[The Audiofiles] We Be Jammin’: Get Your Rocks Off at Tuscon’s Gem and Jam Festival

We are all creators in our own way;
It doesn’t matter if you’re a artist, or a musician…
If all you bring is peace to a situation, you are a creator
– Papadosio –

A never ending, socially constructed conundrum – time stands as a source of equal amusement and bemusement, destruction and creation.  We build, generate, and fuel our personal passionate fires because we want to leave a legacy on the world, so much so that we can lose sight of a single moment; which, in all honesty, is all that truly exists.  But right now,I’m finding that difficult to conceive; it feels like three lifetimes ago that I left Los Angeles to embark on the trip of a lifetime out to Tucson, Arizona.

In reality, it was only last Thursday when the sun set into a golden amber hue as we loaded the car in a pseudo hurry, stopping every so often to swoop one of our four cats and fit in some mandatory cuddle time with our kittens before we hit the road.  As rush hour dissipated, we cranked the jams, rolled down our windows and gleefully noticed as the saguaro cacti haphazardly filled the horizon and multitudes of stars illuminated the sky. Crushing through the 10 Freeway, we had our one track minds set on the monumental weekend that we had before us. Sure, we were five individuals, our brains flying ten million miles an hour as we launched through the desert, as we ebbed and flowed through the lineup, hashing out set conflicts and reminiscing about Festivals Past. This was the first time that I’d gotten to give Danny and I’s best friend and third tripod leg Giordan entry to a multi-day event and it felt so good being able to give back something I’m personally always so thrilled to experience.  Even though our other friends David and Jimmy were simply coming for the first night of entertainment,  I was beyond excited to share the feelings of love and community that I get being a transplant at these festivals with my closest friends. Events like this aren’t really any fun if the Homies can’t have none, and for the first time I was blessed with an opportunity to share the adventure with some of my close knit crew. Between the lot of us we were made up of 3 photographers, 2 writers and 2 sound engineers; no, there’s no funny math involved, we’re just multi-talented modern day Renaissance people trying to make it in the world.  

Standing as the South West’s preeminent West Coast Bass infused transformational festival, Gem and Jam  was entering it’s 9th year and we were itching to drink it in.   With the resurgence and incorporation of jam bands and live group instrumentation within the umbrella of dance music, the weekend was perfectly poised to inject life into a genre that’s become inherently cookie cutter over the past decade. And the music is just one part of the puzzle. An amalgamation of highly skilled spiritual and psychedelic live artists ranging from Alex and Allyson Grey, The Welch Brothers, Xavi Panneton, Jef Logan and Amanda Sage setup easels around the grounds, drawing inspiration from effervescent, thoughtful musical performances while vendors adorned the walls and true performance art: fire dancing, acro-yoga, poi and aerial silks galore were displayed en masse to wild-eyed wanderers by performance troops and novices alike, the festival eagerly embraces the underground counterculture’s conscious community and the creator in each and every one of us.

Collectively curated by the genius minds and happy humans at Infinite Music Productions, Euphonic Conceptions, New Earth MUZiQ and Challenger, for three solid days at Tuscon’s Slaughterhouse.  Currently grounds for a makeshift haunted house befit for the most horrific of Halloween haunts, the Slaughterhouse was originally a Farmer John’s Meatpacking Plant (that huge wooden platform we were on definitely weighed cattle), not to mention plays host to a spooky urban legend that makes me shudderHowever, for one wonderful weekend, the venue underwent a magical metamorphosis into a world that pulled inspiration from the principles of Burning Man, the ethos of Lightning in a Bottle, the humor of a tent circus and a community that immediately inducted you into their festival family.

Timed in synchronicity with Tucson’s internationally famous Gem and Mineral Show, an annual event that easily accrues upwards of 50,000 international characters to the area to peruse pristine, colorful and often rare stones, gems and minerals, the Gem and Jam Festival is a unique bloom in a field of copycats and mainstream events.  For three days and thirty six hours, hundreds upon hundreds of conscientious creatives adventured down a rabbit hole of artistic prowess while souls entwined and slipped into a sonic bliss to auricular excellence.

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
Maya Angelou

500 miles and seven hours later, the saguaro cactus had become a semi-permanent fixture in our field of vision and the flat desert landscape was playing tricks on our vision.  But triumphantly, anxiously and excitedly – I pulled into the festival grounds with four of my best friends, eager to digest a new festival in a new state.  A cornerstone of Arizona’s emerging Bass Vibe, the morning’s at the festival consisted of workshops on yoga, dancing, flow movement, and crystal education while this year’s afternoon and evening lineup was stacked to the brim with acts that fully embody what it means to jam out with their gem’s out.  Jam Culture, which really kicked off with 60’s groups like the Grateful Dead and Phish dishing out genre bending musical improv layered over harmonic chord progressions and pulsating grooves, has met an electric, new wave match in unprecedented ways almost 50 years later.

Strolling into the grounds on Friday afternoon, my heart fluttered with the same excitement some get when they open a new book to start a grandiose adventure – beyond just music and art, I love pure, unabashed creative expressions of humanity, and they were bountiful this past weekend.  Vendor booths didn’t just wrap around the festival grounds, they were scattered outside on walkways and throughout the parking lots, leaving a humerus trail of hippie bread crumbs for future archaeologists to find.  While Andrelien got the crowd moving, we migrated through the vendor booths – delicately discovering little treats and treasures from a fun variety of vendors like the Fancy Shop of Important Things, Third Eye Pinecones, Anonymous Creations and Rainbow Bliss Botanicals. By the time we snagged delicious Chinese Food from Jane’s Rolling Wok, we danced around the perimeter of the grounds to PsyBill, but once we heard VibeSquaD it was game over; the crowd roared to rambucnctoious life as Vibesquad gave the South West a taste of the Southern California Bass Sound I’ve grown to know and love.  LTJ Bukem’s lyrically liquid set cemented a place for drum and bass within underground festival culture and that MCs like Armanni Reign with a cathartic cadence and powerfully placed punchlines are what can make a great set fantastic.  The evening ended with the musical storytellers for a new generation as Papadosio’s effortlessly excellent Indie Folk sound, with an electro twist and a wonderful message.

 Rising and Shining while adjusting to the time change on Saturday morning, the lot of us made a collective decision to get out and hit a gem show or two and I’m beyond the moon that we did.  Gigantic geodes, glistening quartz and sparking carborundum adorned the hotel rooms and lobbies all over Tucson – part of the reason it’s actually difficult to book rooms to stay for the Festival itself is that the majority of the hotels play host to pop up shops from around the globe, ranging from India to China, Alaska to South America.  Wandering through the rooms, we manhandled stone after stone (they’re minerals) pining for sparkles, air bubbles, and ribbons of rainbow all the while breathing in the bartering culture of the gem and crystal world in search of the best deals, and boy – we found some beautiful ones! As we left for the festival grounds, we were down a group member – and already felt a little incomplete without their witty one liners, pleasant demeanor and creative prowess they perpetually bring to the situation.

For the first time in 9 years, the Gem and Jam Festival sold out on Saturday evening – capping the party population at 5,000 beautifully bouncing bodies – we lucked out, snagging an extra ticket for our friend Jimmy, an up and coming photographer with an exceptional eye for beauty and an urge to learn on the fly.  With the night’s interstellar lineup, no one could blame the troupe of ticket hunters fiending to gain entry until the festival ended at 1 AM.  From start to finish, the day packed a one-two punch of funky bass and layered harmonies as Tasty Treat and Adem Joel kicked off the day’s music.  Congregation, cooperation and novel creation were the name of the game as acts from Denver’s electronic instrumental duo Lost Optical, Ill-esha expertly fusing live vocals with the violin while Zion I’s Amp Live brought in a fresh spin on Hip Hop.

The classically trained Russ Liquid teamed up with friend Andrew Block on guitar for the debut performance of Stupid Americans, fully equipped with squishy bass, intricate production value and the pristine influence of pure instrumentation of Russ getting down on that harmonically sexy trumpet. How you follow an act like that is beyond me, but leave it to the musical genius of Thriftworks to figure that out.  After giving a heartfelt shout-out to both his grandmother, who used to attend the Gem Festival, and his aunt and uncle who were roaming the grounds, Terry D swooped down on the crowd; causing faces to melt and minds to explode with his unique and unprecedented distorted dubstep stylings.  As the set moved between tracks from Fade, Fadest and Deviation, Russ Liquid reappeared for a Trumpet cameo as the duo got down for a performance of their first ever song together, Jerry’s Lament.

In polar opposition to the previous sets of Russ Liquid and Thriftworks, Random Rab washed a tranquil mood over the rambunctious Saturday night crowd, as many enjoyed his music cuddled into friends on the soft dirt. The best piece of news I got the whole festival was that Late Night Radio was no longer overlapping with the Michal Menert Trio, because you know that the Super Best Records Team, including Krooked Drivers, was looking to support their own. We darted, danced and dashed through the crowd to a tepidly humid, small, indoor stage;  dimly lit, slightly humid and flush with lasers, you couldn’t help but feel like you were going through a rabbit hole and into an underground warehouse party. For an extra special birthday set, Late Night Radio threw the party of the night as he injected new life into old school hip hop beats, intermingled with the electric, live guitar sounds of friend and peer Kevin Donohue from Sunsquabi. Every so often, LNR – known to friends as Alex Medellin – taunted and teased the crowd with a good time, asking the animated crowd for requests, even indulging us in a remix of Lettuce coming out imminently.

Continuing with the Super Best Music Crew, the label’s founder – Michal Menert – had a special treat in store, bringing hometown friends Marcelo Moxy, AC Lao and Dwayne “JuBee” Webb to pick up what he was putting down in a once in a blue moon Michal Menert Trio.  Conjoined in musical prowess, they collectively brought the house down, swaying between tracks off of Menert’s latest solo album Elements, as well as his latest project with friend and music aficionado Paul Basic as Half Color.  The pure beauty of Emancipator emanated, as they enlisted the whole ensemble – including a menagerie of fire dancers, acro yogis and all over stage candy – for a beautiful end to the second night.  With Doug Appling at the reigns, joined by violinist Ilya Goldberg, drummer Colby Buckler and Peter Thatch on bass, the music ebbed and flowed like a love story, starting slow and building into a passionate, pulsating frenzy; just to throw it out there: if they could always play as an Ensemble from now on, that’d just be fantastic.  

The crowd got comfortable as the main stage came to a lull,- reminiscing with new friends and old about the wondrous adventures, moments of hilarity and incredible musical talent of the evening.  As the festival tapered out, anyone with a party itch could scratch it in either the Silent Disco on site or at an after party Solar Culture in Downtown Tucson. Absolutely no one was in a rush to leave, with vendors lining the walkways out, friendly faces and plenty of people camped in their car – it almost felt like a camping festival, even though it definitely wasn’t. 

After two amazing, but exhausting days of wonderful art and music, it was finally time for the coup de grâce in the form of Sunday Funday.  As we rolled into our last day of the festival, we noticed a relaxed mood had washed over the crowd as they lazily strolled through the entrance.  Not intending on staying the whole weekend, Jimmy had resigned himself to making new friends and enjoying the vendors around the outskirts of the festival – but Danny, being the gentleman he is, had a much better idea.  After a little sweet talking, a couple generous bear hugs and flashing a handsome smile – Jimmy and Danny waltzed over with an extra bounce in their step, presenting Jimmy’s wristband.  We jumped up and down like the giddiest of school children, hugging and laughing our way inside the festival with appreciative smiles and shit eating grins. It’s one thing being able to live your own dream, but letting three of your friends do the same – that’s a priceless feeling I won’t soon forget.

Kaminanda and Little People set an exquisitely beautiful vibe on the main stage, and had the crowd in a perfect musically induced daze, swaying back and forth while forgetting they’d spent the last two days entirely on their feet. Giraffage had the grounds goin’ up on a Sunday with a remix heavy set that brought us all back to middle school.  Trance finally had a place at Gem and Jam as we danced around to ATB, and then a slew of other songs that we were pinching each other back stage as we danced around: Better Off Alone, Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA, Baja Men’s Who Let The Dog’s Out and last but definitely not least, the Ignition Remix – because it was the freaking weekend, and we were having some fun. UK’s The New Mastersounds offered a fresh big band sound, while final evening closed out with an emotive and lyrical Dubstep set from Phutureprimative.

Once you throw in the incredibly human element of Jam Music, or live instrumentation as almost every group over the weekend exemplified, you allow room for mistakes; music finally can imitate life’s imperfections, as life all too often imitates art. They allow mistakes, they falter and shine a the same time while the crowd wouldn’t know the wiser; they’re a mirror, paralleling life – resonating the love of the community right back into our ears. We build the world up only to burn it down and rebuild again, we rejoice at each other’s triumphs and pick each other up as well fall; as a community, we’re fully aware that we’re only as strong as our weakest link and through that, we choose to educate, integrate, appreciate each other in ways that some people still have no idea are possible.

The Gem and Jam Festival is where you find a conscious creative community who embrace humble rock stars, not the press play all stars – as Menert calls them. Roaming through the festival grounds, through the vendors and into the food court, you could reach out and touch your favorite musicians and chances are, they were just as thankful for your interaction as you were with theirs. Each and every artists I had a chance to talk to has a beautiful soul and intelligent vision of their craft; I’m honored to have shared the weekend with the lot of them and cannot wait to see where their careers take them next.

Gem and Jam is a unique experience that inspires your mind while moving your feet, from start to finish it’s one of – if not the-  best run festivals I’ve ever had the opportunity to attend.  A few thank you’s to some special people that I encountered this weekend: To Cody for the Cherry Picker ride, I had to get over my fear of heights somehow.  To Luke and the Tsunami Media Team for a seamless, lovely weekend that I couldn’t help but gush to everyone back home about.  To Harmonic Light for an incredible long exposure photo experience. To non profits like Dance Safe, that ensure the safety, intelligent decisions and education is available to everyone. To Michal Menert and the Super Best Records crew for being an inspiration to rise to greatness.  To Russ Liquid and Thriftworks for ensuring weird is new normal, and to the rest of the artisits for providing enough audiovisual candy to give me a sweet tooth, hugging me and letting me gush about how amazing I think you are – I’m probably never going to stop being a fangirl, and I think that’s a beautful thing; to the fans, because this wouldn’t be the same without any of you – because let’s face it, I am one of you.  Last, but certainly not least – thank you all for the scream laughter and instant friendships, for swapping art and trading hugs, for the Hunch Punch, the ‘Hey, Nerds!’, the buff jobs (that I didn’t get, but got to live vicariously through and that was good enough), for the people giving good mustache and excellent smiles, selenite crystal unicorn horns and hometown hospitality.

The Gem and Jam Festival implored me to understand that great individuals are great because they can raise the vibrations of the outlying community while remaining true to themselves; each and every artist that graced the stage at the festival, whether musician, painter or dancer, was so thrilled and humbled to be sharing the essence of their being with us.  Let life imitate art and attack the day with the same passionate wanderlust that they instill within us.  We live in an inspiring, intimate artistic community with not just an overwhelming desire to create – but to share, collaborate and learn.  Art is our religion, it’s out tradition, our culture – our craft and our trade. It’s about cohesive collaboration, and we can only shine by making those around us shine. There’s a material world that we’ve built around us, while trying to convince ourselves that our ends justify the mundane means of everyday life.  We push, inspire and beseech ourselves to express, extrapolate and push the creative boundaries of our existence – all to discover that where we are, is exactly where we need to be, but that we wouldn’t be who we were if it weren’t for the community that raises us up.  Between the exquisite live art from a variety of mediums and personalities and exceptional jam band music, we more than got our rocks off.  If you’re looking for a sun soaked adventure to the South West in the heart of Winter, I highly implore you to permanent marker in the Gem and Jam Festival for next February.

Check out the Full Facebook album, shot by Daniel Leist Photography

For more on the Gem and Jam Festival itself, check out their socials:

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