A Whole Lotta Gem and A Festful of Jam
When I landed in Tucson last Thursday morning, my whole being writhed with anticipation. After being on a week long high from seeing two nights of Lettuce + ProbCause in Portland and Eugene the previous weekend, I was more than ready to hit the desert and leave the Pacific Northwest dreariness for a few days of festival magic.
It was my first time visiting the southwestern desert city, first time attending Gem and Jam festival, first time flying solo to a fest and not to mention, it was the fest to kick off my 2016 season. Always down for an adventure and new festival experience, my imaginative festie expectations were high, especially because I had heard nothing but wondrous things about this Gem of a gathering. Let me just start with this, my experience at the 10th anniversary of the lustrous Gem and Jam fest was all I could have fantasized and more. With an insanely talented lineup, art of every facet literally at your every move and the best festival family I have had the pleasure of being surrounded by, this year’s Gem and Jam was one for the books. I flew in a day early to give myself the chance to wander the official Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, which happens to be the largest of its kind in the U.S. and has been held for the last sixty years thanks to the society’s hard working members and volunteers. We wandered through countless hotels, parking lots and streets to oogle at pieces of smokey quartz and tanzanite as big as my body as I uncovered a newfound love of geology. After having a delicious home cooked meal at a friend’s house, I rested up for what was sure to be a weekend full of endless dancing, laughing and meeting beautiful people.
The Appetizer: FRIDAY
I connected with some homies at the first ever Gem and Jam campground, dropped my bag off and we headed over to officially enter the the portal into a sensory paradise. The entry was painless as we slowly began weaving our way throughout the live art installations and meditation stations that had been intricately designed and constructed for maximum usage and pleasure. Instantly, I knew no one was going to get bored at this festival- there was divine beauty everywhere! We ran over to catch the last half of Chicago’s Ben Cofresi, a drummer and beatsmith who obtains an uncanny skill of meshing his energetic acoustic percussion talent with a fresh digitally produced sound that makes for one unique performance. From seeing him kill it with ProbCause the weekend before to his solo set at Gem and Jam, definitely keep your eye out for up and coming Cofresi and his impeccable stage face. His energy is contagious even from behind the drum kit.
Following Cofresi, we caught electro funk legend Elliot Lipp who has been a Gem and Jam favorite since the beginning succeeded on the Quartz/main stage by Denver’s multidimensional Michal Menert who completely nailed his set, leaving the crowd thirsting for more of his time traveling sounds.
My personal favorite was Menert’s rendition of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. While waiting for the powerful Nahko & Medicine for the People, I simply turned around in the crowd and immersed myself into the magnitude of live painting and performance that enraptured me–whichever way your eyes glanced, was something to intrigue you, to inspire you and to humble you. A few minutes later, the crowd was greeted with an exquisitely melodic violin intro by Tim Snider and voila, Nahko and the Medicine was in full blessed swing. They executed quite the range of songs, from some epic covers of hip hop favorites “No Diggity,” Mackelmore’s “Thrift Shop,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” (FOR REAL DOE), to some reggae faves like “Get up, Stand up” and “Road to Zion”.
The set became more intimate transitioning into signature track ‘’Wash it Away,” and then ended on the highest positive vibration with “Black as Night,” reminding us all to believe in the good things coming! With grins a-glowin’, Tycho dazzled us with an impeccable DJ set followed by some basstastic beats from Berkeley’s Bass king, Minnesota, and then a new crush, Krooked Drivers a.k.a. Donnie Dalbora. Dalbora left us dancing the night away with his electronic soul-rattling sensory experience coupled with his sampling of old school classics such as Dr. Dre’s “The Watcher,” Dido’s “Thank You,” Lloyd’s “Set Me Free,” and even a Talking Heads cover–all continuously strung along through funky bass beats and drum patterns that ended G&J night one with a bang.
The Main Course: SATURDAY
With the desert sun shining down, some delicious tacos in my belly and a solid group of new friends, we made our way to the fest grounds to dance our way into day two’s epic bill. Dirtwire started us off. Composed of David Satori of Beats Antique and Evan Fraser of the Dogon Lights, the duo creates a sound so unique, they have dubbed it ‘SpaceCowboySwamptronica’. Following Dirtwire, a B2B of Govinda and Desert Dwellers entranced our souls and freed us into the realms of elevated consciousness and deep connections with the music. We snuck away from the Desert Dwellers psy dub and headed over to the Jade stage, where we had got wind that a talented band called Brothers Gow, originally from Flagstaff would be rocking out. I love discovering new music that I genuinely enjoy and when I stumbled upon this funk-rock-improv quintet covering some of my favorites “Sexy Thang,” and “Get down tonight,” I couldn’t help but become an immediate fan. Next was The Polish Ambassador, who is one of my favorite producers of all time. Environmental activist and out of this world producer David Sugalski never disappoints. This was my first show out of a total of six, to see him perform with his cowboy hat on–a major win in my book. I wrapped up the night watching silk aerialist Luna Mae dance whimsically above our heads during Ott’s organically cosmic set. Next came my first Beats Antique show since 2013. The group continues to wow me with their experimental electronic world fusion and who can deny the enticing nature of belly dancing extraordinaire Zoe Jakes. I watched the sunrise that morning from the top of the van, questioning if the last day could even top the previous two…spoiler: it did.
I took the first half of Sunday to really delve into every nook and cranny of the fest grounds I hadn’t conquered yet. Although the festival is smaller on the size scale, when it comes to live painting and purposeful installations, there is no shortage of creativity and user-friendly attractions. I was so grateful to turn around and interact with so many different artists–some I had been following for years but most newly discovered. From watching the amazing Chris Dyer and talented Aaron Brooks paint alongside musical acts I have admired for years, to meeting creators of art pieces that have moved me and in turn watching them create in front of thousands of like minded, inspiring individuals, was an experience difficult to express in words.
The first set I caught was long time hip hop legend Lyrics Born who was accompanied by singer (and wife) Joyo Velarde and the famous DJ Katsu. They brought it all plus a little more, mixing disco, funk and on point hip hop lyrics to keep the crowd intrigued during the entire set. We patiently awaited at the Quartz Stage for the highly anticipated Break Science and The Shady Horns set. The hybrid of Borahm Lee on the keys and Adam Deitch on drums fused with their seamless production creates the audible orgasm that is Break Science. The Shady Horns are comprised of the badassery that is duo Ryan Zoidis (Saxes) and Eric Bloom (Trumpet), who both also play together in funk favorites Lettuce and Soulive. Throw these two duos on stage together and what ensues is a refreshing glimpse of a new instrument-filled electronic music hybrid. The highlight was undoubtedly when John “JmaC” McCarten a.k.a. Manic Focus jumped on stage to premiere an unreleased collab with a pending title of “Intergalactic Android Love”. Afterwards, Deitch, Zoidis and Bloom joined the rest of their Lettuce crew for the final performance on the Quartz Stage.
Lettuce has become a staple in my daily music selection and Gem and Jam was my third time that week to have the privilege to get the funk down with these talented dudes. The crowd went nuts the entire time, especially during ‘‘Lettsanity,” “Trillogy,” and a gnarly drum solo by Deitch before Nigel Hall joined the band on stage. Hall’s voice brought us back to the late 50’s, where the band covered James Brown’s “Superbad” and an unexpected Tears for Fears cover “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”. The band closed out the night with jamtastic tune “Sounds Like A Party” and a special Valentine’s sing-a-long rendition of their hit “Do It Like You Do”.
Balancing on the hazy line that separates those late nights and early mornings, I finally got my ducks in a row and made it to the Late Night Club at Gem and Jam to see what the action was all about. Am I beyond thrilled that I did, and a little bummed I only made one night, because the goodness that occurred will go down in collab history for decades to come. Scheduled as Marvel Years, followed by an Exmag DJ set and wrapped up by Manic Focus, the club was buzzing with undeniable, roof-bustin’ stoke levels.
The vibes were on point and I was peaking with excitement when familiar faces Cofresi and Deitch both took turns joining in on a D.J./digital-acoustic drum setup while homie Colin Grimm a.k.a. ProbCause mixed it up with his innovative freestyling and articulate rhymes. You heard me right, Manic Focus, Adam Deitch, Cofresi, Exmag, Marvel Years and ProbCause were ALL basically playing an intimate desert edition jam sesh complete with a full bar and top notch dance moves to match. These guys were having way too much fun together on stage and if this is a sign of things to come in the future, I am sure as hell glad I was able to partake front row style in the epicness that went down.
Gem and Jam’s 10th anniversary set the festival season bar to exceptional heights this year. Each and every being involved was so talented and had their own unique light to bring to the festival no matter what brought them there, their ages or backgrounds and it made the entire experience even more exceptional. The compilation of everyone from the staff, to the volunteers, production teams, vendors, artists, media, festival organizers, musical talent and most importantly, the festival goers, made my first Gem and Jam experience more than my brain was able to manifest possible. Thank YOU for all the gems, the jams, new friends and all the unforgettable memories.
All pictures by Sydney Paschall for Compose Yourself Magazine.