Gem and Jam Festival Absolutely Rocks

Gem and Jam Festival Absolutely Rocks

Day 1

I was excited to see what Tucson looked like as I walked out of the airport into my Lyft. This was my first time in Arizona, and I’m always curious to explore new parts of the country. Tucson is really flat, but it’s surrounded by some beautiful mountain ranges that make the skyline appear beautiful in every direction.

Gem and Jam has been beautiful so far. 3 more days of magic! #gemandjam @gemandjamfestival

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As we drove to the Pima County Fairgrounds where the Gem and Jam Festival was held, my Lyft driver pointed out some of the more interesting homes along our route, which had huge crosses and flags in the front yard. “I’m on Percocet,” she gleefully announced as a hawk swooped down and picked up a young rabbit along the side of the highway.

I decided to just observe, even when she pulled her handgun out from its hiding spot in the car door. Apparently, there was a sign about loaded firearms, and she didn’t want to cause any problems as she released the loaded magazine into her lap. “I’ve still got one in the chamber, but they don’t know that,” she explained.

As I walked into the venue, I was greeted by the dreamy sounds of Häana drifting over the venue. She sang, she played the violin and provided a wonderful opening to the weekend. As I set up my tent and greeted my new neighbors for the weekend, it was nice to have a gentle soundtrack as the backdrop.

Some people had been there since the night before, but people were mostly drifting in throughout Friday evening. There were loose dogs running around everywhere, and I heard a few little scuffles break out, but it was mostly smooth sailing as we all set up our temporary weekend homes and got to know each other.

I quickly got to know my neighbors for the weekend, and once our tents were up, we all hurried inside the venue to catch the Kyle Hollingsworth band. The whole festival was packed with hippies all very much into rocks and crystals, and I got really lucky meeting a crew from Fort Collins, CO. who happened to include a couple geology students.

Hollingsworth threw down one of the best jam sets I've ever seen, tying together a brilliant ensemble of musicians with his funky and articulate keyboard skills. He wore a shirt covered in a bright floral pattern that shifted under the stage lights in a wonderful psychedelic effect.

Next, The Infamous Stringdusters threw down a marvelous set of bluegrass. I rarely get to hear really good bluegrass, so it was fantastic watching these talented live instrumentalists putting out such great work.

After their set, I caught a little bit of Mike Gordon before heading over to the side stage to catch Unlimited Aspect play a bass-heavy set loaded to the gills with effects, distortion, and dubby wobbles. It wasn’t the best electronic performance I’ve ever seen, but it sure was fun and it was obvious that the two friends on stage were having a blast working together.

To close out night one, The Trancident put on an exceptional show that effortlessly moved from jam-style rock through funk and blues into grindy/dubby territory. Their performance was paired with amazing visuals, operated by Steve Haman. The show's entire effort pulled together as one of the most psychedelic experiences of my life. Sober or not, I think everyone there was blown away by the complexity and originality of the visual display paired with the music.

Things went late on the first night at the Desert Hearts showcase with Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds, and Marbs. It was a great way to stay warm at the indoor warehouse that was set up for these late night sets as the temperature dropped into the forties outside. For three full hours, everyone danced to house music and made new friends. The Desert Hearts family is always great, and they brought out full pizzas into the audience while the music played.

Day 2

#rainbowrocks #gemandmineralshow #gemandjam #gemandjamfestival #tucson

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The best part of the Gem and Jam festival is that it takes place during the massive Tucson Rock, Gem, and Mineral Show. There are shuttles that will take you into the city if you want to do some rock shopping. Camping next to a couple of geology students helped me navigate the vendors in town and I was able to pick up an inexpensive little rock collection.

Back at the festival venue, the night kicked off with Late Night Radio (read our previous interview here) and then got a bit heavier with the Russ Liquid Test. I had never seen them live and was really pleasantly surprised by their mix of brassy funk and heavy electronic melodies.

Opiuo came on next, showcasing his new live band, and the audience went absolutely nuts for the Australian’s future funk sound which ended with big bassy tracks.

G Jones has been one of my favorite producers and performers for a while now. His set was the highlight of the weekend for me. The heavy bass style was a surprise on the lineup of funky, instrumental artists, but the audience showed out in strength to see him. His set was well received even by those who weren’t familiar with his style.

He played a full set of originals and remixes, accompanied by his new visuals for the Visions tour. Entirely in black and white, the lights were a departure from the rainbow psychedelia of the rest of the festival and added a great backdrop to his hard-hitting beats.

The night closed out with Gramatik giving a really high-energy performance and reminding his audience to better themselves with education. At one point he actually told everyone to "go read a book," which came off as more encouraging than preachy. I got the feeling that he was encouraging us to improve our lives rather than being ideologically snarky, and in the middle of such a beautiful weekend, it only made sense that we should want to take away a positive message like that.

Day 3

The last day of the festival opened up with Gipsy Moon and Steve Kimock both playing fairly laid back, relaxed sets. I found myself wandering around between stages and vendors and catching up with some of the artists I had met that week. It was nice to say goodbye to some of the faces I had become familiar with over the last three days. Gem and Jam festival allowed me to meet some of my favorite visual artists, and people from disciplines I’d never encountered before.

Poolside’s performance was somewhat underwhelming, so I wandered around the vendors during their set and came back to the main stage for Com Truise, who was absolutely marvelous. His 80s style of synth wave updated with modern production techniques was perfect to relax on the grass as the evening temperatures dropped. 

The Motet put on one of the tightest, cleanest performances I’ve ever seen, and I was struck at how well the stage was engineered. The drums and bass were really cleanly compressed and every instrument was audible as though it was coming right out of a studio. The Gem and Jam team should be praised not only for putting on a magnificent visual show but for the live stage acoustics and mixing as well.

Overall, I had the time of my life. I think Gem and Jam is a must-visit festival experience for anyone looking for a reprieve from the blaring nonsense of a typical EDM festival, but who isn’t deep into jam culture. It struck a perfect balance with the music in my opinion, and it’s connection to the Tucson Rock and Mineral Expo means that there is plenty to do in the downtime, be it with the vendors, a trip into the city, or just the incredible surrounding beauty of the mountains. It might be the best festival I’ve ever been to, and I really recommend that you put it at the top of your list for 2018.

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