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Over the first weekend of February, festival-goers from around the nation gathered in Tucson, Arizona for the thirteenth annual Gem & Jam Festival! After taking a year off in 2019, the festival returned with an impressive lineup that stirred up quite the buzz featuring exciting names such as Tipper, Manic Focus, Christian Martin, Buku, and Big Gigantic. I’m just going to cut right to the chase … I LOVED GEM & JAM! This festival was full of some of the most accepting individuals I have ever come across at an event. Everywhere you turned you were met with smiling faces, helpful people, and those there simply to share their art and gifts with the crowd. I’m happy to say Gem & Jam blew my expectations out of the water and completely redefined what I consider a complete festival experience. Gem attendees were treated to a weekend of chilly nights paired with breezy and sunny days. Now, let’s take some time to dive a little deeper into the special crowd that showed up and this excellent weekend of music we had in the desert.
Gem & Jam was a relatively small festival, even with four main stages, it had a compact layout. Some may mark this as a negative for production but I found it to be a wonderful positive for the experience, overall. It made it possible to easily roam the grounds while stumbling upon friends around every turn. This absolutely contributed to the relaxed vibe that permeated through the festival and beyond to the campgrounds. The four main stages were aptly named Emerald, Onyx, Quartz, and Opal with a smaller side stage named Amethyst that served as a workshop space during the day. Two of the stages, Quartz and Opal, got moving by noon each day to build-up energy inside the festival grounds, while Emerald and Onyx were the sites of late-night dance parties. The organizers of Gem & Jam do everything they can to create a comfortable festival experience and this reflected in their scheduling. After midnight each day all the stages wound down aside from Onyx, which kept going till four am inside a heated warehouse. When I first entered the Onyx stage on night one I felt like I had emerged into a magical crystal cave!
Now, let’s talk about something I love… FOOD! You can’t dance your way through a three-day camping festival without some delicious fuel. I made sure I ate my way through the diverse options that were offered over the weekend. Let me tell you about some of my favorites. I had mashed tater tots that were fried cubes of potato glory from Square Root! I watched as my friends had spiritual experiences with the cheesy goodness being offered up by The Grilled Cheese Incident. Asana was onsite offering light and refreshing food options like cooling acai bowls and simple but delightfully fresh avocado toast.
I have a love for the Farmer’s Market format because you have the opportunity to speak directly to those that produce the food you enjoy. I had this same experience when shopping around the robust selection of artists and vendors. I came across a drawing done by Christine Owens on night one and I found myself unable to shake it from my mind. Once the festival grounds opened on day two I made a bee-line to her stand to pick it up before it was gone forever. Buying art in person is such a privilege because I was able to speak with Christine for a while about the inspiration behind the particular piece I was buying.
This festival is very much centered around the arts and what they can provide for the community. There were over 40 artists creating live all weekend and at the end of the festival their work was available via a silent auction benefiting Many Mouths One Stomach, a Tucson-based artist collective. There was a variety of art mediums beyond the standard canvas that were sprinkled through the entire festival. There was a selection of twenty performing artists that were roaming about, engaging festivalgoers. The Jolly Trixsters danced about Gem & Jam with an air of playful joy that was beyond infectious! Of course, art installations peppered the grounds, my favorite being The Complimentary Bar where showering strangers with compliments was strongly encouraged!
Friday night brought out the musical big guns as Tipper was the evening’s headliner. To be completely honest, I had no prior exposure to Tipper and was wildly unsure of what to expect. I knew Tipper had an impressive following but WOW did they show up in force! There was so much anticipation and energy in the air when he finally took the stage. He treated us to a weird, relaxing, and wubby hour of the ambient Trip-Hop genre he specializes in. Suffice to say, I’m a Tipper fan after Gem & Jam! The true show of his fan strength was hard to miss when the density of the overall festival crowd dropped significantly Saturday and Sunday. My squad was saying everyone “Tipped and Dipped.”
Those that decided to “Tip and Dip” missed out on some amazing music the second and third day of Gem. Buku was another set of the weekend that deserves to be highlighted. He played the Onyx stage inside on day two and left us all speechless! He dropped some of the heaviest and dirtiest Bass I had heard in a while! A good portion of those I was with consider themselves bass connoisseurs and devoured what Buku had to offer. My personal musical highlight of the entire weekend was actually an artist I had never heard of before Gem & Jam. SaQi was originally scheduled to treat us to a set on Saturday evening but travel setbacks kept him away until Sunday night. He wound up closing out the Quartz stage for the weekend and it was such a special set. It was a mix of upbeat vibes, Hip-Hop undertones, and a unique touch Native American chants.
One of my favorite memories from the weekend was arriving at the Quartz stage Saturday afternoon and being met with a total FLOW CITY!! As a Phoenix local I was exploding with happiness to see so many of my flowmies from all over the West Coast tearing it up. What was so different about this flow circle was the level of acceptance and skills sharing that was going on. I watched someone discover Kendama for the first time and it was such a wholesome moment to witness. At some other more “serious” events there can be a lot of intimidating energy around the flow circles that pop up. Gem was the complete opposite as everyone was sharing props and exploring new moves. Juggling, hoops, poi, fans, and even acro-yoga was going down at the Quartz stage!
Gem & Jam offered a jam-packed weekend of workshops during the daytime before the music took the mainstage every evening. As this was an all-ages festival, there was a variety of workshops being offered throughout the weekend. Some of the most notable and unique classes of the weekend were Fundamentals and Concepts of Buugeng, Slinky Manipulation 101, Tantric Communication, Awakening the Inner Healer: Gem + Crystal Activation, and West African Rhythm Basics. Included in the workshop schedule was a slew of options specifically for families like Astrology for Families or Youth and Family Drum Circle. There were workshops for anybody to explore a new skill or a new subject.
I could go on and on about all the little details of this festival that made it so special but at the end of the day it’s something you’ll have to see for yourself. Gem & Jam was truly a place to shed your expectations and anxieties in order to explore and discover in a beautifully organic fashion. This was a unique experience in the chilly desert that I won’t soon forget. Gem & Jam provides you with a space to grow, proving to be key in curating a powerful festival adventure. You can be sure I’ll be first in line to grab tickets for 2021!