Lounge that evening, gracing the secretive seventh stage with a paradigm shift away from strictly rave business into more casual club-facing trap, hip-hop and bass. It was a breath of fresh air that set the mood for the rest of the evening. Honorable mention to Westerley, too, for playing a set that rivaled his impromptu headlining slot at Bass Coast.

The following few hours were dedicated Village time, with Kill the Noise and Pendulum bringing higher tempos and manic energy. Serving up the usual outrageousness that’s kept him on the map for years, Kill the Noise’s knack for making bangers out of samples that have no business being there is undeniable. “Dolphin On Wheels” stood out even amongst the ridiculousness, buttressed by all sorts of Nintendo-flavored hardstyle and riddim.

20/20 LDN badman Fixate made no effort to ease the crowd into the madness he had lined up, instead opting to drop banger after banger on unsuspecting heads. Between collaborations under the Richie Brains supergroup moniker and with other boundary pushers (“Daft’ ft. Hyrofligics”) as well as solo anthems like “Rickety Cricket,” the withering assault of wonky halftime was a highlight of the weekend.

Mad Zach put the finishing touches on Saturday night with even more SATURATE! sounds, albeit the material he presented was a little faster than his typical fare. Elegantly blending live mixing and finger drumming, it all felt very atypical of the Pagoda, and yet the crowd was eating it up voraciously.

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The bass-fuelled Village Stage at peak rave. ©ConcertSocks

When the sun started coming up on Sunday morning, the true extent of the chaos started to make itself apparent. It was hard to pinpoint whether the masses were ever actually formally informed of the cancellation of Sunday night’s programming, but many people had actually opted to leave Saturday night, or at the very least were all ready to go by early Sunday morning. In a statement made by ANKORS representative Chloe Sage, it was just as confusing for those solely responsible for Shambhala’s harm reduction initiatives, leading to them vacating the site before knowing that the festival had opted to proceed with Sunday’s festivities.

When the official announcement was made at noon, word spread like wildfire. The next few hours went by in a chaotic flurry, as scheduling was shuffled around and attendees wrestled with what to do. It was like watching your friends try to keep the party going long after everyone else has left, and so the mood seemed to sour for a bit. Nevertheless, as is typical of Sundays at Shambhala, everyone pushed on optimistically, encouraged by the presence of world-class talent from the likes of the Lucent Dossier Experience.

In spite of having lost highly-anticipated headliners like REZZ and a b2b set from Space Jesus and Liquid Stranger, two back-to-back sets from Truth at the AMP and Pagoda, as well as an all-unreleased set from Yheti, did not go unnoticed. Not to mention a bone-shattering set from the unstoppable force that is Bleep Bloop, joined by protégé Proko – arguably the best thing I saw all weekend. The dynamic duo unleashed catastrophic knee failure at the AMP, and for a moment, it felt like everything was back to normal – even if the throngs of disgruntled early-leavers would have you think otherwise.

Chali 2na and the Funk Hunters tie one on at the Village. ©ConcertSocks

Chali 2na and the Funk Hunters tie one on at the Village. ©ConcertSocks

Can we really blame Shambhala for dealing with the circumstances in the most reasonable way they could have? With almost 20,000 people onsite, a short-noticed serious evacuation, and the accompanying panic, would’ve been disastrous. Instead, one should focus on the positives of this year’s iteration, which softened any possible complaints that could be articulated. For those of us who saw it through to the end, it was just another year.

As people return to the farm year after year, they develop a more complex relationship with the festival that isn’t always sunshine and rainbows – just like any worthwhile friendship. Yet every year, it feels like the first-timers are outnumbered by veterans, who are more than happy to show them a good time, and how to navigate the complex and overwhelming spectacle they’ve just stumbled into.

Having crossed the threshold into its twenties – arguably the most identity-defining portion of anyone’s life – we can’t wait to see what the future holds for Shambhala.

Shoutout to Mike Cole and Tashi from the Rabbit Hole for their peerless hospitality, Mat and Andrea for the river hangs, Lorne and Max for bringing Bass Coast to the farm, Geoff for stopping by camp and making our Sunday afternoon, Kayla for hosting us at the Village, and to Britz, her team, and Shambhala at large for supporting us and showing us a good time. See you next year.

Words by Max Foley

Photos by Neil McElmon aka @ConcertSocks

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