As we made our descent upon the old desert town of Tucson, Lauren and I were riddled with uncontainable excitement. Though it’d be my second year of the festival and Lauren’s first, our levels on the stoked factor were just as equally off the charts. After 12 hours of driving, the sight of a landscape prickled with Saguaros had our hearts literally singing as we finally exited the interstate. Our friend’s Mazda made its’ final turn into the hotel’s parking lot, dumping out a group of four friends, all exhausted yet ecstatic to have arrived. Due to complications we were never fully informed of, our original check-in, which had been set for noon, had been pushed back to 3pm. With the festival starting at 4, we rushed around the room frantically, wasting no time in transforming our weekend home into a tornado of kimonos, feathers and face jewels.
Opting instead for a brisk walk to the venue rather than spending another second in a vehicle, we left our hotel and made it to media check-in just ten minutes later! With time now on our side, we set out to explore the beautiful landscape of hoopers, dancers, musicians, painters, jewelry designers and more that were scattered throughout Gem and Jam. Celebrating its ninth year of the festival, the vibes were at an all time high as we coasted through the site map, even stopping to check out the work of more than a few random jewelers in the crowd. Templo, one of our favorite downtempo producers, had the pleasure of being our very first set of the weekend, taking place at main stage. Accompanied by a beautiful dancer, Templo graced the crowd with his signature ‘downtemplo’ style, playing a multitude of tracks from the previous year’s releases; Time to Fly, Sunrise, Sunset, and his newest, Spiders. With his atmospheric bass gently shaking the stage, Templo played the perfect set to kick off a life-changing weekend of music, friends, and rejuvenation.
We left the main stage feeling like we were floating on air, but didn’t get too far before being stopped by a mesmerizing painting that was in the process of being completed. Much of the festival would turn up like that – a carefree and wandering mindset that could be stopped dead in its tracks when met by a sudden force of beauty. And there were loads of that to be found.
Breaking our first rule of festivaling by spending the first ay buying up vendor goodies (we usually find that it’s worth it to wait till Sunday), we caught an epic performance by funk-tronica group SunSquabi, who were revving up the dance floor at the inside stage. The Squabtrain was in full effect, with the Colorado love persistent in every smile in the room. These boys excel at igniting a party any time they hit the stage, and their energy was even more evident as they gleamed with gratitude at being at the festival this year. Dancing for the majority of their set, time flew by as we soon noticed the sun disappearing behind the Tucson hills. Slipping away just in time to catch the ending of Andreilien’s set at the main stage, we were soon thanking ourselves for squeezing in the time we did. His otherworldly bass and psychedelic glitches had our bodies struggling to keep up. Maintaining our comfortable spot in the crowd for the next round of awesome, we were front and center for Vibesquad, who unleashed a whole slew of his self-described ‘crunkadelic’ bangers, conjuring bumps and grinds from all around. Coasting from the high regarding the release of his latest EP, Lines and Planes, the energy he put into his set was second to none. It’s always refreshing to see an artist all smiles while performing, and Vibesquad was definitely having a good time on the decks at Gem and Jam! Taking over the stage at the inside room just before 10 were Krooked Drivers, who are without a doubt our favorite electro-soul duo to hit the scene in recent years. Maddy O Neal and Donnie D’albora share an imitable connection that floods the stage. Rarely seen without a smile on her face or a joke on his lips, their infectious personas truly drive KD’s stage presence; you can’t help but to smile and move your body as they churn out their bluesy hip-hop beats. Believe me when I say it was hard to peel ourselves from that room o’ love, but we headed for LTJ Bukem to get the desperate drum and bass fix that we had been craving since missing his stop in Denver just the week before. Paired with the legendary MC Armanni Reign, they threw down properly in the realms of a solid breakbeat/soulful bass set. Having two of the biggest names in DnB performing together was mind-blowing enough to satisfy any jungle lovers thirst, and for that reason it definitely held an important spot in our hearts this weekend.
Rushing in between stages was beginning to take a toll, and I felt fatigue begin to rear its ugly head. Wanting to catch Pumpkin on the inside stage before calling it a night, I made a stop at main stage to see the mesmerizing light show being put on by jam funk band Papadosio. Flanked with both Alex and Allyson Grey painting on their canvases, the amount of energy radiating from the stage and crowd was overwhelming, to say the least. Walking through the venue later, I heard a group exclaiming that the set was life-changing. See for yourselves or relive the moment by watching a recording of the performance here.
Making it to my last destination of the night, I was happy to find myself in the midst of yet another wonderful and love-filled Pumpkin set. I’ve seen him over a dozen times and always find myself pleased with how eclectic his sets can be. Whether he’s squeezing in 50’s swing tracks or he’s playing ridiculously dope remixes of top 40s hits, Pumpkin never fails to make his audience feel every ounce of love he’s put into his set. Finally feeling like I could wind down from all the hype that comes with the first day of a festival, I returned to the hotel and skipped out on the afterparties, saving my energy for the prime of the weekend – Saturday night. Between all of the creativity and magic flowing at Gem and Jam, there were also so many familiar faces to be seen that the experience in itself was more akin to a reunion of friends turned to family. Tucson must’ve felt the same way, because the sun embraced us every day of the festival, rejuvenating our spirits and fueling us with all the Vitamin D we could ever need. I should probably add that this is really where the non-camping venue truly shined.
Some might argue that a festival like Gem and Jam would be better if it had camping on grounds, but not only would this mean a re-locating of the festival itself, but I honestly believe that everyone would feel differently after waking up in a hotel with free breakfast and a nice pool waiting outside all weekend. Skipping down the hall to wake your friends with a huge plate of bacon breakfast bagels and coffee (with options of cream and sugar!) before getting rowdy at a festival is a beautiful thing. We woke up refreshed and ready to conquer the biggest night of the festival, which later sold out for the first time in the event’s 9 year history! There was something electric in the air as we made it to the grounds; vibes were flyin’ high and everyone was stoked about the night’s lineup of headliners. It was definitely time to rage.
Tasty Treat, an eccentric duo hailing from California, set the party off proper opening the festival at five, fusing sexy trap beats with a big, bouncy Jersey Club sound tossed in for good measure. Their energy so early on in the day was impressive – they had an afterhours set to look forward to as well in the newly premiered Silent Disco, which we thought would be much better suited for these two, whose tracklist seemed persistent on making panties drop. Not that it was a bad thing.
Russ Liquid, a Bay area instrumental producer, was throwing down the liquid funk on main stage, joined by guitarist Andrew Block, before a steadily growing crowd as a line slowly began to form near the ticket booth. A sure sign that a sell out was near, the energy became frenetic; the crowd moved and grooved harder than I’d seen all weekend. Thriftworks came on with a slew of glitchy, grinding beats, at one moment giving a shout out to his aunt and uncle who were at the festival. Russ appeared on stage for a brief moment, trumpet in hand, to whip out one of our favorite collabs, ‘Jerry’s Lament’. Following the two powerhouses of west coast bass was the melodic and soothing sounds of producer Random Rab, who always manages to sweep a lullaby over any chaotic crowd, including the one before him at Gem and Jam. While many set up blankets and laid thoughtfully in their lovers arms taking in his tranquil beats, Lauren and I decided to soak up the bass-drenched inside stage, where Late Night Radio and SunSquabi’s Kevin Donohue were throwing down the Colorado funkin’ love. Making conversation with the crowd through transitions in his set, LNR dropped hiphop tracks all fused with a bluesy guitar lead from Donohue.To say the pair killed it would be an understatement! The inside stage was quickly becoming our favorite place to be.
Michal Menert Trio hit the stage promptly at 10:00pm, featuring the unified talents of Menert, MC Dwayne ‘JuBee’, Marcelo Moxy and AC Lao. In addition to showing off hit tracks from his latest release, titled Elements, he also played songs from Half Color, his side project with Pretty Lights Music label mate Paul Basic. Menert’s usual boisterous energy was one upped by his longtime friend and MC, Dwayne Webb, who hyped the crowd into a throbbing mass of dancing for the duration of the Trio (or in this case, foursome)’s set.
Following Late Night Radio on the inside stage was Zion I’s Amp Live, who literally had one of the most party rockin’ dance fueled sets of the weekend. Bringing out the sexiest grooves when dropping his remix of The Submarines ‘1940’, he continued to melt our faces with his exuberant track selection, each transition leading into something doper than the last. Often times, the dance heavy headliners play the main stage, but there are those rare, few and beautiful moments when you get all that energy packed into a tight, intimate room. This was one of those times. Busting out a remix of Justin Timberlake’s ‘My Love’, a dance circle broke out in the crowd, a surefire sign that the set was a success. Though Saturday night had officially sold out, the venue still flowed smoothly; I definitely didn’t see complications with crowd control getting out of hand like last year. It can be difficult to keep everything under wraps with the festival’s traffic at its peak, but the G&J team succeeded effortlessly.
Taking a break from the warehouse’s frenzy, the sweet sweet sounds of Emancipator Ensemble called to us from the main stage. Playing beneath the desert sky as the smells of Palo Santo drifted through the air, the experience of the Ensemble settled into the warmest part of my soul, bringing tears to my eyes at witnessing such a beautiful performance. Returning to the inside stage to catch ill-esha’s set, the crowd felt as though it were pressed against the walls of the warehouse, ready to burst. Dancing in every which way they could, the crowd broke it down to her live instrumental infused beats.
Strolling down memory lane to last year’s afterparties, I was curious to check the new addition of a Silent Disco since I’d missed it the first night, but knew that the Solar Culture Gallery was the place to be. Thriftworks and Russ Liquid were headlining, and it’s no secret that I can’t help getting down to that creepy funk bass. Hitching a cab, we partied at Solar Culture, the super cool gallery venue, until five am before the thought of our hotel beds began to creep into our heads. Getting our last few hours would be crucial to make it through the last full festival day.
Little People took over on the main stage, playing an enticing and melodic bass heavy set full of attendees swaying and vibing blissfully. His lulling set was soon followed up by Giraffage, who ensured us the raging wasn’t over just yet. In a bold but smart move, the SF based producer made a surprising drop; Miley Cyrus’ ‘Party in the USA’. I heard several people whispering ‘Did he really just play Miley?’ and a part of me loved it so much I wanted to scream back at them ‘Oh yes he FUCKIN’ did!’ Going over brilliantly with the crowd, he went a step further and began displaying humorous visuals on the backdrop screen shadowing him. Stampedes of pug puppies, slices of pizzas, and 8-bit video game characters cascaded across the screen. He went on to play more Top 40s remixes, including a rework of R Kelly’s ‘Ignition’ and even Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ to close it out. I left his set seriously impressed, because it definitely took balls for him to play some of the tracks he chose, and his confidence truly won the crowd over, nonbelievers tossed to the wind.
Right up front for a perfect view of The New Mastersounds, a four piece Jazz fusion Funk band hailing from the UK, we took in an epic hour of heartfelt soul music, including a cover of old school R&B treasure ‘Your Wish Is My Command’ by Lakeside as well as another pop culture hit called ‘Six Underground’ by Sneaker Pimps. Their palette of sound was perfect for those Sunday vibes, and I felt appreciative of being able to see the band live in full force. They don’t tour the states very often, and I was grateful to have Gem and Jam as the setting for my first time. Phutureprimitive’s psychedelic trip-hop productions were enough to make our heads spin – he had managed to bring everyone back to life despite the ‘Last Day’ lethargy that was taking most of us over. We made it as far as the afterparty, featuring Unlimited Gravity and Project Aspect, which was supposed to be a silent disco, but ended up quite the opposite; headphones weren’t actually required at all. We boogied into the late night hours, living up our last festival night with all that we had left.
Our weekend spent at Gem and Jam brought us three exhilarating days of creative indulgence, spiritual enrichment and positive affirmation in our goals for the coming year. Thank you to Tsunami Music Publicity, Euphonic Conceptions, and the entire staff and family behind Gem and Jam who made the weekend such a great experience to be apart of once again. The musicians, painters, and jewelers who put so much of their heart into their craft to enable us all to feel it – thank you for the bottom of our hearts for the good vibes + good times.
Until next year! – Tai Carpenter