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The more time I spend in the desert, the more I realize how mystically energized such arid environments are. This proved exceptionally true at Gem and Jam Festival outside of Tuscon, Arizona, a small fest I was urged to attend for its exceptional vibes. Taking place at the end of January, it intersects with the Tuscon Gem and Mineral show, exhibiting a wondrous amount of crystals that any wook can feel shaking up their chakras from the furthest corner of the festival grounds. And while the lineup of DJs, electro-funk musicians and jam bands deliver satisfying grooves appealing to a variety of tastes, it’s the focus on art and thoughtfully absorbing activities – alongside the vivacious self-expression of the attendees – that harmoniously elevate this event into something exceptional.
A pavilion across from the main Emerald stage was lined with more than 40 live painters and dazzling displays of their exquisite artwork. Wandering through and getting lost in all the surreal canvasses, appreciating the artists in process on new pieces, provided a feast for the eyes to complement the musical grooves. And if a band didn’t entice you enough to move your body on the dancefloor, strolling through this gallery instead remained a sensational delight all weekend. There was a tea lounge on the right to unwind in to boot.
Along the left side of the crowd at Emerald, all the way up to the very front, dancers and flow performers would let loose as they got in the zone with unfettered enthusiasm. Seeing a fellow photographer put away his camera after shooting for a while during Manic Focus, then proceed to acrobatically spin and breakdance in full force, left me in awe. The onstage performance couldn’t measure up to this maniac’s fervor. Whenever a break was needed from the action area, gazing at the wooden installation on the edge would calmly tickle the mind. Creatures and shapes emerged from the natural patterns of the wooden surface, eyes staring back at you under a wavy projection-mapping layer like an acid-vision illusion.
The first night’s headliner, nuskool breakbeat necromancer Dave Tipper, conjured the most earth-shatteringly psychedelic experience of Gem and Jam with a set that perfectly illustrated why so many wooks worship him like a deity. I secured a prime spot and hunkered down as the more ambient and downtempo takeoff exploded into a blitzkrieg of glitchy bass, subatomic subs and visually melting madness, unleashing Mechagodzilla mayhem that ripped open a temporal wormhole on the sonic battlefield.
Trippy artist extraordinaire Android Jones wasn’t there running live visuals for Tipper with his Microdose VR set up (as he’s done on some special occasions), but that virtual reality program was available for anyone to immersively experiment with at one of the vending booths. After my hometown team of the Kansas City Chiefs won the Superbowl on the last night, I celebrated with a session exploring the limitless dimension of imaginative creation Microdose VR presents, thrillingly astonished with its otherworldly capabilities and ease of use.
The programming and activities each day offered a diverse and intriguing array of ways to captivate the body, mind and soul during the daytime, including various yoga workshops at the Amethyst stage. The Drumming Sounds circle drew me in whenever I’d hear West African drums beating during its classes, and the aural treat of a didgeridoo’s hum resonating there one afternoon filled me with inner peace and relaxation for hours.
Opportunities for play abounded for kids at the Starseed Rainbow Family Circus Zone, while the Astrology for Families talk here was the intellectual highlight of the whole fest for me. This wasn’t about teaching children basic astrology, but rather an in-depth whirlwind of info explaining the planetary cycles influencing different periods throughout a person’s entire lifetime. Of the handful of astrology programs I’ve been to at music festivals, this was by far the most enlightening.
The Slinky Manipulation 101 workshop at Amethyst was a big hit with all ages, as Slinky Josh demonstrated tricks and techniques to imbue a slinky with frenzied, mind-bending movement you have to see to believe. He was a cohort of the Jolly Trixsters, a performance troop of wacky clowns that could be found instigating silliness, mischievously interacting with festivalgoers, and utilizing goofy gags and props as they ridiculously romped around. Participating in their shenanigans was a giddy pleasure each time I encountered them, encouraging inspired absurdity like serious bartering with a wook over his case of handwoven, artisan crafts – which were actually just bent glowsticks instead of wirewraps.
Crystal collectors could find whatever kind of gemstones their heart chakra desired from legit vendors spread out inside the fest as well as wooks set up throughout the campgrounds, selling all kinds of jewelry, pins and glass, too. I regret not buying a dope T-Rex pendant by JustinCeption and Morton Glassworks before someone else snagged it, but talking to Justin in his booth and learning about the alchemy involved in his craftsmanship instilled me with a new appreciation for such art.
However, it’s the art installations and uniquely designed structures at festivals that fascinate me most, and Gem and Jam scores highly in this category for its size. A multicolor-paned, fancy egg installation with color-changing light inside, a vibrant arch, and a metal half-dome with an LED-lined infinity mirror enlivened the Opal stage area, with some artist vendor booths across from it. The Quartz stage hosted the most artistic elements in its environment with a number of them intended as chill-out spots, allowing anyone to lay down in the Treenet hammocks under the shade of trippy fabrics overhead, under a dome with a web of intricate, illuminated strings within, or on cushions beneath vivid, glowing, woven shade umbrellas.
Another installation with geometric shapes, a meditating alien and alternating lights spiced up the back of Quartz while a circle of crystal skulls, the Complimentary Bar, giant butterfly wings and a screen – which visualized those who’d dance in front of it with dreamlike distortion – galvanized the sides. Especially in the afternoons, a circus of flowmates with all kinds of hardware – hoops, staffs, poi balls, even kendama – would gather up and generate an invigorating state of flow magic here. Some flow devices were set out to be shared, engaging some who might not otherwise try out such a mode of coordinated dance.
The warm daytime temperatures and chilly-ass nights of desert-set fests naturally invite a more impressive fashion sense to proceedings to not only stunt two distinct looks per day, but to thrive in the cold with onesies, fur coats, crazy costumes and more. And boy, true characters and dynamos of the Festival Realm make an impressive showing at Gem and Jam, from more recognizable players like the genie of AGlowGeo, hippie fairy Penny Lane, and the outrageous Uncle Randy – to unknown cool-cat standouts you won’t forget (like the Praying Mantis Man). So the artistry on display encapsulates not just the official artists, but all sorts who exemplify the idea that living is a creative act.
I’ll jam to that vibe any day.