Raking rocks and doing whatever needed to be done
That’s how Byron Whitlaw, the stage director for The Grove, remembers starting his journey with Shambhala Music Festival 12 years ago. It was his sixth year attending and his first working on the crew.
Whitlaw’s long trip with Shambhala Music Festival started after a friend from Winnipeg bought him a ticket in 2003. It changed his life.
“He bought me a ticket and told me we were going,” Whitlaw remembered. “I think it was 60$.” Just like that, the humble vision that became the Grove a decade later was born.
It was to be a place where the arts collided. Performance art, music, painting, installation art, informative workshops, dance, different styles and genres of music all in one place.
Some highlights during his time with the Grove have been Bonobo’s multiple performances, FKJ’s 2019 performance, and Odesza’s set during the Grove’s inaugural showing.
And while over the years Whitlaw says a lot has changed, he says the sheer magic of the community who populates the Salmo River Ranch every summer has stayed the same.
We sat down with the man behind the Grove to chat about where he’s been, and where the Grove is going. Check out his answers below!
How did you get involved in Shambhala Music Festival in the first place?
I’ve been going since 2003. 2008 was my first year working at the festival. I started as a volunteer at the Rock Pit Stage, which is now the AMP. I was basically just raking rocks and doing whatever needed to be done. And as the years progressed I started getting involved with booking, stage management and direction.
By 2010, or 2011, I was fully booking the Rock Pit schedule and I adopted the title of assistant stage director. We built a new stage and changed the name to the Amphitheatre the following year, in 2013. Then the following year (2014) I was asked to leave the AMP and move over to develop what is now the Grove.
Jimmy was interested in doing something different from what was then the Labyrinth. I kind of submitted a few proposals for my future vision of the AMP, and one that was unknown and would become the Grove. This was before the name. It was just an idea.
The idea was a blend of all the arts. A lot of performance. Different styles of music. Live and electronic. An art gallery. Workshops. Art installations. The idea was almost to create an entire micro-festival ecosystem in itself. Jimmy loved the proposal and before I knew it, I was sent into the forest.
Do you remember the first time you heard about Shambhala?
A good friend of mine came to the festival in 2002. I was living in Winnipeg (hometown) at the time, and when he returned he basically just told me “we’re going next year”. He bought me a ticket and that was that. I think it was $60. I was young and down for anything at the time. We decided to hit the road and I haven’t looked back. The festival blew my mind and changed my life, as it has many.
Do you have any prominent memories of those early, first years?
It was very different. Much more cowboy. There wasn’t much for security or services. Just a bunch of loving ravers creating the experience together. It was the most amazing, free environment, with the greatest people. I’d never seen or felt anything like it.
How has that atmosphere changed?
It’s gotten much bigger. Having more people has really changed the dynamic – the production is much larger, stages are massive, campsites go all the way to the farmhouse, more staff, more vendors, etc. I mean, everything’s changed and evolved. There are pros and cons to it all, but the detail of the farm after 22 years of art and infrastructure is absolutely incredible.
Do you have any prominent memories of any artists’ experiences on the farm?
I booked People Under the Stairs the first year of the Amphitheatre in 2013. I still have people come up to me and talk about that experience. They’re a hip-hop duo from LA that came up to perform on a farm in Salmo BC… Pretty surreal for them. It took a minute for them to warm up to the venue with their white kicks and clean style. But they left incredibly stoked on us, and the event.
The first year of The Grove we had Odesza. It’s unbelievable to reflect on this considering what they’ve become. It was right before they launched their latest album, and their career really took off.
I’ve booked Bonobo 3 or 4 times, which is always a hit.
FKJ was on the table for many years and we finally got that to work in 2019. He and his production team had the most amazing time and even stayed for 2 nights. Which you don’t see that much on the headline level. Their compliments were so inspiring – Saying we were the best production team they’ve worked with, thanking us for the incredible hospitality and showing them a good time on the farm.
Has your approach changed over the years?
I started at the Rock Pit which was basically all live music, so ya – My musical selections have changed a lot over the years. The program moved into a wide mix of live, electronic, hip-hop, and hybrid acts which have carried over to my style in The Grove. My taste has evolved with the community, and I book what people are interested in. Ultimately I try to keep my finger on the pulse and be in tune with the people, and what they want.
Is there something unique about the way you approach curation?
Mostly the diversity of my program. I think that’s because of where I started. Electronic acts. DJs. Hip Hop. Live stuff. There’s something for everyone in The Grove.
What kind of music do you think resonates the most with your stage and audience. Why?
It’s difficult to define. I’m not really pigeonholed to one genre. If I can get everyone on the farm to come to the Grove at least once, then I’ve done my job.
What has your relationship with and experience of Shambhala taught you about yourself?
It’s taught me about leadership. The Grove is a team of 115. It has definitely changed my life and prepared me to face challenges, solve problems, and lead from the front.
What is it about Shambhala that makes it so unique, special and different?
It’s like six festivals in one festival. We have a very unique formula with six-stage directors – All with their own artistic vision, following, style, and musical choice. Because of that – We have six demographics of people that get mashed into one place, and that place is Shambhala.